Germany’s First Gothic Cathedral: Magdeburger Dom

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The massive Magdeburger Dom rises from a rocky outcrop along the Elbe River.

The gothic style first appeared in France at St. Denis in A.D. 1147. The style came to Germany 60 years later. I’ve often wondered why it took so long. How the style came to Magdeburg is clear however. Archbishop Albrecht II von Kefernburg (in office 1205-1232) had studied in Paris and seen the building of Notre Dame Cathedral. The 300 year old church in Magdeburg burned in 1207. Albrecht razed the ruin and re-built in the new style beginning in 1209.

Although the church includes pointed arched and ribbed vaults, there are no flying buttresses, and the overall visual effect is a blend of the late Romanesque and early Gothic. Some of this blend can be observed in the chancel: mixed round and pointed arches, mixed groin and arched vaults and thick rectangular piers with half columns supporting arches.

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On entering the cathedral, one is tempted merely to absorb the immensity, the repetition of lines and curves, and 800 years of history.

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There are many details to study as well. (Click each thumbnail for bigger images).

Otto I (d. 973) who was instrumental in consolidating and extending the German Empire, is entombed in the center aisle of the choir. We attended an Anglican evensong service here (in English, mit deutscher Übersetzung). The sound was glorious.

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One evening, we were reading the notice board at the entrance to the Cathedral when a man on a bike paused to speak with us. He told us how, as a student in the DDR (East Germany), during a two week work period before the term, he had helped lay the cobblestone paving of the churchyard. The statue is St. Mauritius a third century African Roman soldier honored by the cathedral.

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When we arrived just before sunset to photograph the west front of the Cathedral, a boy and his father were kicking a soccer ball in the plaza. I was waiting quietly, but impatiently, for them to move on. After about 5 minutes they did.

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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

A Visit to Speyer Cathedral

Walking down Maximillianstrasse in Speyer for the first time is dangerous. The eye is drawn so powerfully to the massive block of the west face of the Cathedral (Dom) that one is apt to collide with an oncoming pedestrian or bicycle. The alternating courses of red and yellow sandstone make the broad front seem even wider than it is. There is symmetry, rhythm and balance to the main face of the church. But the weathered roughness of two plain, red towers and a cupola rises behind, photo-bombing the finer detail of the main face.

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I suppose that is why so many writers complain of the west front which was re-built in the 1800s. There is nothing wrong with it in itself, IMHO, but it conflicts with the 1000 year old feel of the rest of the church.

It is not the case however that the rest has survived unaltered. In 1689 the church burned, the western half nearly leveled, and it was not restored until about 70 years later. That first reconstruction though was fairly true to the original building and it takes a close look to find the boundary between the 11th/12th century original and the 18th century repairs.

Circumambulating the church, one is impressed by the length, 134m, the long rows of windows and arcades and the essential unity of style. Even the copper roof complements the red sandstone. Surrounded by parkland, it is relaxing to take some time doing this. Apart from the sacristy on the southeast corner, Speyer did not acquire the gothic additions that its siblings at Mainz and Worms did. Or rather, those it did acquire perished in the 1689 fire. Thus there is a stronger sense of unity and integrity here.

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The square towers at the east end are the oldest structures, dating to the early 11th century. They are constructed of smaller, rougher stone than the rest of the church.

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We enter from the west. The nave is very well lit. When the clerestory was updated in about 1125, the windows were unusually large and only superseded in size and luminance by Gothic construction. Also unusual for a Romanesque church are the tall half cylinder columns that were added in the early 12th century to support the vaults. They create a strong vertical element that draws the eye upward as effectively as the long arcade draws the eye toward the sanctuary.

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There is a large-scale rhythm created by the twelve lower level arches, triforium level paintings, clerestory and vaults. As you move around the church, into the aisles and even to the crypt, the regular division of space and round arches create a harmonious whole. In the images above, taken to the east and west respectively, one can identify the demarcation between the original work and the 18th century reconstruction. On the left, the nearest transverse arch is entirely pink stone indicating it is part of the reconstruction while the farther arches alternate yellow and pink. On the right the closest several piers are mostly yellow stone from the early building while the farther pink sections in the west are from the reconstruction. The organ was installed in 2011.

The exterior of the eastern apse is built of  finely finished ashlars, but the interior is built of rougher stone and the courses are not quite level. I suspect the reason was that it was easier and cheaper to build with small stones and not finish them smoothly if they intended to plaster and paint the wall. It could represent an economic decision rather than a skill deficit on the part of the early builders.

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The crypt is the largest Romanesque crypt in the world. There are seven altars, a chapel and tombs of 8 German emperors from the 11th through 13th centuries, including Rudolf I, the first king of the Habsburg dynasty.

