Traces of a Saarland Style

The Saarland is a small border region that lacked the urban centers and wealth to truly branch out on its own artistic path. The court in Saarbrücken would never attract talented artists by itself. However, the most powerful state in the Saarland was ruled by the Nassau family. This was a family that could draw on a pan-European network and a prestigious family name. The man they found was an obscure architect named Friedrich Joachim Stengel. His works in the Saarland would come to define an artistic style that we could almost call uniquely Saarland. This is tour will take you on the journey following the the footsteps of Stengel.

Summary of Stengel’s Style

  • The Dominance of a Lutheran World View
  • Based on the French Baroque, mostly from examples in Nancy
  • Clear preference for older classical traditions, e.g. Palladio
  • Use of Rococo Motifs but the lack of any coherent development in this style
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Most of Stengel’s surviving works are in the Saarland, but he worked with several branches of the Nassau Family.

The Architect

Wikipedia Source: Wikipedia

Friedrich Stengel is a relatively obscure German architect of the Late Baroque and Early Rococo. Despite this, he left an impressive legacy in region between the Saar and the Rhine. While most of his accomplishments were destroyed in World War II, the main monuments to his legacy have been restored or partially preserved. This allows us to follow the life works of one the few Baroque masters native to this region.

He was born in 1694 in Zerbst, which was then the capital of ducal Anhalt. Born to a wealthy family, he attended the Academy of Arts in Berlin. He spent his early career in the military service of Gotha as an engineer. Following this, he was hired as an inspector for the Prince-Abbot of Fulda in 1721. He become quickly annoyed with his master, and sought to escape the constant attempts to encourage his conversion to Catholicism. After a brief period of boredom, he returned to Gotha in the hopes of becoming the court architect. Ultimately the Gothean court saw his skills better used on the construction of the city fortifications and Stengel was once again appointed as a military engineer. He would finally escape this role in 1733, when the court of Nassau-Usingen hired him as court architect.

His Early Works: Biebrich and Usingen

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Palace in Biebrich clearly shows a preference for the “classical Baroque” or Regence style even as the rest of Germany entered into the Rococo period.

Stengel would work for the family of Nassau-Usingen until 1737. The death of the family head split the family territories into left- and right-Rhenish dynasties. During these few years he modified plans for the family residence in Usingen and designed the new baroque wings for the summer palace in Biebrich.

Neither palace is preserved in its original state, as the palace in Usingen burned down in the early 19th century and the Biebrich Palace was mostly destroyed in WWII. Ironically, of the Biebrich Palace, only the two side pavilions were designed and constructed by Stengel himself, and both were destroyed by allied bombers in WW2 . Nevertheless the reconstruction was faithful to the original prewar design, which may not reflect Stengel’s original plans. His influence on the remainder of the palace is made difficult by later additions, however, the decorative adornment of the central rotunda shows influence from Stengel as well.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The wings were destroyed in the war, but restored, not to their pre-war condition, but to the state that Stengel would have seen.

The construction of the palace in Biebrich would take almost a decade, lasting until 1750. Stengel would continue to lead the project despite having left the Usingen court for Saarbrücken in 1737. His most visible contribution is the adornment of the central rotunda, whose flat roof and vivid sculpture anticipate the arrival of classicism. The preference for classicist motifs can also be seen in his most famous work, the Ludwig’s Church.

The Grand Project

Wikipedia The Shining City Upon a Hill – Source: Wikipedia

With the split of the Nassau family in 1737, Stengel went to work in the employ of the Left-Rhenish dynasty of the Nassau family based in Saarbrücken. This first Saarbrücken period would be defined by the initial construction efforts to turn the village into a proper residence for the new dynasty. This mainly focused on the Palace, the main baroque avenues and site planning, the reformed church, and the City Hall. 

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel One of the most visible landmarks from Stengel is the classically inspired Rococo Fountain in St. Johann.

Of his efforts in this initial phase, virtually nothing remains. Much of the baroque city was destroyed in subsequent wars, and the industrialization of the Saar valley took its toll as well. The city was then totally annihilated by allied bombers and British Artillery in WW2. Even then, further remnants were dismantled by an urban renewal project in the 1970s. 

