The stucco ceilings of Jan-Christian Hansche, part 3: the ones I’ll never see

I have recently become fascinated with the work of the 17th-century sculptor Jan-Christian Hansche (name spelt in various ways in different sources), who I found out about visiting the Park Abbey, near us, and then the Château de Modave out in Wallonia. His specialisation was in three-dimensional stucco ceilings of incredible detail. Very little is known about him or his life; all the work that he is known to have done was in Belgium or in the Lower Rhine district of Germany, which was under Dutch rule in his lifetime (though before he worked there). I’ve compiled a Google Map locating all of his work that I could find. (Blue – places I’ve been; Green – places I haven’t been to yet but hope to visit; Red – Germany.)

I will never see the Hansche sculptures in Germany, and here’s why.

Let’s start with Wesel, the farthest east of any of Hansche’s work; Wesel incidentally was the birthplace of Peter Minuit, the founder of Nieuw Amsterdam, now New YorkJoachim von Ribbentrop.

Here are two lovely Christmas scenes, originally commissioned for the ceiling of a patrician house on the Fischmarkt in Wesel, later occupied by the Rigaud family. There must have been more than just the Nativity and the Nunc Dimittis originally, but this is all I could find, from this article. Click to embiggen:

I just love the arm of Anna the prophetess reaching up in adoration of the baby.

After the Nazis took power in 1933, the Hansche ceiling in Wesel was moved from its original home in the Fischmarkt and reinstalled in the former castle of the Dukes of Kleve on the Kornmarkt, as part of the buildup of a new municipal museum. 97% of Wesel was destroyed in Allied bombing raids in February and March 1945, the heaviest being in March shortly before the town was captured by Allied ground forces. It is a cliche to say that a bombed-out city looks like the surface of the moon, but there’s some justification in this case.

The Fischmarkt has disappeared from the map, and the site of the old ducal castle where the Hansche ceilings would have been in 1945 is now the municipal cultural and education centre.

Wesel was part of the territory of the Dukes of Kleve, and we’re going a short hop down the Rhine to Kleve itself next. Kleve is best known in English history in the name of Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves (though in fact she was born in Düsseldorf and grew up in Solingen, both of them 100 km or so to the south). In German culture Kleve is known for its association with the Swan Knight, Lohengrin. (Dah dum-da-dum. Dah dum-da-dum!)

According to a nineteenth-century guide to art in the Kleve district, visitors to the inn “Zum Grossen Kurfürst” could look up and see a large stucco by Hansche. Fortunately the innkeeper was sufficiently aware of the commercial potential that he produced postcards of his own ceiling. The first panel shows Venus feeding a horse and Cupid as a centaur:

We then have Zeus kidnapping Europa:

Seven bacchantes bearing flowers, with Mercury, god of trade, floating over them (not a brilliant photo):

The Fall of Phaethon (I love this one, he’s tumbling directly into our space):

Diana kissing the sleeping Endymion:

And Mars and Venus caught in adultery, which Hansche actually signed.

The inn Zum Grossen Kurfürsten is visible on the right of this postcard of the Kleiner Markt, showing also the Church of the Assumption.

Here’s a more recent picture of the Kleiner Markt, posted by Nikodem Niklewicz to Google Maps. As you can see, no trace of Zum Grossen Kurfürsten remains.

Kleve was heavily bombed on the night of 7 February 1945, a young Richard Dimbleby coming along to report breathlessly. It is claimed that it was the most bombed city of its size in Germany, with the level of destruction greater than in Dresden. (I don’t know how one could really measure this.)

Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks, who ordered the bombing, described it as “the most terrible decision I had ever taken in my life” … “I felt a murderer. And after the war I had an awful lot of nightmares, but always Cleves.” The rubble was so extensive that it actually slowed down the Allied ground troops when they arrived a couple of days later. Bombs from the war are still being found in Kleve (2014, 2015, 2019, 2021 and again in 2021).

Fans of sculpture in general will still find a visit to the Kleiner Markt in Kleve worthwhile, even though Zum Grossen Kurfürsten has gone. In the middle of the square you will find the Fountain of Fools, seven water-spouting faces at different heights, commemorating a local carnival tradition.

Up beside the church you will find the “Dead Warrior” by Ewald Mataré. This was originally commissioned as a memorial to Kleve’s fallen soldiers of the First World War. But the Nazi regime condemned it as “degenerate art”, removed it, smashed it and buried it. The fragments were discovered in the 1970s and it was restored by Mataré’s pupil Elmar Hillebrand. A monument to the tragedy of war fitted the Zeitgeist of the later twentieth century rather better than the 1930s.

I have friends in Nijmegen, just across the Dutch border. Maybe some day I’ll visit them and nip over to Kleve. (And maybe even Wesel.)

One thought on “The stucco ceilings of Jan-Christian Hansche, part 3: the ones I’ll never see

Comments are closed.