Close to Heaven – Domed Halls on Museum Island

Small Dome with Statue of Mercury (1878) by Jean-Baptiste PigalleBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

They resemble stonework skies. Cupola domes have for centuries crowned many majestic buildings. They have also been used for museums since the 19th century to enhance the effect of entrance halls and exhibition rooms. Visitors to Museum Island Berlin can admire a variety of magnificent domed halls.

The cupola of the Rotunda in the Altes Museum (1830) by Karl Friedrich SchinkelAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Altes Museum

The most famous domed hall of Museum Island is the Rotunda in the Altes Museum. It is the architectural centrepiece of the museum. It is 23 meters high, extending over two stories, and crowned by a dome adorned with coffering. The red and gold ceiling coffers are decorated with winged genii, signs of the Zodiac and rosettes. Natural light shines through an opening at the top of the dome. This magnificent space was designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841), the architect of the Altes Museum. He modelled it after the Pantheon in Rome – the temple to all the gods.

The Rotunda in the Altes Museum (1830) by Karl Friedrich SchinkelAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The spaces between the 20 columns on the mainfloor and the niches in the surrounding gallery above it are filled with statues of the gods of antiquity – among them are statues of Nike, the goddess of Victory and Zeus, the father of all gods. All of Olympus seems to be here. The statues are Roman copies of Greek statues and once belonged to the Prussian kings.


Dome of the Alte Nationalgalerie by Alte NationalgalerieAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Alte Nationalgalerie

In comparison to the imposing Rotunda of the Altes Museum the domed hall of the Alte Nationalgalerie, which was opened some 50 years later, has an almost fairytale feel. It’s graceful white arches rise above dark columns to draw the eye to a blue dome painted in gold, reminiscent of a well-ordered firmament full of stars. Light is allowed to fall from an aperture in the centre of this ‘sky’ on to the white figures on the walls and in the four niches in the room. The room was extensively damaged by a bomb during the Second World War and rebuilt after 1945. During the restoration of the Alte Nationalgalerie from 1999 to 2001 the original wall colours were reconstructed from traces of paint found in the building.

Domed Room Alte Nationalgalerie

The Magic Flute Opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Set design for second scene, the Queen of the Night’s Hall of Stars (ca. 1815) by Karl Friedrich SchinkelKupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The model for the star dome in this room was what is perhaps the most famous stage design that was ever created – Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s design for the ‘Hall of Stars’ in the palace of the Queen of the Night for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera ‘The Magic Flute’ first performed in Vienna in 1791.

Pan Comforting Psyche (1857 - 1858) by Reinhold BegasAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In the room’s niches sculptures by the Neo-Baroque sculptor Reinhold Begas (1831–1911) can be seen. Here the beautiful princess Psyche is lamenting her curiosity and its consequences. When Psyche wanted to see her lover, Amor, in the light, even though this was forbidden, he discovered her and fled. Abandoned, Psyche is comforted by the nature god Pan.

Sculptures by Reinhold Begas

Domed roof from the Palacio del Partal in the Alhambra (1200 - 1250) by UnknownPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


The ‘star dome room‘ in the Pergamonmuseum is entirely different. It’s dome was not built for this museum, but once crowned an observation tower in the Alhambra, the famous palace dominating the Spanish city of Granada. Granada was the capital of the Nasrids, the last Muslim dynasty in Spain ruling from the 13th to the 15th century. From the palace they had a magnificent view of the landscape, the city and the lush palace gardens.

The dome dates from the 14th century. It is carved from cedar and popplar wood. With its use of stars as decorative elements it reminds us oft he vaults oft he firmament and heavenly spheres as they are described in the Koran.

The ceiling was dismantled in 1871 with the permission of the Spanish authorities and presented as a gift to a German banker. The museum purchased this masterpiece of Andalusian wood carving in 1978.

Alhambra Dome

Neues Museum Berlin, Medieval Hall with the Permanent Exhibition of the Museum of Prehistory and Early History of the Roman Empire (1843/1855) by UnknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Neues Museum

There are several fascinating domes in the Neues Museum, which was built by Schinkel’s student Friedrich August Stüler (1800–1865) from 1843 to 1855. Like many other rooms in this museum, the Room of the Middle Ages bears visible testimony to the destruction wreaked on the building during and after the Second World War. The room was rebuilt by the architect David Chipperfield, retaining and complementing its surviving features. Four columns of dark marble support the shallow domed ceiling, which was inspired by models from Antiquity.

