The Panorama, History of a Mass Medium

By Stephan Oettermann,

translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider


The Panorama of Jerusalem and the Crucifixion of Christ


Piglhein’s Panorama


In the mid-1880s a form of rebellion broke out in Munich against one of the major Belgian panorama companies. The parent company had exhibited Louis Braun’s Battle of Weissenburg in their Munich rotunda, but after that they wanted to exhibit only paintings by Belgian artists. Out of patriotic resentment a group of Germans led by Josef Halder (Munich) and Franz Josef Hotop (Dresden) founded a new company on February 1, 1885. In their search for a promising subject for the first picture, they hit upon the idea of a scene of the Crucifixion surrounded by an artist’s reconstruction of Jerusalem as it must have looked at the time. The artist Karl Hubert Frosch, whom they consulted about an appropriate person to paint it, immediately suggested Bruno Piglhein. Piglhein (1848-94) had begun his career as a sculptor but moved on to decorations in the style of Hans Makart and then oil paintings in the manner of Arnold Böcklin. Still later he created something of a sensation in the art world with two interestingly disparate specialities: titillating pastels of female figures – ladies “whose many admirable qualities did not include the appearance of virtue,” as one critic put it – on the one hand, and monumental religious pictures with titles such as The Dying Christ, Madonna, and Moritur in Deo on the other. With the latter he may have been trying to rival Mihaly Munkácsy.

Piglhein accepted the company’s offer to paint the picture they had in mind for a flat fee of 145,000 marks (out of which he had to pay all his associates and assistants). While the company began building a new rotunda in the Goethestrasse in Munich, Piglhein and his collaborators departed in the spring of 1895 on a field trip to Palestine. In addition to Karl Frosch, who would be responsible for painting the architectural elements, and Josef Krieger, a landscape painter, there was a fouth, unnamed associate, who was soon dismissed for “incompetence”, however. In addition to letters of recommendation from the papal nuncio and the archbishop of Munich, they took along an “indispensable companion who could be counted on to record everything,” namely a camera. Thanks to the pfotographs they had taken, the artists were able to produce a master sketch for the panorama within a very short time. Work on the cavas itself, a single piece of Belgian fabric almost 50 feet high and 390 feet long, began on August 1885. Two further painters, Adalbert Heine and Josef Block, the latter a student of Piglhein’s, were engaged to help out. After the master sketch had been transferred to the canvas with the aid of a projector, the main areas of a color were covered with a thin layer of paint. For the cloudless blue sky, 1,000 pounds of Krem’s white were mixed with 150 pounds of ultramarine in varying amounts to create ninety different shades. Then it was time to fill in the details. After nine months’ labor the exhibit was formally opened on May 30, 1886: The “Panorama of Jerusalem with the Crucifixion of Christ, painted by Prof. Bruno Piglhein.”

It had been a daring venture from the outset; only a few years earlier a Belgian named Juliaan de Vriendt had gone bankrupt with a panorama of the Crucifixion, and nothing but battle scenes had been shown in German panoramas up to that time. Received opinion held that battles were the only suitable subject for panoramas. When news of Piglhein’s subject leaked out, the project met with criticism in advance. Once the picture went on view, however, the general reception was enthusiastically positive. The reviewer for the Kunstchronik wrote: “An artistic achievement of the first order…. One can say without hesitation: ‘hats off!’ … The effect of the unrolled painting is immense, shattering, and the whole is such a mature work that one can joyfully conclude: Dry-as-dust impressionism has not yet carried the day completely; not all artists have become reduced to mere copyists of nature, whereby one must say that the copy is often a damned sight inferior to the original handwriting.” Ludwig Trost wrote a detailed description of the painting for the popular magazine Über Land und Meer:


When we first mounted the platform, which should be imagined as a price of high ground adjacent to the hill of Calvary, we were somewhat taken aback by the dimness in which we found ourselves. Our eyes, accustomed to bright daylight, needed a monument or two to adjust to the dimness – which corresponds to the solar eclipse that occurred during Christ’s crucifixion – before the painting emerged, as if out of a fog. Slowly we began to take in the peculiar atmosphere created by the lighting, which is dominated by peculiarly cold tones such as the eye perceives when the sun goes behind a cloud on a summer day, for instance. After a short while one grasps the intended mood and realizes that it is exactly right.