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel For Baroque Urban planning, perspective and the changing visual relationships between buildings are important

Above is all that survives of Wilhelm Heinrich street, which was planned by Stengel to be the main axial avenue of Saarbrücken. This would have been the most prestigious street to have lived on and served as a ceremonial avenue for religious and civil processions. The idea of the central boulevard was common in baroque city planning, indeed there were radial avenues as well, but none survived the war. 

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Why did someone feel that this was necessary

Below and to the right is the palace designed by Stengel. In an unfortunate irony, the palace was not destroyed in the war, but almost entirely dismantled in the 1970s and only partially reconstructed. Nevertheless, still evident is some rococo flair above each window.           

The colors of the city are unique for the region, and were famously noteworthy at the time. Many contemporary accounts recall Saarbrücken as the “shining city upon hill” for its white and gray houses perched above the Saar. This was likely no coincidence and may reflect the Protestant emphasis on sobriety and evangelism.     

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”  – Matthew 5:14

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The only Stengel building in this picture is the town hall on the left.

Stengel would grow restless in Saarbrücken. He took on other projects, such as the Palace of Dornburg on the Elbe and the continuing construction in Biebrich. Word eventually reached the court in Gotha of his accomplishments, and they were impressed. The Gotha court offered him the position of court architect and nearly double the salary of his employer in the court of Saarbrücken. Having received both his dream job and a pay raise, he left for Gotha in 1751. He arrived though, only to find a hostile court awaiting him, jealous for his salary and closeness to the Duke. In the end, the Duke of Gotha had few projects that interested Stengel, and feeling less at home than in Saarbrücken, he return there in 1752 to continue his original urban plans.

Stengel Returns

Upon his return, Stengel immediately got to work on Saarbrücken. His goal was still to transform the village into a baroque city worthy of being a ducal capital. His primary focus was on the urban layout of Saarbrücken, most notably Ludwig’s church and the central square it sits on. Not thus limited, he also designed many individual homes, avenues and sketched the plans for the church in St. Johann across the river. He also became more active throughout the Nassau territory building among other things, the palace in Neunkirchen.

The Grand Plaza

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel A Protestant interpretation of the Grand Place in Nancy, a favorite source for inspiration.

Ludwigsplatz and Ludwig’s Church formed the centerpiece of Stengel’s Saarbrücken. The central plaza with its symmetrical perspectives comes from studies of Rome and contemporary interpretations of urban planning in antiquity. The Baroque style and its emphasis on the central element subsequently made the plaza a popular feature in the urban planning of the time. In all likelihood, Stengel drew his inspiration from the Royal Plaza in Nancy not far from Saarbrücken in Lorraine. But instead of honoring a secular ruler with a statue in the center of the plaza, Stengel was honoring God with a church.

Although the original color of the Ludwig’s church is not known, is is believed that Stengel envisioned an unpainted church, as a way to break the continuity with the secular city, painted white and gray, and focus on the natural, “divine” colors of the earth.  Eventually however, the church would be painted in the same color scheme as the city.

Saarbrücken Churches

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel It’s hard to believe nothing in this picture existed in 1945.
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel A remarkable achievement of the German reconstruction. Note the simple Rococo ornamentation, but the strong influence of classical traditions. E.g. The supporting figures and the classical capital designs.

In both of Stengel’s main surviving works, the Church of St. Johann and the Church of Ludwig, we can see the evolution of architectural style during Stengel’s lifetime. Stengel himself had started his career during the height of the baroque period, during which, the strict rules of symmetry that had governed architecture since the Renaissance, began to weaken. By the 1760s, as construction of both churches began, the Rococo style was at its height, and by the time of Stengel’s death in 1787, the discoveries of Pompeii began to trickle into Europe in the form of a new classicism.

Across his works, all three styles are visible, though with a clear preference for classicism. The pure baroque wings of the Biebrich palace are now the theatrical friezes and asymmetrical windows of the Ludwig’s Church. The Statues of old-testament figures, the flat roofs and return to classical orders on the church also hint at the return to more fundamental classical motifs.

