The Medieval Jewish Community in Speyer

In the 11th century, jewish merchants and bankers from Italy and France migrated to the city of Speyer on the River Rhine. Under the protection of the bishop, they established a community that thrived for 400 years. Talmudic Scholars from Mainz also arrived and Speyer to became an internationally recognized center of jewish learning by the 13th and 14th centuries.

The largest jewish neighborhood was immediately to the west of the bishop’s palace. There is nothing left of the medieval houses, due to a major file in 1689 which also nearly destroyed the cathedral, but the ruins of the synagogue and mikvah survive. A fine museum has been established at what is called the Judenhof. It contains tombstones from the jewish cemetery and a recovered treasure hoard that had been buried during a period of persecution.

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The mikvah is a special point of interest. This ritual bath was use for ceremonial cleansing. The bath itself is located 10 meters below the street level, where “living” groundwater was available.

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A stairway leads from ground level to a changing room and from there  a semicircular stair leads to the level of the water. Windows above let dim light filter down. There was some debris in the water when I was there. Presumably someone would have been tasked with skimming it off when it was in daily use.

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Consecrated in the early 12th century, the synagogue was probably built by some of the same craftsmen who worked on the nearby cathedral. One assumes this was a result of the bishop’s protective oversight. The stonework is rough, more like the earliest, eastern section of the cathedral than like the finely finished stone of the nave. It probably was plastered over in any case. In the image below, the red stone was the original wall while the brick section on the left was an addition built for the use of the women.

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The Jews were driven out of Speyer about A.D. 1500. The synagogue became a storage facility. Today little is left of the interior. The outline of the tabernacle where the Scriptures were stored can be seen in the image below on the wall under the round window. The women’s section on the right was separated from the men’s by a wall. Holes in the wall allowed them to hear the proceedings.

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Speyer is only about an hour’s drive from Heidelberg. Though the magnificent cathedral is the main draw, this museum and ruins are definitely worth a visit. interpretive signs are in German, English and French. A selection of brochures are available in other languages as well.

A Different Angle: Marktkirche St. Benedikti, Quedlinburg

Consecrated by a woman, rebuilt and repaired with dramatic asymmetry, this church stands in the center of a World Heritage town of narrow crooked streets.

The original cross-shaped, romanesque basilica on this site was consecrated in 1173 by Abbess Adelheid III. The bishop of Halberstadt objected to this procedure but was overruled by the Pope who confirmed the right of the Abbess to perform the consecration.

The first thing one notices on entering the nave is that the axis of the nave is offset significantly from the axis of the choir. The center aisle is more than a meter narrower on the right hand side than the choir. Furthermore, the first arcade opening on the south is several feet wider than the opening on the north.

The reason for this misalignment may have been funding. When the choir and nave were rebuilt in the 15th century as a Gothic hall church, the north side of the nave was widened, and new foundations were established for the piers of the arcade. On the south side, as apparent cost saving measures, the old foundations were retained, and a portion of the former transept was retained as the east wall of the aisle.

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View to West. Notice the south wall (left) of the nave arcade is shifted inward from the line of the choir wall.

I can imagine the architect thinking, “If the client won’t provide the funds to do it right, I’ll build something they will regret for the next 1000 years.” But seriously, the building is still in use 600 years after these practical measures were taken. That’s more than we can say for a lot of more recent structures that have disappeared.

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View from Sternkiekerturm of the Marktkirche

The asymmetrical spires are the result of reconstruction after fires in 1701 and 1901.

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Kalandskapelle

The Kalandskapelle was the gathering place of the local chapter of a charitable society of prosperous citizens and priests who met on the first day of each month (i.e. of the calendar). The society was quite widespread from the 9th century through the end of the middle ages, and there are a couple chapters extant even today. The altarpiece dates to about 1480.

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Altar

The high altar, dating to about 1700, includes the familiar, the apostles Paul and John, Moses, David, Christ on the road to Emmaus, as well as some unusual images for an altar, Jonah and the fish and Samson carrying the gates of Gath.

The pulpit dates to 1595 and is carved out of linden wood with images of the garden of Eden, the apostles, and the Passion.