If we dissect Piglhein’s work of art – for such it is, in the noblest sense of the world – into its various components, landscape, architecture, figures, and perspective, we find our expectations have not only been met, but actually exceeded. Piglhein’s panorama of the Crucifixion of Christ is a fully realized masterpiece, satisfying to the eye of connoisseur and layman alike. All facile praise is silenced in the solemn atmosphere of Good Friday surrounding us, and our hearts are deeply moved by the sacred scene. I must repeat here that the finished work is the result of a painstaking search for truth; every detail corresponds to the latest biblical research as communicated to the artists by Professor Sattler in Munich. It reproduces for our eyes that 7th of April of the year 29 with overwhelming authenticity and monumental calm, that Friday on which the population of Jerusalem streamed out of the city to see the historic event depicted.

A reflection of this truth hovers about the picture. There is no tree, no road, no hill, no wall or battlement that is superfluous or out of the place; all is exactly as it should be. Those who come expecting a lush green landscape or the splendors of King Solomon will perhaps be disappointed, for what we see is a sterile region of parched vegetation and bare rock, with a city that seems extraordinary eye to see the artistic appeal of this landscape; the overall effect, achieved through the simplest of means, beggars description, and while the pen may prepare the spectator for what he will encounter, it can never convey the impression that is created by the landscape, coloring, mood, and distant vistas of olive groves and sunny hills and vales as yet untouched by the eclipse of the sun. The impression of reality is increased, as in most panoramas, by the three-dimensional foreground, which bridges the transition to the painted canvas with virtually perfect verisimilitude. As soon as we stepped out on the platform we were taken in by an optical illusion so perfect that it had to be called to our attention: the painted ruins of an oriental mill are completed by actual blocks of stone that extend up to the platform in such a manner that the eye absolutely cannot distinguish the real pyramids of stone from the painted parts. There is no way to make out the borderline, and one feels immediately transported into the landscape….


Even Richard Muther, one of the leading lights of German art criticism at that time, had to admit that “Piglhein… has opened up new paths for panorama painting with his Crucifixion of Christ,” although Muther was otherwise convinced that “panoramas in general are not a field of particular interest.” In the Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst he devoted a long article to Piglhein, in which he concluded that the artist’s panorama


represents a triumph of modern realistic art. Only in the century of exact science, photography, and railroads did it become possible to make the comprehensive studies providing the scientific foundation of this great work. Only an artist who had pursued the most painstaking botanical, and archaeological research at the site could have treated this subject – depicted countless times in the history of Western art – in such a thoroughly new way. But his profound knowledge is everywhere paired with outstanding skill, great imagination, and the finest artistic sensibility…. One cannot help but feel that here one is truly in the presence of an artist by the grace of God.


Given such reactions by leading authorities, the public did not disappoint the hopes of Halder and Co. The company’s investment proved to be one of the most lucrative in the last quarter of the century.

At the exhibit, visitors could buy a guidebook, liberally sprinkled with biblical quotations, by Professor Maximilian  Sattler, in which it was suggested that the use of opera glasses (available for a rental fee of twenty pfennigs) would greatly increase patrons’ appreciation of the artists’ skill. Various reproductions were also on sale, suitable for every pocketbook, ranging from inexpensive postcards to a luxurious set of twelve folio leaves in collotype.

The panorama remained on display in Munich from May 1886 to the beginning of 1889; from there the exhibit moved to Berlin, where it remained from April 1889 to the end of 1891. The next stop planned on its tour was London, but this exhibit never took place, for reasons that will be explained below. Instead the picture went to Vienna, where it was destroyed by fire shortly after the opening.


A Copy of Piglhein’s Panorama in America and a Battle in the Courts


Following the enormous success of Piglhein’s panorama of jerusalem in Germany, several companies sent requests to the artists to paint the picture a second time for rotundas in the United States. In his contract with the firm of Halder and Hotop, however, Piglhein had agreed not to produce a panorama on the same subject for ten years “neither acting for himself nor on behalf of another person.” To ensure his compliance, Halder and Hotop had also demanded that he hand over to them the india ink drawings and glass plates that had been used to transfer the master sketch to the large canvas. Piglhein was therefore obliged to decline such commissions. Instead Karl Frosch went to America and painted a total of three panoramas of the Crucifixion, one of which had been commissioned by the Buffalo Cyclorama Company. Frosch himself repeated the architectural parts of the picture, while two other German painters who had emigrated to the United States, Wilhelm Heine and August Lohr, took over figures and the landscape. They later claimed that this occurred with the full knowledge of the company must have got wind of the project rather quickly, but they took no steps to try to stop it. Perhaps the great distance made them confident that they would incur no financial loss themselves. On the other hand a lawsuit might have had poor chances for success, since Frosch had been engaged by Piglhein and had no contract with Halder and Co. Furthermore no bilateral agreement existed between Germany and the United States with regard to the Berne Convention of 1886 for the protection of literary and artistic works.

As long as visitors continued streaming in to see Piglhein’s original panorama, everyone was content. Trouble ensued only when there was no longer any profit to be made the picture in Germany, and Halder and Co. signed a contract with the British firm of Fishburn Brothers in 1890. With it Fishburn Brothers acquired the exclusive right to show the Jerusalem panorama in Great Britain for several years beginning on January 1, 1892 – for a hefty fee, of course. The British company paid a further large sum to lease a piece of land in London and began building a rotunda with all speed. Their dismay can be imagined when December 1890, a panorama of the Crucifixion opened in the Niagara Hall, very near their construction site, “painted by the celebrated Munich painter Charles [sic] Frosch.” Following an intensive advertising campaign it became an unprecedented succes, and soon between fifteen hundred and two thousand people a day were paying a shilling each to see the Buffalo Cyclorama Company’s version of Jerusalem.

Naturally Fishburn Brothers objected strenuously and at once sued the Buffalo Cyclorama Company and its general directior, John Hollingshead, demanding the immediate closing of their exhibition. The American company responded by producing depositions from Karl Frosch, who was in Holland at the time – another country that had not signed the Berne Convention – working on still another copy of his Crucifixion for exhibit in Amsterdam. Frosch stated that the original panorama had been painted in equal parts by himself, Joseph Krieger, and “one Bruno Piglhein,” and that he had entered into no contractural obligations. Furthermore he regarded himself as solely responsible for the archaeological reconstruction of ancient Jerusalem and the architectural elements of the painting, and he had reproduced this and only this for the Buffalo company. Mr. Hollingshead went so far as to claim that the two panoramas had nothing in common, a statement that was quickly disproved by comparing photographs of the painting in the Niagara Hall with drawings Piglhein sent from Munich. Apart from a few changes in the human figures, the two pictures were virtually identical. Of course the Americans had merely been playing for time, hoping to make as much money as possible before the expected verdict against them. This tactic proved quite successful; by the time the decision in favor of the Munich panorama company was handed down on February 4, 1891, the Niagara Hall exhibit had made profit of almost five thousand pounds.

In Germany, and especially in Munich, the trial aroused great interest, and the newspapers covered it extensively. Naturally the Buffalo company appealed the decision against them immediately, but it was not possible to determine how the case was decided on appeal. In any case if Bruno Piglhein’s panorama of Jerusalem ever came to London, it was only for a very short time.


Further Versions of Piglhein’s Panorama


When the ornate rotunda in the Prater Park in Vienna burned down, the panrama of Jerusalem was destroyed, and one might assume that this was the end of the story. In fact, however, it was only the beginning. Between 1884 and 1903, a total of at least thirteen or fourteen panoramas of the Crucifixion were painted. The first, made sometime before 1886 by the Belgian Juliaan de Vriendt, was described above, It proved a financial fiasco and soon disappeared from view. Number two was Piglhein’s panorama in Munich; numbers three to five were produced in America by the team of Frosch, Heine, and Lohr. (It was number three, painted for the Buffalo Cyclorama Company, that led to the lawsuit in London. The Jerusalem Panorama Company in New York City commissioned number four; number five went on exhibit in Philadelphia in 1890.) When Frosch went to Holland to work  on number six for Amsterdam, Heine and Lohr accepted a commission to paint number seven for Milwaukee. Number eight would be Paul Philippotaux’s surviving panorama in St. Anne de Beaupré, Québec. After the fire in Vienna, Crucifixion panoramas were painted for the shrine of Einsiedeln in Switzerland in 1893 (number nine) and for a rotunda in Stuttgart in 1894 (number ten). These last two were the work of the experienced team of Frosch and Krieger, with the aid of a third artist, the American William Robinson Leigh (1866-1955). This group also collaborated once more, almost ten years later, on number eleven, a 1903 panorama for Aachen.

Friedrich von Bötticher had scathing words for these activities: “Through the disloyalty of Piglhein’s assistant, the painter Karl Frosch, the panorama was reproduced nine times and exhibited in several American cities, London, and Antwerp.” If Bötticher’s assertion is correct, then more panoramas should be added to our list (number twelve to fifteen). No further information could be obtained on them, however. The last known Crucifixion panorama was painted for the Bavarian shrine of Altötting. Here the painter in charge was gebhard Fugel, but Josef Krieger, another of Piglhein’s original collaborators, was part of the team.

Ever since the accusations of plagiarism had been raised in the London trial, the painters assiduously varied their depictions – as far as the subject matter and the topography of Jerusalem allowed. Of all versions dating from this period, only the two painted for shrines have survived to the present day.




The Panorama in Altötting


The panorama painted in 1903 for the shrine of Altötting in eastern Bavaria is almost certainly the last variant of Piglhein’s panorama of the Crucifixion. The idea for the picture came from Gebhard Fugel (1863-1939), who also supervised its execution. Fugel opposed the overly sweet and sentimental style of the religious art of his day with a “vigorous realism” that led to his being called the “renewer of Christian art” in Germany. He was not only the driving force behind the painting of the Altötting panorama, but also assumed all the production costs; an unspecified group of “friends” financed construction of the rotunda. The painting itself, which is still in place, is 39 feet high and almost 309 feet in circumference; the rotunda has a diameter of 97 feet.

Fugel himself painted the human figures; as collaborators he engaged two Munich artists, Karl Nadler and Josef Krieger. The latter was already a veteran of several Crucifixion panoramas. Yet another  archaeological reconstruction of ancient Jerusalem was provided by H. Ellenberger, an art teacher from Würzburg. Nadler and Krieger, who were responsible for the architectural elements and landscape, respectively, first undertook a short study trip to the Holy Land; on their return the group set to work on the actual painting, which must have been done in one of the still existing Munich panorama workshops. Their insistence on exact realism made progress slow and must occasionally have led to slightly macabre scenes; according to one account, the artists set up real wooden crosses in their studio and “fastened” models to them, in order to be able to paint from life.

When the panorama opened to the public in 1903, the reaction was mixed. Some found that “it encourages pilgrims in their devotions, as well as providing a high level of artistic enjoyment”; others found it an offense against both art and religion when the guide stops at a certain point in the tour and points out “a stone staircase that demonstrates with what marvelous skill the artists have been able to blur the line between painting and reality.” The Bavarian government has declared the panorama in Altötting a historic monument, and today the guide has been replaced by a crackling loudspeaker. The taped explanation still includes a reference to the staircase, and a mute old woman keeps watch to see that it is not damaged by the curious.

Of all the subjects treated in panoramas, the Crucifixion was no doubt the most sensitive and  the most questionable. The Crucifixion itself was always depicted in the traditional manner familiar from thousands of easel paintings, creating an awkward contrast to the rest of the panorama surrounding it. It is difficult not to feel that the striking realism of the depiction and the alleged historical accuracy were meant to present an article of religious belief to visitors as realty. There is a false note in the whole that cannot be ignored. This is particularly true of the Altötting picture; perhaps it is caused by the general tenor of the shrine itself. Certainly of all surviving panoramas this is the stalest and most dated. The printed brochure available at the ticket office proclaims that the darkened corridor leading to the observation platform represents “the way to ‘another world’.”


Panoramas in Vienna: The Second Phase


The last painting exhibited at the New Panorama was Piglhein’s Jerusalem with the Crucifixion of Christ. Piglhein’s panorama arrived in Vienna from London and had been on display barely two months when fire broke out in the rotunda in the night of April 26-27, 1892. The fire department arrived and pumped enough water into the building to bring the fire under control, and the cast-iron frame sustained little damage, but between the fire and the water the painting was a total loss. Various hypotheses were advanced about what caused the fire – a careless cigarette smoker, spontaneous combustion in a storeroom, the gas lights, arson – and finally officials decided defective electrical wiring had been at fault. Both Piglhein, the artist, and Ignaz Fleischer, the owner of the New Panorama, turned out to be well insured.