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Massive painting has a unique history in Holmes County

The giant painting details the history of Anabaptist culture, starting with the first Anabaptists in Switzerland in 1525 and ending with depictions of the Amish and Mennonite cultures that sprang from the Anabaptist movement. The artist worked on the cyclorama for 14 years, finally completing it in 1992.

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What is a cyclorama? It is a painting, usually massive in scale, 200-300 feet long and designed to give a 360-degree panoramic view of the painting’s imagery. It’s sometimes called a “painting in the round.” These gigantic paintings often take years to complete, which means that they are rare. Only a few artists throughout history have dared to take on such a massive project.

Heinz Gaugel was one of those artists, the creative mind behind the “Behalt Cyclorama,” housed today at the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. The “Behalt” is huge, measuring 10 feet tall and 265 feet long with an interesting and important story behind it.

Gaugel was born in Southern Germany in 1927. As a self-taught artist he came to North America to produce murals on commission. The story of the “Behalt,” which is just one of Gaugel’s artistic endeavors, starts in 1962. Gaugel was working on a mural in Canada, and he visited Ohio to find glazed bricks for his project. On his trip he happened to pass through Holmes County, and to his surprise he found an entire culture that spoke the same German dialect as him: the Amish.

Gaugel was instantly curious about these people: who they were, what they believed and where they came from. He made it his mission to learn as much as he could about the Anabaptists and the cultures they created: among them the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites.

The lifestyle of the Amish fascinated him, and as a man that narrowly escaped death in World War II Germany, he believed that war was wrong, and he admired and agreed with the pacifist, nonviolent beliefs of the Amish. He began researching, and in 1972 he moved to a farm in Holmes County, where he painted murals and continued his research into the Anabaptist Amish and Mennonite cultures.

During this period tourism was on the rise in Amish Country, and it became a frustration among local people who were getting tired of being questioned constantly by tourists. In 1978 Gaugel was speaking with an Amish blacksmith who wished that everyone could just have one central place to learn about the Amish and Mennonites. Gaugel famously replied, “Brother, tomorrow I will begin working towards that goal.”

With that he started work on the “Behalt.” His goal was to detail the history of Anabaptist culture, starting with the first Anabaptists in Switzerland in 1525 and ending with depictions of the Amish and Mennonite cultures that sprang from the Anabaptist movement. He worked on the cyclorama for 14 years, finally completing it in 1992.

The process was not an easy one, however. In addition to the monumental effort of creating a 265-foot painting, he faced several difficult challenges along the way.

To start with, Gaugel quickly became well-known among Amish and Mennonites in Holmes County, but he was not always well-received. Some had grave concerns about the accuracy of Gaugel’s research while others felt the cyclorama had the potential to become a tool for profit, exploiting Anabaptist history for tourist dollars rather than freely providing information about their culture.

Gaugel carried on anyway, eventually gaining the trust of the Amish and Mennonites of Holmes County, so much so, in fact, that he became a popular figure among the Amish, many of whom began suggesting historical scenes for him to paint.

Throughout all of this Gaugel’s work was sponsored by financier Helen Smucker. Tragically Smucker passed away in 1979, which started a whole new wave of trouble for Gaugel and the “Behalt.” Smucker’s heirs fought Gaugel, attempting to claim ownership of the painting and accusing Gaugel of vandalizing it. It was a battle that would rage on in the courts until 1981.

The legal fighting is the reason why the “Behalt” is sometimes known as “The Painting that Went to Jail.” During the height of the argument the Holmes County sheriff was forced to take the painting for safekeeping. But where do you store a massive 265-foot painting? There were no storage areas large enough, so the sheriff put the painting in one of the largest empty spaces available: a jail cell at the Holmes County Jail.

In April 1981 Gaugel finally won the lawsuit, officially giving him ownership of the “Behalt.” However, he was required to change the name of the painting from “Behalt,” which means “to keep” or “to remember.” He renamed the painting “Legacy” and moved it to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he continued working on it.

That work was short-lived. Gaugel himself suffered a heart attack, and one of his sons was in a serious car accident, so work was halted between 1981 and 1988.

In 1988 Gaugel was approached by a group of people who wanted to build the Mennonite Information Center, which was the predecessor to today’s Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center. They offered to buy the painting and to give Gaugel studio space to complete it in Holmes County. Gaugel and his painting came back to Ohio, where he worked until the painting’s completion in October 1992.

Once completed, Gaugel’s work was officially renamed “Behalt,” and it quickly grew to be famous as the third largest cyclorama in the world as well as one of only four cycloramas in the United States. Visitors have been known to refer to it as the “Sistine Chapel of the Amish and Mennonites,” and it truly is a historical masterpiece.

Heinz Gaugel passed away on Dec. 28, 2000, but his work continues to bring joy and wonder to people from all over the United States. You can see it for yourself at the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center in Berlin.

The center is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m to 5 p.m. March to November and 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. December to February. It’s $8.75 for a 30-minute tour and is located near Berlin at 5798 County Road 77, Millersburg. Call 330-893-3192 for more information or to schedule a group tour.

Published: December 28, 2016
New Article ID: 2016712289995