What is the Stalingrad Madonna?

During the Siege of Stalingrad in 1942, a German officer created a famous charcoal drawing known as the Stalingrad Madonna. The original drawing is now on display in Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Cathedral, and after World War II, the German government sent copies to the governments of the United Kingdom and Russia as peace symbols. The Stalingrad Madonna replicas are on display in Coventry and Volgograd, respectively.

The backstory of the Stalingrad Madonna fascinates a lot of people. Dr. Kurt Reuber, the artist, was trapped in Stalingrad with a large number of German troops during the Christmas season of 1942. Morale was extremely low among the troops, as rations were scarce and the men were well aware that they would not be able to survive the siege. Dr. Reuber decided to create a drawing for the sick and injured men in his care, despite his cramped, dark quarters. He was forced to write on the back of a map of Russia because he didn’t have any paper, and he described scrambling for his pencils every time he dropped them in the mud in a letter home.

Dr. Reuber made a drawing of the Madonna and Child because he was a clergyman and it was Christmas. The infant Christ is cradled in Mary’s arms, and the two are wrapped in a large cloak in the drawing. “licht, leben, liebe, weihnachten im Kessel 1942. Festung Stalingrad,” or “light, life, love, Christmas in the cauldron 1942. Fortress Stalingrad,” is written around the edges of the drawing. The German word kessel, which means “cauldron” or “boiler” in English, describes a situation in which one is surrounded enemy forces.

In a letter to his family, Dr. Reuber described the Stalingrad Madonna, and the Madonna made it out of Stalingrad, now known as Volgograd, on one of the last German air transports out of the city. Dr. Reuber was imprisoned in a Russian POW camp and died there, while the Madonna and his letters made their way back to his family in Germany.

Reuber’s family kept the Stalingrad Madonna for a time, but after the war, when his letters and a reproduction of the drawing were published, they gave the drawing to the German government. In postwar Germany, the Stalingrad Madonna drew a lot of attention and became known as a symbol of hope and peace. Arno Pötzsch, a German poet, published The Madonna of Stalingrad, a collection of poetry inspired the drawing, in 1946.