Most creatives like to claim complete originality. In later life Picasso famously denied being influenced by African art when painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, even though there was ample source material in what was then the Musée du Trocadéro in Paris.
So Moerdijk, the architect of the Voortrekker Monument, was not alone in denying architectural precedents. However, as the images below indicate, his design was heavily reliant on the late 19th Century/early 20th Century building, the Volkerschlachtdenkmal in Liepzig. (To be pedantic.. this post arises out of original research I did and was then published as an academic article: “The Voortrekker Monument: Monolith to Myth” South African Historical Journal November 1993.)
This building (like the Voortrekker Monument) was overtly nationalistic in its intent. Commissioned at the end of the nineteenth century by the founder of the Deutschen Patrioten Bundes (German Patriotic Movement), Clemens Thieme, it had the support of Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was built to commemorate the 1813 Battle of Nations at Liepzig where Napoleon was defeated by a combined allied army including Polish, Prussian, Russian, Austrian and Swedish troops. While doing my research in the early 1990s, (this was the days before ease of access to internet!) I was fortunate enough to come across a book devoted entirely to the Volkershlachtdenkmal (on author no date) entitled: Deutschlands Denkmal der Volkerschlacht das Ehrenmal seiner Befreing unde nationalem Wiedergeburt (Germany’s monument to the people’s war in honour of liberation and national rebirth).
The visual imagery of the Volkerschlachtdenkmal communicates quite clearly the conscious programme of building a nation of heroes. It was therefore the perfect prototype for Moerdijck to draw on and one which would have taken on added significance during the revival of nation-building in the 1930s in Germany. In addition, it was appropriate that a fiercely anti-imperialistic group on South Africa should symbolically ally itself with Germany, which was also mobilizing anti-British sentiments during the 1930s.
The Voortrekker Monument is a centralized building with one entrance which leads directly into an open space. This open space forms the upper hall which is covered in the inside with a vast dome supported on pendentives rising from four short barrel vaults and in centre of the dome is an oculus. (Pendentives are those 3 dimensional triangles which transition the space from a square to a circular dome and support the rim of the dome.)
Like the Voortrekker Monument, the Volkershlachtdenkmal is a vast blocklike rectangular structure with four huge arched windows, one on each face of the building.
A towering statue of St Michael stands outside against the wall in front of a flight of stairs leading to the entrance door, a position equivalent to the Van Wouw Mother and Children in the Voortrekker Monument. The words “Got mi tuns” are carved on the parapet above the statue of St Michael paralleling the Voortrekker Monument’s religious references.
The similarities of the interior are obvious.
Much has been written about the fostering of an Afrikaner identity and the mobilization of Afrikaner power through the covert activities of the Broederbond and its cultural wing the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kulturvereniginge (FAK) in the late 1920s and ’30s. And the centenary re-enactment in 1938 of the Great Trek (which in fact comprised at least 4 separate disparate treks) was an incredibly powerful rallying symbol as various groups in ox wagons and Voortrekker dress made their way across South Africa gathering followers and momentum as they went through cities and small towns.
The heroic connotations (and much else!) are communicated through the association of the flames journey through South Africa with the ancient Olympic torch-carrying tradition. And who can argue with the symbolic connotations of a flame which has been lit by none other than the sun’s rays and is kept in a hallowed shrine-like space?
And I haven’t even started on the frieze!!
Forty-three percent of all Chinese tourists who visit South Africa, for instance, visit the monument, a figure that runs into tens of thousands.