FRANKFURT — Over the past decade, giant commercial billboards have changed the look of many European cities. Whether at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate or Rome's Trevi Fountain, ads on historic structures have become a key way to finance their repair.
But Germany has taken the trend to new - and controversial - heights. In Frankfurt, the scaffolding of the famed 15th-century Gothic steeple of Bartholomew Cathedral now sports a Panasonic poster.
Throughout Germany, churches are renting their facades for commercial messages. Supporters hail the development as an ingenious fundraising tactic. But critics argue the move dilutes the sacredness of churches.
"We're not pleased about it," says Raban Tilmann, pastor of the Bartholomew Cathedral. "This is something we have to endure," he says.
Turning its steeple into high-profile ad space has allowed the cathedral to raise some 100,000 euros for restoration. But it has also raised serious questions about the integrity of the church's message in a heavily commercialized world.
"Money is one thing, but the long-term moral danger is something else," says Heinz Schilling, a history professor at Berlin's Humboldt University who specializes on churches.
In Germany, churches are financed through taxpayers, who register their religion affiliations and pay 8 percent of their income tax to their church.
The system has traditionally provided churches with a protection that they don't enjoy in other countries. But income-tax revenues have been falling and Germans have been leaving churches - and their taxpaying obligations - in unprecedented numbers. That's forced churches to adopt more businesslike practices to generate revenues, such as regrouping parishes, laying off personnel, and relying on sponsorships.
The first controversial case arose in Berlin when an oversized portrait of German model Claudia Schiffer, promoting lipstick and shampoo from the French cosmetics company L'Oréal, wrapped the scaffolding around the 167-ft. bell tower of Germany's best-known church.
Left intentionally in ruins after World War II, Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church stands as a testimony against war and destruction. But in 1999, cracks appeared in the bell tower of a modern church built next to the ruins. The church was on the brink of bankruptcy - so when an advertising firm offered to rent the scaffolding around the tower for the L'Oréal poster, pastor Sylvia von Kekulé agreed. Six months of the Schiffer poster financed the $298,000 belltower restoration.
Advertising posters are "a good, clean way of earning money," says Ms. von Kekulé, who withstood a heated church debate over the issue. Instead of scaring parishioners away, she says, it's made them grateful.
"We thought, it's not particularly nice, but if it's going to help our church bells ring again, then it's worth it," says von Kekule. "People often assume that churches get everything for free. But ... the church has no money."
Local politicians have condemned the ads on churches and other historic buildings. "People are losing respect," says Berlin councilwoman Dorothee Dubrau. Even Johannes Krug, pastor of the ad-draped Protestant Marienkirche, says he'd rather not see ads on the church anymore.
"Advertising plays with people's yearnings - to be younger, get richer, look better - with financial interests," says Krug. "In the church, we're responding to a yearning, but we have no commercial interest. I see advertising as a competition."
Protestant churches have been more open to the idea of using advertising as a revenue generator than Roman Catholic ones. But now many Catholics see such banners as nothing more than a lucrative form of sponsorship.
"The trend is for churches to at least think and discuss the issue openly," says Henning Stahl of the firm Fubac Media Solution, which installed the L' Oréal poster on Berlin's Memorial Church. "There's still a lot of reserve and moral conflict, but the pressure to have church renovation projects take place partly with such financial inputs is greater and greater."
Despite an outcry from parishioners, the Mainz Cathedral rented a portion of the scaffolding in 2001 for a giant advertising poster for a clothing store. "It was a very good spot; the banner could be seen from the other side of the Rhine River," recalls Heinz Heckwolf, who oversees restoration of the Catholic Cathedral.
The Cologne Cathedral, too, could be an advertiser's dream. Classified as a UNESCO historic monument, it is Cologne's top tourist attraction, drawing between 20,000 and 30,000 visitors daily. Its steeple, 515-feet high, dominates the old city. Its scaffolding offers the ultimate billboard canvas.
"We've been offered immense sums, gigantic sums of money," says Barbara Schock Werner, chief architect of the cathedral, where renovation has been going on for the past 750 years. Over the past three years, "all the big firms have knocked on my door. Our answer is clear: We don't want it. There has to be a place that's free from commercial thought."
Officials in the diocese of Cologne, though, are more pragmatic. Martin Struck of the diocese says parishes may be "forced" to use advertising to preserve church heritage.
In Düsseldorf, Wolfgang Haertel, pastor of the Catholic St. Martin, is now talking with a major advertising firm. But before any firm puts its name around the church tower, which is in dire need of restoration, "we want to know ... who's behind the product, who supports it," says Mr. Haertel. Mr. Schilling, the historian, says the dangers far outweigh financial benefits. In the long term, he says, commercial banners could make churches look like any other building, meaning they could lose their sacred, protected place as the heart of a community.
"Advertising on the TV Tower in Berlin is one thing. But the church is something different, the surroundings of a church is something different," Schilling says. The sight of commercial messages plastered on a church steeple could "scare away parishioners, and won't bring those who are far from the church any closer."
Before they opted for the advertising campaign on the cathedral, officials in Frankfurt had tried fundraising. "It brought money, but it incurred costs and it was a lot of work," recalls Gerhard Landmann, who is in charge of church affairs for the city. "Because of the difficult economic situation we're in, we felt we had to do it. Refusing it would have been irresponsible."
"When in other cities, the churches themselves judged it was acceptable, we thought, 'why not us?' " he says.