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Let There Be Light

2017.04.22 07:33:15
How were the dark naves and high vaults of medieval churches lit after dusk?

Wax candles were used to fight the darkness. Although expensive, and the potential cause of fires, they were indispensable. The faithful made donations to the churches in the form of such candles so that their houses of worship would be lit
The most impressive method of creating light in the dark was through wheel chandeliers. These symbolized the walls of Heavenly Jerusalem, and were filled with donated candles.
Four medieval chandeliers are preserved in Germany, three of them dating from the twelfth century:

The Barbarossa-chandelier in Aachen Cathedral, recently restored and over 4 meter in diameter. It holds up to 48 candles.

                                                     Barbarossa chandelier

The Hartwig-chandelier in Comburg Abbey, over 5 meter in diameter. It holds up to 48 candles as well.
The Hezilo-chandelier in Hildesheim Cathedral, with a diameter of 6 meter the largest wheel chandelier. It holds up to 72 candles. What a sight it must be when the light of its burning candles reflects upon the walls and towers of the symbolic city.
The Azelin-chandelier (or Thietmar-chandelier) in Hildesheim Cathedral should be regarded as a smaller "sibling" of the Hezilo-chandelier.

For the sake of  completeness: the beautiful wheel chandelier in the Basilica of St. Godehard, also in Hildesheim, dates from the nineteenth century.
Translation: Erik Eising (MA)




2017.03.13 09:34:45

When I heard this word for the first time, I let it roll from my tongue. Just beautiful.

But who or what is it - Covadonga?

It is not shameful not to know, unless you are a Spanish schoolchild.
The answer is important for the history of the country. Near the cave of Covadonga in the mountains of Asturias, a Christian force attacked the Arab invaders around 720, about ten years after the devastating defeat of the Visigoths' army. The commander, Pelagius / Pelayo, member of the ancient Visigothic nobility, became king of Asturias, the first Christian empire after the Moorish invasion, and a Spanish national hero.

Historians struggle with the exaggerated descriptions from both Muslim and Christian perspectives. It was probably  a fight, not a battle. The facts nevertheless are that it took place, near Covadonga, andthat the occupiers were defeated.

The event had a high symbolic significance, even beyond all its military and political consequences. It marked the beginning of the Reconquista, the expulsion of the Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. Whether Pelagius himself had thought this far into the future? It took almost 800 years, until 1492, before Boabdil, the last Sultan of Granada, handed over the city and state to the Spanish kings, without a fight.
Translation: Erik Eising (MA)




In Full View

2017.02.14 18:02:47
Who has not stood shivering in ancient halls, looking at the draughty open windows, wondering how one closed them during bad weather or the cold winter. The obvious possibilities (wooden planks, animal skin, or parchment) would have left much to want in comfort.

Latticework was more solid und elegant. It was already in use in Late Antiquity, as well as during the early Middle Ages.

I first noticed these ornamented openings, made from flat stone slabs and decorated with thin alabaster, in Asturian churches. Latticework could be produced with stucco as well.

Especially on sunny days, the ornamentation creates beautiful effects in church interiors. Even the decorative patterns on the stone slabs themselves are visible.

With this image, one wonders whether the "inventors" of the tracery work of ca. 1200 were inspired by this latticework. The artisans similarly cut ornamental holes in slabs and, with this process, created the predecessors of elegant Gothic tracery.
Translation Erik Eising (MA)



The Lion

2017.01.16 16:59:08
No one who studies the Holy Roman Empire of the twelfth century is able to ignore Henry the Lion (c. 1130-1195). The Welf was the Duke of Saxony as well as Bavaria, and, only second to the Emperor, the most powerful ruler of the Empire. His nickname is already mentioned in contemporaneous sources.
He was ambitious, efficient, and ruthless. His neighbors in Saxony, the Slavs, as well as Emperor Frederick I. Barbarossa, knew this all too well. He additionally had a healthy dose of self-confidence. This is for example illustrated by the copy of a lion monument in front of his castle Dankwarderode in Braunschweig.

