Monday, May 11, 2009

Catholic Bamberg: St. Michael's Abbey

Continuing our series on Catholic Bamberg, today we come to what is perhaps my favourite church in the city: St. Michael, the abbey church of the former Benedictine monastery of the same name, which also gave its name to the hill it stands upon. The abbey was founded in 1015, and richly endowed by Emperor St. Henry. The first abbey church was consecrated in 1021 by the bishop of Bamberg and the Archbishops of Mainz and Cologne in the presence of Emperor St. Henry. After an earthquake, bishop St. Otto had a new church built, which he consecrated in 1121. He also reformed the monastery, which is why he is considered the second founder, and he chose to be buried in this favourite monastery of his. The monastery had a very interesting and varied history, which I cannot refer here in full. The baroque rebuilding of the abbey was carried out by Johann Dientzenhofer under abbots Christoph Ernst zu Guttenberg (of the family of the present German Secretary of Commerce of the same name) and Anselm Geisendorfer in the first half of the 18th century. Like Banz, the abbey was dissolved at the Napoleonic secularisation of 1803.
Here we see it from the Cathderal hill (Domberg) opposite to it (as always, click on the picture for large versions):

And here is a view from still farther up, showing St. Michael's to the left, and the Cathedral to the right:

Descending towards it, this is the view you have leaving the church of St. Getreu:

The apse seen from a terrace below:

Entering the monastery courtyard:

Entering the church:

There are so many wonders to behold, but your gaze will perhaps first be drawn up to the ceiling, which offers a singular treasure: an herbarium, depicting 578 acribically exact and botanically determinable plants, mostly medicinal, but also decorative plants, painted between 1614 and 1617, when the new nave was vaulted by Lazaro Agostino after a devastating fire in 1610. The herbarium at the same time, as a "heavenly garden" and resuming a late Gothic tradition, represents an image of paradise. There were similar paintings in Würzburg cathedral and St.Catharine's chapel of Ebrach abbey, but the wealth of images of St. Michael's is unique. Many of the plants have symbolic meaning, especially in the crossing, where all the plants depicted (Passion flower, holly, date tree, vine, mulberry, sweet cherry, pomelo ["Adam's apple"], peach tree, apricot tree, prickly pear, apple tree, bladder senna, olive tree, laurel, orange and plum tree) used to be associated to the Christ's Death on the Cross: e.g., the prickly pear was reminiscent of the crown of thorns, the red juice of the fruits of mulberry and cherry tree of the Precious Blood etc. The depictions are therefore also in relation to the tabernacle of the crossing altar directly below them. Here is a closer look at the ceiling:

The ceiling in the side aisle of the Epistle side, which also gives a nice view of the tiered side altars (dedicated, from back to front, to St. Sebastian, Saints Henry and Cunegond, and the Guardian Angel, with paintings by Scheubel the Elder). To the right, you can see the monuments of the Prince Bishops of Bamberg of the time from 1556 to 1779, which were transferred here when the Cathedral was "purified" in 1836 (more on that in the post on Bamberg Cathedral):

Here is a detail of one of the side altars with an interesting built-in exposition throne in place of the tabernacle:

The splendid pulpit, the last addition to the church from 1751/52:

Now we approach the spiritual centre of the church. Behind the altar of the crossing (the people's altar, when that term had not yet acquired such an odious sound) is St. Otto's altar:

At the back of this altar (to be seen to right of the next picture), in a crypt-like room beneath the high choir, is the tomb of St. Otto:

The tomb as we see it today was carved in 1435/40 of sandstone; it remained untouched in the fire of 1610. The side shown on the picture depicts Saints Henry and Cunegond (whom the monastery later claimed as founders to further elevate its importance, and support its claims to independence vis-à-vis the Prince Bishops of Bamberg) to the left and St. Stpehen to the right. Between them is the opening through which pilgrims crawl to get in closer contact with the Saint who is also invoked against back-ache (and against fever and rabies, against which a special Otto wine was given to the pilgrims at the Otto altar; there are still about a dozen organised pilgrimages per year).

There is also an older figure probably originally intended for the slab, which was carved in 1287/88 and may be of special interest to NLM readers because it shows the full episcopal vestments of that time:

In a glass case beside the tomb are these chasuble, mitre and staff, which tradition attributes to St. Otto. At least mitre and staff appear to actually be from the 12th century:

Being in the company of a seminarian friend of mine, I had the opportunity to go up to the high choir above the tomb of St. Otto (the key for the old gate was quite something to behold in itself). One ascends by one of the stairs which you can see in the photo of the Otto altar above.

Entering the choir, there is a small opening through which one can see the tomb of St. Otto from directly above:

And then one has this simply spectacular view of the choir:

The choir stalls (from 1730; like the choir altar and the side altars in the nave a work of Servatius Brickard, one of the most important carpenters of the 18th century) are the most precious piece of furnishing in this church:

My friend and I had the opportunity to say Sext in these choir stalls with the beautiful usus antiquior Breviary by nova&vetera:

Afterwards, we also were able to have a look at the sacristy, where the old vestments of the Cathedral were brought after they were no longer desirable there. Readers will be happy to know, however, that they are being put to good use as every second Sunday, Mass in the usus antiquior is celebrated in the church. Here is a selection of maniples:

A last, and again rather unique, feature I want to show you is the Holy Sepulchre. Located in a seperate chapel adjacent to the Southern transept, it is the former burying place of the monks. It was redecorated in 1728/30, at which time the littel cupola was added. The very high-quality plaster work was done by Johann Georg Laimberger in 1730. In the aureole above the globe, around which the snake is wound, symbolising his victory over world and sin, Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance would be resereved on Maundy Thursday/Good Friday. Unless there was a special local tradition of which I am unaware, the lace veil which you now see (somewhat surprisingly), would actually have been removed in the earlier hours of the Easter morning, being one of the most popular, paraliturgical ceremonies of Easter.

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

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: