Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Catholic Bamberg: The Cathedral

After our entr'acte visiting Neuzelle Abbey, we resume our series on Catholic Bamberg with what is its ecclesial heart: Bamberg Cathedral, seat of the Metropolitan Archbishop of Bamberg, and one of Germany's most important Imperial cathedrals.

The first cathedral, founded by the Emperor Henry II, the Saint, was seriously damaged by fire in 1081. The cathedral was restored by St. Otto of Bamberg, but after another great fire in 1185, it was torn down and beginning in 1215 a new cathedral was built in the late-Romanesque style under bishop Eckbert of Andechs-Meranien (a brother of St. Hedwig), which was dedicated on the 6th of May - the birthday of Emperor St. Henry - of the year 1237. It is about 309 feet long, 92 feet broad, 85 feet high, and the four towers are each about 266 feet high.

The exterior (as usual, click on pictures for larger versions):

As seen from the old residence in the morning mist:

Now for two famous details on the outside. First, the Portal of Princes, which is the lateral entrance to the cathedral and is only opened for grand processions and the funeral of a deceased bishop: In the tympanum, we see the Last Judgement. Especially interesting symbolically are the statues of the jambs: the Twelve Apostles standing on the shoulders of twelve prophets of the Old Testament.

The statues of the Apostles and Prophets are actually replicas. The originals are in the Diocesan Museum, which is located in the cathedral cloister:

The cathedral as seen from the cloister:

The second detail from the exterior I wanted to mention are the canopies above the statues of St. Peter, Adam and Eve in the jambs of the portal of Adam, which are sculpted as miniature late-Romanesque/early-Gothic architectures. Again, the originals are in the diocesan museum:

And these are the replicas in their original place:

And now we enter the cathedral:

The interior of the cathedral as we see it today needs some explanation. The cathedral was built, as most cathedrals in the German Empire at that time, with two choirs, an east choir for the high altar, and a west choir were the Emperor and his court would assist (remember that the Roman Emperors of the middle ages had no fixed capital, but moved from city to city; actually, Bamberg cathedral is not exactly oriented, thus the east choir is actually east-northeast, and west choir west-southwest). Both choirs are elevated in relation to the nave, with crypts beneath them. The image above is taken from the east choir looking towards the west choir. The high altar remained upon the east choir, with a Cross altar (thus referred to because of its dedication, or as people's altar, because Mass was said there for the cathedral parish) before it, through the adaptation to the Baroque in the early 17th century (after 1611). From that period, we have a painting from the diocesan museum, showing the opposite view, i.e. from the west choir looking towards the east:

In the 1830s, king Ludwig I of Bavaria (whose father Maximilian I had acquired the former Prince-Bishopric of Bamberg in the secularisation of 1802/03) determined that the cathedral ought to be returned to its "original" state. King Ludwig, in the romantic and nationalist spirit of the day, thought the Romanesque (then called "Byzantine") and Gothic styles to be specifically German styles of architecture ("teutscher Baustyl") and hence particularly apt to foster a national identity. To the dismay of the ordinary faithful, the "purification" works began in 1829 and ended in 1837. Everything which was (or was thought to be) a later addition was removed, even the tombs of bishops who happened to have died after the middle ages and whose monuments therefore were not in the "national" style, were mercilessly excised (they were, as we have seen, transferred to St. Michael's abbey). The walls were cleared of all colour, laying bare the naked stone, as it remains until today. While the result is certainly impressive in its stark austerity, already in 1837 the Dean of the cathedral, Friedrich Brenner, called it "all too cold, frosty, uniform and too little corresponding to the splendour of the Catholic liturgy". This impression, of course, corresponds to the fantasy version of the German middle ages en vogue in the Romantic epoch of the 19th century, whereas in the actual middle ages, all the walls were completely painted in vibrant colours, as archeological examinations have since proven. Nothing of this, naturally, can take away from the grandeur of the sacred space that was built to the glory of God in the 13th century.
Further modifications were made in the wake of the postconciliar liturgical reforms. Many side altars were removed. The main altar is now on a newly added platform in the middle of the steps leading up to the west choir (the old high altar, itself a new creation of the "purification" of the 1830s, remains - unused - in the east choir), while the cathedra was moved from the east choir to the centre of the west choir, where it now towers above the new main altar (and hides the papal tomb, about which more below). Here are closer looks at the west choir as it presents itself today:

The east choir with the 1830s high altar; the rather interesting apsis painting was added in 1928:

And now for some of the most important items of the interior. Religiously, these would begin with the relic of the Holy Nail, one of the nails with which the Lord was nailed to the Cross. It is permanently exposed, in its precious reliquary, in the chapel of the Nail, the medieval cathedral chapter house, which is today used for weekday Masses:

Next in religious importance would be the tomb of Saint Henry II, Roman Emperor, and his wife, the Empress Saint Cunegond. The tomb is also artistically significant, as it is considered the masterpiece of the sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider, in whose workshop it was sculpted from Jura marble from 1499 to 1513. Originally it was placed in the middle of the nave, but in the postconciliar reordering it was moved in front of the east choir, where until then the Cross altar stood (you can see the former arrangement in this engraving of the interior immediately after the "purification" of the 1830s, although seen in the other direction, sc. looking from the east choir with the high altar towards the west choir, which after the "purification" almost mirrored the east choir).

Even more important, artistically, is perhaps the Bamberg Horseman on the pillar to the left of the east choir. Having been scuplted around 1230, it is the first monumental equestrian statue since classical antiquity:

Here is one of the bishops' tombs which did survive the "purification", and which may be interesting to NLM readers because of the richness of the medieval vestments of prince bishop Albert Count of Wertheim (reigned 1398-1421):

Another tomb of interest (and of which we will speak in extenso in the next instalment of this series) is the tomb of the Pope Clement II, the only pope to be buried north of the Alps. The statue, sculpted by the same (unknown) sculptor as the Horseman, was originally the slab of the tomb, which remains on the west choir, behind the cathedra:

Previous entries of the Bamberg series:

A Piece of Heaven on Earth: Bamberg

The Church of St. Getreu

House Shrines, Wayside Crosses and Easter Wells

Banz Abbey

St. Michael's Abbey


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