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16th century carving of King David.

This statue of David was once used as a support for the organ loft.

Information for this article was gathered at the church and from the booklet “Quedlinburg, Marktkirche St. Benedikti, Welterbe der UNESCO.” ISBN 3-89643-598-1

St. Cyriakus, Gernrode

The village of Gernrode, at the edge of the Harz mountains, barely shows up on maps. Yet, it is home to a remarkable 1000 year old church. The Margrave of the East March (sounds like something from Tolkien), named Gero, established here, in A.D. 959, a secular women’s abbey. His widowed daughter-in-law, Hathui, was the first Abbess. She ruled the abbey for 55 years.

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South Elevation

Gero was diligent in establishing the credentials of the abbey. He obtained sanction from Otto I in 961 and renewed it with Otto II. He also traveled personally to Rome in 963 to obtain Papal sanction. He returned from there with a relic of St. Cyriakus, who as far as I can tell, was an african martyr in the Diocletian persecution of A.D.303.

Construction began with the Apse and Chancel.

East Apse, Chancel and Transept
East Apse, Chancel and Transept

There were apparently strong connections between this region and Byzantium. The wife of Otto II was from there and their daughter became the second Abbess in 1014. The nave and its arcade were built in the Byzantine style. Note the multi-columned arcade and gallery above the side aisles.

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View of Nave from the Gallery of the South Transept

 

No structure lasts unmaintained for hundreds of years. There was a major restoration in 1859-65. The chancel painting was restored based on traces of 13th century frescoes. It shows Christ seated with with Book of Life. The middle row shows various saints, with Cyriakus in the center. The lower row shows Gero with member of his family. Hattui the first abbess is shown on the lower right.

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Frescoes of the East Apse

The ceiling of the church is quite dramatic.  A coffered ceiling was removed in the 19th century restoration and rebuilt based on remnants of an earlier ceiling. The nave portrays the apostles and prophets. The chancel  ceiling shows angels in paradise.

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Chancel Ceiling

Looking west from the chancel steps, we see the west apse and organ loft. The paintings there are from the restoration of 2003-2012. Underneath the organ is the west crypt. The tomb of Gero in the lower center is of 16th century construction.

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View to West with Tomb of Gero

One final curiosity is the replica of the Holy Sepulcher dating to the 12th century. It is the oldest and most exact replica in Germany. I presume it was built after people returned from the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. It is an elaborate replica of the tomb they would have seen there.

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South aisle with Holy Sepulcher.

The building is still home to a living community. It hosts weekly Catholic and Protestant services as well as concerts. http://www.stiftskirche-gernrode.de

Information in this post was derived from information in church displays and the booklet Stiftskirche St. Cyriakus Gernrode, Verlag janos Stekovics 2013

Quedlinburg

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The initial impression of Quedlinburg at the train station is not overwhelming. But the image above is not at all representative of the town.

Quedlinburg is in the latter stages of a massive restoration begun in the 1980s. There are 1000 year old churches and the most original timber frame houses of any city or town in Europe. The centerpiece of town is the Schlossberg, the site of a women’s abbey founded in the 900s. It is dominated by the 900 year old church of St. Servatii.

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The church is open for tours and includes a crypt and a church treasure that was lost for decades after WWII and discovered in Texas in the possession of the family of an American soldier. The building itself is a treasure. It has detailed carvings on the capitals and on a frieze that runs underneath the upper windows. The arcade is an unusual configuration with a pair of columns between rectangular piers.

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There is a tower on the western edge of town, the Steinkierker Turm, that provides a nice overlook. When we first went up to it, we thought it was locked as there is a massive steel turnstyle like you sometimes find at sporting venues. However, it is unlocked by dropping a 1 euro coin in a slot.

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The church on the left is the Marktkirche St. Benedickt. As with many churches it was built in stages. The photo below show that the center of the nave and the center of the chancel are misaligned by a couple feet. This happens too often for me to believe it is merely the result of mis-measurement as some maintain. It took some clever stonework to make the two sections meet in any event.

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This statue of King David was once one of the columns supporting the organ loft.

