War and Peace

The Sint Laurenskerk, a church built mainly in the first half of the fifteenth century, was almost entirely destroyed during bombardment of the city centre of Rotterdam on 14 May 1940. Only some sections of the outer walls and the tower remained standing. After the war, lengthy discussions took place on whether to restore the church. The decision to go ahead with restoration came in 1952. New wooden doors were already in preparation for the church in 1963 when the warehousing and transshipment company Pakhuismeesteren informed the city of Rotterdam of its wish to donate bronze doors. The gift was in celebration of the company’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversary in 1968. Pakhuismeesteren invited the Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzù to design the doors. Manzù’s doors were ready in time for the reopening of the church in December 1968. Pakhuismeesteren had meanwhile merged with the firm Blauwhoed N.V. to form Pakhoed Holding N.V.

That Pakhuismeesteren opted for Giacomo Manzù was not strange. The Italian sculptor was no stranger to Rotterdam. His work had already been exhibited at the Mostra and at Floriade in 1954 and 1960 respectively. Besides his refined portraits of women, his graceful dancers and stylized images of cardinals, Manzù had won international recognition for his designs for church doors. He worked on the Porta della Morte (Gate of Death) of St. Peter’s, Rome, from 1947 to 1964. For the cathedral of Salzburg in Austria, he had made the Door of Love. It was therefore logical enough to ask him to design the new bronze doors for the Sint Laurenskerk.

Having met many problems with the doors in Rome and Salzburg, Manzù initially felt little enthusiasm for a third monumental commission full of Christian symbolism. After some equivocation, however, he declared his willingness to comply with the request on the condition that he would not be obliged to incorporate any religious themes. People at the Rotterdam end were happy both with his consent and with his stipulation. Sceptical comments had been made earlier about appointing a foreign, Catholic sculptor who had taken commissions from the Pope himself. ‘What are we going to do if his ideas have a whiff of incense about them?’ the patrons wondered. They reassured the sculptor: the Sint Laurens church was not only to be used for religious worship but also as a cultural centre. Manzù received the dimensions of the doors, photographs and construction drawings in March 1964. Just over six months later, the artist reported that he was working on a set of doors on the theme of ‘War and Peace’. A delegation from Rotterdam went to inspect Manzù’s drawings in 1965 and its members were immediately enthusiastic.

Combining the themes of War and Peace in a single work of art did, however, present Manzù with some difficulties. He worked on the design from November 1965 to February 1968 until he arrived at a solution with which he felt satisfied. Right from the start, the semicircular tympanum above the doors was reserved for the image of Peace, while the War theme was to be represented on the doors themselves. Much changed within each of these fields of the composition between 1965 and 1968, however, as is evident from the sketches and studies exhibited in the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum shortly after inauguration of the restored church.

Manzù opted for a fairly classical interpretation of the theme of ‘War and Peace’. He depicts Peace as a family: a standing father, a semi-reclining mother lifting a baby above her head, and, between the parents, a playing child, nude, with fluttering drapery. He portrays War very concretely as a soldier stabbing at someone with a knife and with a screaming baby at his feet – a motif apparently drawn from the biblical narrative of the Murder of the Innocents. His design also includes a woman trying to peer in to the dead face of a hanged man, an image reminiscent of Goya’s Disasters of War.

The design for the Sint Laurenskerk is unlike those in Salzburg and Rome which have a number of detached relief fields applied to each door. Instead it consists of one relief that extends over both doors, and a separate relief in the arched area above the doors. To create a visual link between the two reliefs, Manzù used a very realistically depicted drape of cloth as a linking form. Drapery and the fall of its folds had played an important part in his earlier work, which included sharply stylized images of cardinals. It was the first time he had used this motif in such a free way and with so much variation, however. The piece of drapery on which the nude in the upper relief is pulling is so lively and realistic that it is as though the wind were tugging at it.

Surprisingly, despite his initial objections to the use of Christian iconography, Manzù depicts a small dove and a pelican feeding its young on the inside of the doors. These images traditionally symbolize the Holy Ghost and Christ. However, Manzù did not depict them in the established way, with the young bird drinking blood from the parent’s breast which has been pecked open. Instead the fledgling has inserted its beak into that of the parent.
Manzù succeeded in portraying the theme of War and Peace on his doors for Rotterdam in a succinct and realistic way. The contrast between the idyllic mood of the Peace scene and the raw cruelty of the War scene equals that between the stylized figures in low relief and the heavily sculptural representation of the drapery between both reliefs. In this respect these doors mark a high point in Manzù’s oeuvre. On completion of the work, he stated, ‘Never have I been allowed so much freedom in a commission of this scale; never have I been so little circumscribed’. It is clear that this freedom allowed him to rise to great heights.

Sandra Spijkerman

Arnason, H.H., History of Modern Art, London 1985. / Oosthoek, J., Italiaanse beelden in Rotterdam, Rotterdam 1996. / Exhib. cat. Giacomo Manzù. Oorlog en Vrede. Tekening en studies in brons voor de deuren van de St. Laurens, Rotterdam (Museum Boymans-van Beuningen) 1968.

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015