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All visitors should climb the tower, where I received a bit of unexpected cultural education. A young guide was happy to chat about the view, cathedral, town and historical events. I asked him about the French invasion of 1689, the attendant fire and destruction. He earnestly responded that “we don’t say French, we just say foreign army. We are all friends now.” Message received. He does not want anyone to think he holds any modern person responsible for something that happened in the past.

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The prospect from the top is spectacular. One can see the roof and towers up close with the backdrop of the Rhine on the east and a view over the town with the mountains of the Palatine Forest to the west.

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There is much more that could be said about this special place but that will have to wait for another time.

Artful Restoration of St. Stephan’s, Mainz

What makes a restoration successful? Must it be a faithful reproduction of the original? How does one restore a church built 700 years ago that went through many modifications and then was nearly completely destroyed? What if little is known about the original furnishings or paintings? What if artifacts from any relevant period are rare or extinct? Perhaps it is easier just to do something completely modern. There is no simple answer.

St. Stephan’s Church of Mainz is a church that must have presented such a conundrum, but the answer turned out to be quite satisfying. The unique restoration there is at once modern, conveying an important message to today’s world and yet compatible with the historical architecture and sensibilities.

The church was founded in the 10th century by Archbishop Willigis, who also was the builder of the initial phase of the Mainz cathedral. It stands on a hill on the western side of the Old City. The present Gothic structure replaced the original building between about 1290 and 1340. The walls and piers however are all that remain of that church. An explosion in 1847 and several air raids in WWII gutted the church and adjacent cloister. Many historic furnishings are removed at that time. Since then the church has been in a nearly continuous state of restoration.

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The most remarkable aspect of the restored church lies in the windows. Marc Chagall was engaged to create them in 1973 when he was nearly 90 years old. Collaborating with with Charles Marq, a long time associate, and Klaus Mayer, the parish priest, he created a distinctly modern set of windows that harmonize perfectly with the 700 year old building. Chagall was Jewish and desirous to provide a work that would heal the wounds of the war and bring Jews and Christians closer together. The result is a set of windows that demonstrates the reliance of Christianity on the history and writings of ancient Israel and celebrates the shared heritage of creation. The windows in the apse are the focal point, depicting scenes from creation, the lives of Abraham, Moses, David and others. The booklet written by Klaus Mayer waxes quite poetic on the windows.

_D6A59351kBeyond the obvious, what struck me was the compatibility of the windows with the Gothic style. Though not geometrically regular, there is a balance to the design that mirrors the balance of the building. The flowing curves and sharp points echo the flow of the multi-shafted piers and pointed arches. The blues lend a peaceful atmosphere and complement the red sandstone. The impact is facilitated by the height of the aisles, which equals that of the central nave and all the windows can be viewed from any location by turning around.

 Chagall originally engaged to provide the windows in the apse, but apparently became so interested in the project that he continued to work on additional windows for the transepts and aisles until his death in 1985. He left sufficient instructions for his associate, Charles Marq to finish the remaining windows. Thus the entire set of windows constitutes a unified whole.

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The organ was being played as we visited, filling the building with sound. The adjacent window cast the entire area in a blue glow.

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The cloister adjoining the church is striking for its intricate vaulting and its leaning walls. Changes in the flow of groundwater over the years have compromised the foundations. Fortunately modern techniques for injecting concrete into the foundation and other modern measures have strengthened the vaults from above.

Throughout the history of Israel, they were instructed to erect memorials and institute festivals to remind themselves of their heritage. St. Stephan’s church functions as such a reminder to our age.

Klaus Mayer, St. Stephan in Mainz, Regensberg 2010, ISBN 978-3-7954-4310-8

Worms Cathedral

The Wormser Dom or Cathedral of St. Peter is the smallest of the three Kaiserdoms (Mainz, Worms, Speyer), though only by a few meters, and it feels darker, moodier. Its Romanesque core sets the tone, but this church has more dominant gothic additions on the south elevation than the other two.

Most churches in this region suffered structural damage and loss of the original furnishings during various wars and shifts in the boundaries of Catholic and Protestant control. In the case of Worms the restorations extended into the 20th century and were set back again by World War Two. Many different approaches have been taken to restoration. At Worms a limited collection of sculptures have been gathered in the nave and aisles, while the main, eastern chancel has been furnished in the Baroque style.

The view below is toward the west with light falling on statues of St. Joachim and St. Sebastian.

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Though each bay of the nave is identical in the first story, the space below the clerestory shows interesting variations. There are several bays with single blind archways above the nave arches, the westernmost bay and the easternmost on the north have only a flat wall. The second bay from the west on the south, opposite the organ has blind double archways. These can be seen below.