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The Rathaus is the main feature of the market square. Much of the building dates to the 14th century. The tower on the left was added in the 15th. Further renovation took place in the 17th and 19th centuries.

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There are about 1400 timber frame houses in Quedlinburg, some of which date to the 1300s. Most have been beautifully restored. The ones below are in one of several plazas that dot the town.

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Many houses have inscription on the beam just above the ground floor. The two below say:

  • In 1631 Gert Muller and his wife, Dorothea, had this house built.
  • 1577, Merten Hevener, In God’s might, I have built.

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We met a man whose friend bought one of these houses in the 1980s for 40 East German Marks, just a couple Euro in today’s funds. It’s worth over a million now. There are still some houses available for restoration like the one below. You might not get quite the same deal though.

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More Historical Sites in Berlin

The plaza below was created by clearing buildings damaged in WWII. The Marienkirche, on the left, dates to the 12th century, though it has been severely modified over the years.The pink pipes on the right are part of a system for removing groundwater that leaks into excavations. Berlin after all was built on a marsh.

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The Marienkirche is still used as a church. Its rather plain interior reflects the Protestant tradition. The Evangelische church, the publicly supported merger of Lutheran and Calvinist churches, has services on Sunday mornings and the Anglican church uses it in the evenings.

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Nearby the Nikolaivierteil is a pseudo-medieval area reconstructed under the DDR. It was once the center of the city. The Nikolaikirche for which the quarter is named was closed in 1939 for renovation, but reduced to a shell during the war. It has been restored, but is now in use as a city museum and for concerts. Many of the artifacts in the museum relate to its former life as a church.

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The arches in the vaults are painted differently in various parts of the church. The nave is green and red. Two chapels on either side are blue and orange (we were told those are the colors of Mary). The chancel is gray and red.

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Most reminders of the national socialists in Berlin have been deliberately obliterated. However, the Olympic Stadium, built for the 1936 Olympics is still in use as a sports and concert venue. A very fine roof has been added. The exterior facade is built of limestone rather than concrete.

 

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Charlottenburg Palace is the largest palace in Berlin. It dates to the early 1700s and is named after the first queen of Prussia.

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There are extensive gardens and a tame forest. In the back of the property is the Belvedere. A sign at the building indicated it was built as a private retreat for one of the kings. I guess you might call it his man-cave.

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Berlin Remembers

Berlin is a vibrant, youthful city. Images from 1945 show a city nearly flattened. Even historic landmarks were mere shells. Then the communist period split the city in two. Since then the city has been completely rebuilt, often in ultramodern fashion. A few clear reminders of the unfortunate past are preserved as encouragement to never let those things happen again.

Cranes all over the city signify economic development. The crowded cafes along the river are filled with people from all over the world. This is the heart of Germany, but English, the lingua franca, can be heard in many different accents.

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The Berliner Dom, severely damaged in the war,  has been elaborately restored.

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In the crypt are entombed many of the Prussian Kings, Queens, and nobility from the 1700s until the first World War.

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Entry to the Cathedral includes the opportunity to climb the steep stairs to the rotunda for panoramic views of the city. This image includes the matching towers of of the Deutscher Dom and Französische Dom at the Gendarmenmarkt.

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The tower in this view, which is visible from most of the city, is the Fernsehenturm, or TV tower, built by the communists. I like the confrontation between it and the statue of Moses holding the tables of the Law.

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The Brandenburg gate is an iconic symbol of Berlin and Germany. The Berlin wall once stood right across the center of this view, blocking the gate. Now it is a pedestrian way and often the scenes of public gatherings such as holiday celebrations, large screen viewing of football matches and, often, demonstrations.

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Speaking of the wall, very little of it remains. There is a memorial along Bernauer Strasse with displays, audio commentary and a portion of the fortification, for that is what it was. One of the audio clips from an East German General explained how the wall was built to ensure the security of East Berlin, a transparent lie. It was actually built to keep people from escaping to the West. An interesting excavation exhibit explains how many tunnels were dug in this area for just that purpose. This is what an East Berliner might have seen if they were brave enough to look over the inner wall into the no-mans land.

