Onion Domes and the Spire of the Dresden Hofkirche (1738-51), with asides on the Frauenkirche

Onion domes are seen here as being extravagantly exotic. They are certainly un-English and un-Australian. While ogee curves are common enough here in neo-Elizabethan buildings and Victorian bandstands, I cannot think of an example of an ‘onion’ dome.

But first a point of clarification. Onion domes proper are circular in plan, and are exactly like an onion in that they swell out in the middle and there is a reverse curve leading to a narrow point. They sit on a narrow drum. Such domes are really only found in Russia. The central European domes are not strictly onion domes, as they are usually built on a square plan with a base, such as a bell-tower, as wide or wider than the dome. The Wikipedia entry for ‘onion domes’ conflates the two, stating that:

‘the first one was built in 1576 by the architect John Holl (1512–1594) on the church of the Convent of the Franciscan Sisters of Maria Stern in Augsburg. Usually made of copper sheet, onion domes appear on Catholic churches all over southern Germany, Czech lands, Austria and Sardinia and Northeast Italy.’

The example cited, which is polygonal and on a narrow base, certainly fits the definition and looks rather Russian. The same entry works through speculations on the iconography of the onion dome, which in Russia was associated with the ‘Old Believers’, but my reading many years ago emphasised the derivation of Central European examples from representations of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, then believed to be the Temple of Solomon, especially the woodcut by Erhard Reuwich in Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinationes in Terram Sanctam of 1486. Fantastical images of Jerusalem in Flemish fifteenth-century painting usually include at least one building with such a dome. In central Italian Baroque churches, therefore, the association is therefore probably primarily with the architecture of the Holy Land.

On a formal level, such domes provided an energetic termination for bell-towers and similar features. (It is surely significant that they are not used, as far as I am aware, for the domes of churches.) Often the architect seems to be thinking of the volutes on church facades made three-dimensional, since they usually broad ribs at the corners of a square plan. This is the case at with the single spire of the Hofkirche in Dresden, by the Italian architect Gaetano Chiaveri from 1738-51 (Fig. 1). As the name indicates, this was originally the church of the court of Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. It was and remains a Catholic church (it is now the Catholic cathedral) because Augustus was a Catholic. The Protestant city of Dresden had slightly earlier begun the Frauenkirche (1726-43).


It makes little sense to call such a spire an onion dome. It forms part of a rich sequence of forms, going all the way down to a characteristically Baroque bell-tower with four concave arch forming a circle in plan, with projections responding to columns between them. Above the columns are supports for copper flaming urns, while the roof has characteristic Baroque hooded windows. The composition is highly sophisticated, and to my eyes one of the most successful performances of the theme. I particularly like the long ‘stem’ above the swelling, which ends up being perfectly straight and square in plan. The shape ends up more like a long-necked perfume flask. There are clearly articulated ribs defining the four corners, which a shallow cartouche on the wide surfaces (Fig. 2). These have curved details at the bottom like scallop shells, and shallow hoods or eyebrows at the top, which may serve to deflect rainwater to the corners. In the middle of the cartouche is something in a different material from the oxidised copper of the rest, perhaps a hatch.


How much of this is original? Given that the church is in Dresden, this is no idle question. However photos taken immediately after the bombing in February 1945 (Fig. 3) show it that the campanile and its spire survived, although the roof of the nave did not. It looks much the same as it does today. This photo shows how well the composition of the whole works, especially the free-standing columns than run through to the flaming urns. (It is hard to believe that the woman at the front carting away rubble seems to be smiling. Both women seem to be wearing clogs.)


Compared to the Frauenkirche (Fig. 4), the Hofkirch is quite small. The Frauenkirche has a solid masonry dome, which survived for two days after the bombing and firestorm: photos taken at this brief moment show a tracery of light between the stones where the mortar had been. Then it collapsed. (I had a postcard of this, but can’t find the image on the internet.) When I first went to Dresden in 1994 the masonry still lay where it had fallen in a fenced-off paddock, a very East German kind of war memorial. At the time I was amazed by the number of weed-encrusted bombed-out buildings near the city centre. (The villa district up-river was intact, with some of the best concentration of turn-of-the-century villa architecture to be found.) The rebuilding of the Frauenkirche that began shortly afterwards was a potent statement of reunification. It was completed in 2005; we saw it in 2009. I found the interior of the rebuilt church to be spatially spectacular but rather unpleasant in its decoration, and the people were somewhat unwelcoming in the best Protestant tradition. The exterior, though, is extraordinary. Many of the original stones were re-used and were left uncleaned of wartime soot, so that it has a speckled effect, the point of which is to remind you of its history. There are surprisingly few such stones (3800 of the 8500 salvaged, according to Wikipedia). Sensibly, they also rebuilt most of the buildings that surrounded it with replica facades or something like. We has a marvellous room (apartment really) on top of one of these, and looking down and out at the church made me realise what an extraordinary piece of urban sculpture the Frauenkirche is (Fig. 5). It had an extraordinary presence and solidity, and unlike most domed churches you can look down on it, as if it were a little centralised building like Bramante’s Tempietto (Fig. 6). (That is how it felt, although my photos show how high above the houses the dome reaches.) Yet you are aware just how big and solid it really is.


Impressive though the Frauenkirche is, I prefer the richly inventive articulation of the exterior of the Hofkirch (Fig. 7). The interesting vertical views playing of curved against straight, and the insist repetitions (Fig. 8).

More Baroque Domes

Bolzano: Building in the Town Centre

On a strategic corner in the centre of Bolzano is an eighteenth-century building with a turret bay (Fig. 9). It shows the classic shape of the Baroque type, developed from a polygonal plan (Fig. 10). The construction seems to be quite simple. Presumably there is a wooden frame underneath. Quite narrow sheets, presumably a readily available standard width, are overlapped, and bent into seams at the corners (Fig. 11). There are no rivets and the bottom edge of each sheet appears to be folded. Possibly that is just it, but I imagine the joins might tend to open up, so there may be an s-fold the the the top edge of the lower sheet fits into. This would make the folding rather complicated, but would make for a secure connection without any holes or electrolytic problems.

Trento: Cathedral

At Trento one sees unexpectedly an onion dome over the rooftops (Fig. 12). This turns out to be, even more unexpectedly, on the tower of the otherwise Romanesque cathedral (Fig. 13). Trento was, of course, the site of the Council of Trent, which met in another church, S. Maria Maggiore. This profile view of the cathedral makes a vivid statement of the shift from the medieval Church, embodied by the Romanesque features at the left, and the Counter-Reformation church at the right (Fig. 14).

This entry was posted in All Posts, Architecture, Art, Baroque architecture, Baroque Gardens, Design, Fabriques, Restoration and Conservation, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s