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What is the Stalingrad Madonna?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Stalingrad Madonna is a famous charcoal drawing created by a German officer in 1942 during the Siege of Stalingrad. The original drawing hangs today in Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Cathedral in Berlin, and after the war, the German government sent copies to the governments of the United Kingdom and Russia as symbols of reconciliation. These copies of the Stalingrad Madonna are displayed in Coventry and Volgograd respectively.

Many people find the backstory of the Stalingrad Madonna quite fascinating. The man who painted the work, Dr. Kurt Reuber, was trapped in Stalingrad along with a large number of German troops during the Christmas of 1942. Troop morale was extremely low, as rations were minimal and the men were well aware that they did not have enough supplies to survive the siege. Dr. Reuber decided to make a drawing for the sick and injured men in his care, struggling to finish it in his cramped, dark quarters. Since he did not have any paper, he was forced to use the back of a map of Russia, and in a letter home, he described scrabbling after his pencils every time he dropped them in the mud.

Because Dr. Reuber was a clergyman and it was Christmas, he made a drawing of the Madonna and Child. The drawing depicts the infant Christ cradled in Mary's arms, and the two are wrapped in a large cloak. The edges of the drawing have the inscription "licht, leben, liebe, weihnachten im Kessel 1942. Festung Stalingrad," or "light, life, love, Christmas in the cauldron 1942. Fortress Stalingrad." The German word kessel, which is often translated into English as "cauldron" or "boiler" refers to a situation in which one is surrounded by enemy forces.

Dr. Reuber described the Stalingrad Madonna in a letter he wrote home, and the Madonna managed to make it out of Stalingrad, now known as Volgograd, on one of the last German air transports out of the city. Dr. Reuber ended up in a Russian prisoner of war camp, where he ultimately died, while the Madonna and his letters made their way home to his family in Germany.

Reuber's family briefly kept the Stalingrad Madonna, but when his letters and a reproduction of the Stalingrad Madonna were published after the war, they gifted the drawing to the German government. The Stalingrad Madonna attracted a great deal of attention in post-war Germany, and came to be viewed as a symbol of hope and peace. In 1946, German poet Arno Pötzsch published a collection of poetry inspired by the drawing, and titled The Madonna of Stalingrad.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By literally45 — On Jan 16, 2015

There is another Madonna drawn by the same person but that one doesn't really get talked about. The Stalingrad Madonna has become a symbol of reconciliation really. Although I have heard people say that the information about the Madonna being the last thing flown out is not exactly accurate. It may have been flown out at another time.

I also don't understand why the Russians were fighting so much on the day and night of Christmas. Isn't it customary to cease fighting or at least reduce the intensity on special days like Christmas? It is a holy occasions for Christians.

By SteamLouis — On Jan 15, 2015

Of course, the Stalingrad Madonna has special importance because it was drawn at Christmas time. So it's natural that Dr. Reuben had Jesus and Mary in his mind. But I've also read what he wrote in his last letter home. And more so than this being an image of Jesus and Mary, he wanted to portray how safe a child feels in his mother's arms. So I see the overall meaning of the Stalingrad Madonna as an image representing safety and peace more than anything else. It's clear that Dr. Reuben longed for the war and destruction to end. He witnessed so many deaths, even on Christmas night.

By SarahGen — On Jan 15, 2015

I'm sad to learn of how Dr. Reuben died. I wish he had made it back to his family. But he has left a lovely memoir and his art continues to remind the world of him and the fellow officers who shared his fate. That's an important accomplishment in and of itself.

By Rotergirl — On Jan 13, 2015

@Pippinwhite -- You're right. There were no winners at the siege of Stalingrad. Stalin wouldn't allow the citizens to leave and the Germans took heavy losses there.

The Stalingrad Madonna may have offered some hope to soldiers who weren't even out of their teens, brainwashed by Hitler's junk and away from home for the first time in their lives. The Russian people were massacred because they were not allowed to leave.

It's sad that this symbol of hope and peace did not enable both armies to call a truce and leave the city in peace. But that's not how war works, I suppose.

By Pippinwhite — On Jan 12, 2015

What a hauntingly beautiful image! I had never seen the Stalingrad Madonna until I ran across a mention of it in an article and looked it up. Wartime art is often the most poignant and beautiful, simply because of the circumstances surrounding its creation.

The Russian front was a terrible place to be, and it was a horrible time, both for the German soldiers, as well as for the Russian people. It just serves to underline the fact that Hitler was a madman, that he thought he could take Russia and force Stalin to surrender. That was never going to happen.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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