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The transverse arches above the nave are supported by different pier configurations on the north and south. On the south, the transverse arches spring from half cylinder columns while the smaller diagonal arches and arches over the windows, spring from a rectangular shaft behind the half cylinder. On the north there is a second rectangular shaft behind first that separates the springing of the window arch from that of the diagonal arches. There are also variations in the capitols.

There is apparently no documentation as to why or how this occurred. Such variation in many cathedrals is due to changes in technique or style over long periods of time, but the nave here was built between 1160-1170, so time does not seem to be the main factor. My pet theory is that the bishop was nearsighted and the architect took advantage of this to experiment with different techniques.

To my eye, the view toward the west is most pleasing. That is to say the western chancel seems more consistent with the clean lines of the nave, yet it still provides an attractive focal point.

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The eastern chancel is filled with gilded Baroque furniture and is quite eye catching, but it strikes me as clashing with the building as a whole.

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The north aisle wall preserves a number of sculpture panels that were moved here when the adjacent monastery was demolished. The windows above them are modern and the rectangular designs clash a bit with the ancient setting.

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The south aisle was augmented with a number of gothic chapels in the 14th century. The strong red and blue of the windows in the large Nicholas Chapel lends a sense of quiet solitude.

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Variation in design is to be found outside as well as inside. The lower levels of the four staircase towers are similar, but the upper stories vary in height and windows design. This is the west elevation showing different height and window placement in each of the five upper stories. (Renovation seems to be a ‘way of life’ for these buildings, but I do wish they had not placed the containers directly in front.)

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The north elevation once had an elaborate imperial entrance and a cloister that were destroyed, apparently in 1689. The western retains the outlines of damaged stone around the present doorway. In a couple places a rough patch or perhaps the rubble fill of the main wall is exposed. The eastern doorway which had been the imperial entrance was refurbished.

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For further information, see:

The Cathedral of St. Martin, Mainz

Dominating the Skyline

The Mainzer Dom or Cathedral of St. Martin looms over the relatively small city of Mainz. The staircase towers on the east, shown below, date to 1009. The  east choir and nave were complete by about 1137. East Front

Though the building has too often suffered from fire, neglect, war and now the ravages of modern civilization, it remains in use as a center of Christian worship. As a point of comparison, by the time the Roman monuments were 1000 years old, they were ancient ruins, looted for their stone and their original purposes of little interest to the new residents of Rome. In addition to its age, the size of the building is hard to grasp. It is 109m (357ft) long and the nave is 28m (98ft) high. With the aisles the church is 32m (104ft) wide. Though a bit smaller than its Gothic successors, it till whelms the senses. Western Dome

The core of the building is in the Romanesque style, marked by round arches and heavy, thick, flat walls. The windows are small, letting in but little light. The overall effect has been considered gloomy, but I’m not sure that gives proper credit to where this style fits in the development of architecture. If one had never seen a gothic church, with its skeletal frame and glass walls, this would seem spacious and light enough. Beam of Light

The blind arcade between the nave arches and the clerestory windows, which is adorned with paintings from the Gospels, was an innovation at the time. Triforum and Clerestory

The original building had a flat ceiling. The ribbed vaulting was installed in the late 12th century. This innovation seems to have come late to the Rhine churches. Such vaulting was already in use as early as the 11th century in England. The half-cylinder columns added to the inside of the rectangular columns support the vaults. Ribbed Vaults

A number of german churches built in this time period had chancels/apses on both the west and east ends. In the case of Mainz the more elaborate chancel, is in the west and the pews face that direction. West Chancel

The Romanesque core has been obscured somewhat by later accretions. Numerous monuments and decorative additions come from the high gothic and baroque ages. The transepts especially have numerous memorials in later styles (note also the early 21st century push-broom resting against the column in the background). _D6A5852

Chapels, funded by noble patrons who wanted to memorialize themselves, were added in the 13th century with large gothic windows, seen from the cloister in the image below, but many of these are shaded by buildings around the cathedral and do not add much light to the interior. This issue of patronage also gives one pause to consider the mixed personal and religious motives of donors.Cloister and Gothic Windows

Still today there are further additions, including a number of modern colored glass windows that to my eye clash a bit with the older elements. _D6A5701

Most other large churches from this age in western Europe were replaced at one time or another with newer, gothic structures. Together with Speyer and Worms, this church is a special representative of an important architectural style and a testament to the faith of those who built and rebuilt it.

Information Sources:

  • Ernst Gall, Cathedrals and Abbey Churches of the Rhine, NY,  Abrams, 1963
  • St. Martin’s Cathedral, Mainz, ISBN 978-3-7954-4383-5
  • http://www.mainz-dom.de