The Urban Context

The Ludwig’s Church is the only major protestant church in Germany from the Rococo period. It is also the only major protestant church to be built as part of an urban planning project. As a result, we have a small window into the forces shaping the protestant conception of the urban community.

Some, such as the “city upon a hill” are seen in other cities as well, but unlike the Church-of-our-Lady in Dresden, for example, the Ludwig’s Church was not limited by existing urban infrastructure. The plan of the church, as a central Greek cross, is an explicit rejection of the Council of Trent, it enables an unobstructed view of the preacher from every angle. However, in classical Baroque form, Stengel designed the church with its relationship to the urban landscape in mind. 

As one walks down Wilhelm Heinrich street towards the entrance of the church, the changing perspective of the tower relative to the viewer causes the tower to have vanished from sight by the time one reaches the door. In medieval theology, the horizontal element of the cross represents humanity, as all are equal, the line is straight. The vertical element represents the hierarchy of the universe, God at the top, Satan at the bottom. At the intersection we find the Holy Spirit. As we walk towards the church, we see the upper component of the cross, represented by the tower, descend into the church, symbolizing the unity of divine and human which the church symbolizes.

Other Surviving Projects

The Witwenpalais or Widow’s Palace in Ottweilier is the only “city palace” designed by Friedrich Stengel. The term city palace is a specific kind of residence for the nobility in an urban setting. Due to the urban context, the architecture of city palaces tends serve different purposes. Stengel draws heavily from French examples, specifically from those in Nancy.

The one in Ottweiler demonstrates the strong classical traditions of Stengel’s Baroque. The style can be connected to the palaces of the North Italian Renaissance, for example those by Palladio. Construction started in 1756 after his return to Saarbrücken. It was around this time that the Regency style began to fade from Germany and around the time the Rococo reached its high point. As such it seems almost anachronistic in style. It was built for the wife of Price Ludwig of Nassau-Saarbrücken and his successor Wilhelm Heinrichs. After his death, Wilhelm had the palace turned into a short-lived porcelain manufacturer.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The focus of the palace is on the central Core de Logis, with the rest of the palace completely unadorned. Something found in all of Stengel’s palace designs.

Around the same time, Wilhelm ordered the construction of a small hunting palace on the river Blies. The result is the “Stengel Pavilion” and is sometimes considered is seminal work. The simple forms and inherent asymmetry of the facade represent the core principles of his style, namely the classical baroque just hinting at the rococo.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Simple but charming


We can summarize the typical “Saarland” style of Stengel as approximating a Protestant response to the imagery of the Baroque. Where the Catholic church and the counter-reformation had utilized the style to project its own theological ideas, Stengel adopted the style for his own interpretation. The whitewashed houses with their large baroque windows form part of the unique imagery of the Saarland. St. Ludwig itself represents a third way between the emotion of the Catholic Baroque and the austerity of traditional Protestant designs.

Most of Stengel’s works can be easily visited in Saarbrücken. Attempting to chase down the remaining buildings along the Rhine may not be worth the effort. Make sure to note potential opening hours, as they are not typical tourist attractions. The only other town mentioned in this guide is Ottweiler, and this makes for a nice day trip from Saarbrücken.

Selected Bibliography

  • Horst Heydt, and Gerhard Heisler. 2008. Ludwigskirche Und Ludwigsplatz Zu Saarbrücken : Ein Sachbilderbuch Für Wissbegierige Kleine Und Grosse Menschen, Die Sich Am Schönen Freuen Können Und Gerne Zusammenhänge Erfahren Wollen. Merzig: Merziger Druckerei Und Verl.
  • Konrad Hilpert, Stefan Sieg, and Geistkirch-Verlag. 2015. Die Basilika St. Johann in Saarbrücken Ein Kurzporträt von Konrad Hilpert (Wort) Und Stefan Sieg (Bild). Verlag: Saarbrücken Geistkirch-Verlag.

Return to the Saarland


Forgotten Borderlands

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