Dresden celebrates the resurrection of the Frauenkirche

Tomorrow, the bells of Dresden's baroque masterpiece will ring out for the first time for 60 years.
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The Independent Online

It is being called "The Miracle of Dresden". Tomorrow, the seven great bells of the city's pristine Frauenkirche - The Church of Our Lady - will ring out as Germany's most potent symbol of past despair and hope for the future is reconsecrated before a crowd of thousands from around the globe.

The ceremony will be the culmination of the rebuilding of an 18th-century baroque masterpiece that was once regarded as the finest building in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. As little as 16 years ago nobody believed such a feat possible.

On the fateful night of 13 February 1945, the magnificent church and crowning glory of "Florence on the Elbe" was reduced to a heap of rubble by British and American bombers in one of the most devastating and controversial air raids of the Second World War.

The building burned for two days and two nights before its 270ft dome collapsed among the smouldering ruins and the corpses of the 35,000 Dresdeners killed in the raid. Its baroque organ, once played by Johann Sebastian Bach, was a heap of ashes.

During the Cold War, East Germany's Communist regime refused to clear away the blackened ruins of the church. The site was deliberately kept for propaganda purposes as a symbol of Anglo-American aggression. But for most Dresdeners, the rubble was simply a permanent and tragic reminder of Germany's nightmare past.

Tomorrow's ceremony will celebrate the Frauenkirche's extraordinary return to Dresden after an interval of more than 60 years. Its reconstruction began in 1994 and has been achieved as a result of €130m (£90m)contributed by 13,000 donors from throughout the world. Small wonder that its reappearance on the city's skyline is referred to as a "miracle".

Jochen Bohl, Bishop of Saxony, who will preside over tomorrow's ceremony, summed up the feelings of many: "There was a feeling that it was not Christian to leave an open wound in Dresden that the ruined church had become," he said. "There were some reservations about rebuilding at first but today I feel grateful and I am moved every time I enter."

The wound has finally been healed. The great dome of the Frauenkirche, cut from honey-coloured sandstone blocks, towers above the city's rebuilt Neumarkt square. Its interior is adorned with frescoes of biblical scenes and rows of seating arcades rise up in mottled shades of pastel yellow, pink and blue.

The building is crowned with a golden cross made by Alan Smith, a British silversmith whose father piloted one of the bombers that took part in the Dresden raid. His home town of Coventry, itself a victim of wartime bombing, was twinned with Dresden after the war. Mr Smith admits he was plagued by the part that his father played in the bombing for many years. "I feel that my efforts are a small gesture of reconciliation," he said.

When you look at the complex task that faced the municipal authorities in Dresden, the restoration does indeed seem something of a miracle. Thirty architects, 60 stonecutters and 40 masons and carpenters were engaged in the painstaking rebuilding effort that took 11 years to complete. Eberhard Burger, the master builder who supervised the recreation of his Baroque counterpart George Bähr's masterpiece remarked modestly this week: "We builders should be happy to have been given the chance to reconstruct something like this from the bottom up. It has been an act of God's grace."

No accurate plans of the building survived the war, so surveyors had to rely on drawings, photographs, films and books to build a three-dimensional model on which to base the reconstruction. Aerospace software and computers were used to create digitalised copies of each stone. Six different images of every remaining piece of the church were taken and then redrawn to a precise scale and numbered. That task alone took 11 people six months to complete.

Under the 60ft-high pile of rubble, excavators discovered little that recalled the building's former glory apart from its former dome cross and a blackened figure of Christ. One of the few remnants was the church cleaning lady's cupboard which survived with her brooms, scrubbing brushes and a pair of shoes still intact.

Guides who have been taking tourists round the reconstructed church since it opened to the public earlier this year say many of the older visitors burst into tears on witnessing its rebirth.