Vaults Mediaeval Room, Neues Museum, Museum Island Berlin (1843/2009) by Friedrich August Stüler / David ChipperfieldNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

To minimise the weight of the ceiling, hollow clay bricks were used, set in gypsum mortar. This allowed an extremely light weight per unit area to be achieved with a high level of load transfer.

Painted against a golden backdrop portraits of German kings once took pride of place in the middle of each cupola. Only two of these images remain today. Four further pictures depicting artists and builders were painted in the spandrels of each cupola. Their names and the names of the town with which they were associated were given alongside their likenesses.

Room of the Middle Ages

South Cupola, Neues Museum (1999/2009) by David ChipperfieldNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Right next door, the South Cupola Room of the Neues Museum is a model of simple elegance. The damage to the building was so severe here that this room had to be completely replaced when the museum was being restored.

The South Cupola Room seen from the Roman Rooom, 1862 (1862) by Friedrich August StülerNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

From here there was once a connecting corridor to the Altes Museum. The monumental room was two floors high. There was a large skylight inside of the red cupola with its golden stars and hugh historical paintings depicting the shift from aniquity to the Christian middle ages.

To counter the loss of this room David Chipperfield came up with a marvellous design for a new South Dome. Its walls rise from a square ground plan into the curved dome whose impressive effect derives from the historical building materials used – bricks from demolished houses in the region around Berlin.

South Cupola Room

Great Dome, Bode-Museum (1897–1904) by Ernst Eberhard von IhneBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Compared to the simple South Dome in the Neues Museum, this lavishly decorated room looks almost pretentious. The Great Dome of the Bode-Museum evokes the entrance hall of a royal palace. The elegant columns of coloured stucco marble, the two large staircases with their gilded banisters and above all the monumental dome 40 meters overhead create an extraordinarily imposing impression.

Great Dome with Equestrian Statue (1696–1700) by Andreas SchlüterBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The Neo Baroque architecture evokes the Hohenzollern dynasty, which ruled over Prussia for several centuries. The Hohenzollerns were collectors and patrons oft he arts. They laid the foundation for Berlin’s ensemble museums. In the middle of the room, the copy of the famous equestrian statue of Frederick William of Brandenburg – called the Great Elector – was erected at the opening of the museum in 1904.

Großer Kurfürst

Small Dome, Bode-Museum (c. 1900)Bode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The Small Dome at the south-eastern end of the Bode Museum is a companion piece to the Great Dome. It marks the end of the Golden Axis, a series of magnificent rooms on the ground floor of the building. Once this was where the festivities were held to which the Court and wealthy bourgeois patrons were invited.

The Small Dome, too, is illuminated by daylight. The interior wall of the dome is covered with floral motifs in small cassettes. Between the oval windows in the lower area there are stucco ornaments suggesting armour, swords and shields.

Small Dome

Frederick the Great, copy of a statue by Johann Gottfried Schadow (c. 1900) by Franz TübbeckeBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In the niches on the upper floor there are marble statues of the Prussian King Frederick the Great and his generals. The statue of the ‘Old Fritz’ is a copy of the famous statue that Johann Gottfried Schadow created in 1792 for the parade square in Szczecin. It was commissioned in 1902 by Wilhelm von Bode to show Frederick the Great in the midst of his generals. The other statues were originally erected on Wilhelmplatz in Berlin, where they were replaced by bronze copies in the 19th century.

Small Dome with Statue of Mercury (1878) by Jean-Baptiste PigalleBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Further down, the foot of the staircase is flanked by a statue of Mercury by the French Rococo sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714–1785) and a statue of Venus on the other side of the stairs. These statues originally formed the start of the vineyard staircase at Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam.

The unique combination of sculptures, room decoration and architecture makes a visit to the Small Cupola particularly special. Just like in the other cupola rooms, the Museum Island’s universal claim is made wonderfully manifest here.

Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Concept / Realisation: Jutta Dette

Audios: tonwelt, Astrid Alexander

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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