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In 1989 to 1990 it took months to dismantle the entire wall. This section was appropriated by a number of artists who began painting scenes depicting the joy of their new found freedoms. There is also a lot of ordinary graffiti. At present there is an attempt to clean up and preserve some of the original work.

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This image, signed by Birgit K. shows a car of East German manufacture (Trabant) breaking through the wall. I saw a photo of this painting in an art market taken when it was defaced with scrawled names and other things. They did a nice job of cleaning it.

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Here’s a photo of a real Trabant in non-standard paint. One can rent them and drive around town.

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The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church was built in memory of the king who died in 1888 (not the WWI Wilhelm). The church was destroyed in WWII, leaving only the foyer and damaged tower. Rather than tear it down, the tower was preserved and a new church was built. The tower is nicknamed der Hohle Zahn, in English, The Hollow Tooth.

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Here is a view of the interior of the new building.

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One last symbol of a revived Berlin is the Reichstag, the home of the German parliament. This was left a hollow shell after the war. The glass rotunda, which is just visible in this image was designed by an Englishman, a sign of European reconciliation.

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A Visit to the Minster at Freiburg

Before planning a visit to the Minster at Freiburg, I knew two things about it: the spire is regarded as the most beautiful of Gothic spires, and the four organs sound magnificent. There is a wonderful quadraphonic recording of E. Power Biggs playing the 4 organs simultaneously. The sound reverberates long after the organist has released the keys. A similar visual reverberation lingers in my memory long after my visit earlier this year. The history of this church is available from many websites and books, but being there in person is a completely difference experience to reading about it.

There is at once a sense of age and freshness about the church that invites examination and investigation of details. Though it was built, and rebuilt in stages over several centuries it was completed during the Gothic era and thus retains the elegance of the age without too many distracting emendations of later times.

Time plays havoc with these monuments however and they are in constant need of maintenance. I had the misfortune to see the spire covered in scaffolding. The spire is undergoing a major renovation, including replacement of several massive cornerstones that bear the enormous weight of the, only-apparently, delicate structure.

The church was begun in the Romanesque style in the early 13th century. The chancel, transepts and part of the nave had already been finished when it was decided to complete the church in the Gothic style. The chancel and transepts were initially kept as is, and the nave as we see it today was completed in the Gothic Style. Afterwards, most of the original Romanesque structure was replaced in a late Gothic style. The more complex and higher vaulting in the present chancel was the result.

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Nave looking east
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High Gothic Chancel

Below is a view of the nave from the choir. One organ is in the loft at the rear and another on the upper right-hand wall. The second photo shows an organ in the north transept. The fourth organ is behind the choir. All four can be played from the console in the lower left of the first photo below.

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In the north aisle, one chapel contains this life sized depiction of the Last Supper. The figures are in stone carved by Franz Xaver Hauser in 1806.

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The St. Nicholas chapel is the oldest portion of the church above ground. The round arches and carving are indicative of its Romanesque origin. It is easily overlooked because it is used primarily as a passageway from the south transept to the south aisle of the chancel.

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Blind arcade in the Nicholas chapel.

The exterior view of the south transept shows the round arches and flat aspect of the Romanesque construction. The cock tower, as it is called, partially visible at the right, is Romanesque to the second tier of windows. The upper stories are later, Gothic, construction. The porch is more recent but was completed with round arches. _D6A8742_007_600 There are numerous details on the exterior indicative of the various stages of construction. The flying buttresses on the nave (first photo below) extend from the wall to the pier in a solid arch. The later choir side (second photo below) has very delicate buttresses by comparison.

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Gothic windows and buttresses of the nave.
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High Gothic windows and buttresses of the chancel.

There are many interesting details in the exterior carvings. A number of the carvings have been replaced with replicas over the years. The flowers on the main tower were a nice touch. They were not there on my first visit but showed up a day or two later. _D6A8755_013a_600 The central door under the tower has colorful and detailed carvings. _D6A8997_014_600

There are dozens of chapels, wonderful windows and many more carvings and furnishings. I hope to return some day for a more thorough visit.

Some of the information in this blog was derived from “The Minster at Freiburg im Breisgau” 4th edition, by Heike Mittmann, Kunstverlag Josef Fink, 2012.