This monument, erected around 1170, is worth mentioning not only for its size - art historians consider it to be the eldest preserved full-scale statue in medieval Europe north of the Alps. The sculpture underlined Henry's claim to power. The material used, bronze, emphasized the monument's extraordinary rank.

Yet, the bronze lion could not protect the great man from a deep fall. After Barbarossa had settled his affairs in Italy, he set his eye on Henry. Around 1180, the Duke was ostracized and sent into exile to his father-in-law, King Henry II of England.

His faithful follower, Bernhard II of Lippe, is supposed to have visited him there, after he had fallen into disgrace as well. In the end, Barbarossa forgave both. The Lion nevertheless went into exile anew. Bernhard began a new career, first as a Cistercian monk, subsequently as abbot in Dünamunde, and finally as bishop of Semigallia in Livonia.

Translation: Erik Eising (M.A.)



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A Monk with Back Problems

2016.12.10 15:02:23

Is this not what appears to be represented? He definitely seems to carry a heavy load. Perhaps he groans under the weight of an obese canon.

With this unusual depiction, I would like to draw your attention to the choir stall, an interesting piece of medieval church furnishing.


From the Romanesque period, little has remained. Also from the Gothic period, only fractions have survived. Yet, it is worthwhile to study them. Particularly the misericords underneath the folding seats, which were supposed to alleviate the prolonged standing during the celebration of Mass, frequently feature rich, artful, and often comical woodcarvings.

Depending on the number of monks or canons, as well as the period of production, the choir stall could be modest yet also enormous. Especially during the late-Gothic period, the wood carved decorations could be very rich. The master woodcarvers were often inspired by the stone decorative elements of church architecture, with their pinnacles and canopies. Of the largest original ensembles, only remnants have survived.
Translation: Erik Eising (M.A.)



A Bride with Deficiencies

2016.11.10 10:05:18
The Middle Ages knew great women and female rulers. One of these was Theophanu, Empress and Regent of the Ottonian Empire in the tenth century. For reasons of politics and prestige, Otto I, Emperor between 962 and 973, had sought a tighter relationship with Byzantium, which regarded itself as the heir of the Roman Caesars.

Marriage policy offered itself as a solution. The heir to the throne, the later Otto II, was of a marriageable age. Thus, the court sent a delegation to Byzantium to seek a purple-born bride – that is, the daughter of Emperor Basil II.

The choice fell on Theophanu, not the daughter but the niece of Basil. The disappointment at the Ottonian court was great, despite the precious dowry. Scholars have determined that parts of the bridal gift were incorporated in the pulpit of Henry II at Aachen Cathedral.
                                                  Ambo in Aix-la-Chapelle Cathedral

The court considered to send the girl back to Byzantium. Yet, either Otto I possessed good people skills or he feared a scandal, and Theophanu staid and married her 17-year-old groom. After his death in 983, Theophanu resolutely defended the crown and throne for her three-year-old son against a Bavarian relative who (not undeservedly) was called "The Brawler", and became regent for the later Otto III.
                                          Sarcophagus in St. Pantaleon, Cologne

The Empress died in 991, at the age of 36 or 31, four years before the coronation of her son. She is interred in a white marble sarcophagus in the Church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne.

The likewise well-respected Adelheid, widow of Otto I, took over the regency.
Translation: Erik Eising (MA)



The repainted Saint

2016.10.13 08:57:13
Maurice, the patron saint of the military, infantry, and armorers, is not particularly the most popular saint within the Roman Catholic Church. According to legend, he suffered martyrdom as commander of the Theban Legion in Valais around the year 300, together with thousands of his men.

The devotion to St. Maurice slowly spread North and Northeast, and finally reached the East Frankish Empire, which experienced its heyday under Otto I.

Maurice became the patron saint of the Empire and of the new imperial cathedral in Magdeburg. Together with other martyrs, he stands high on one of the ancient columns in the choir.
All this would not be worth mentioning if the representation of the saint had not fundamentally changed over time. Around the middle of the thirteenth century, St. Maurice – originally represented as a white knight – was changed into a Moor. He allegedly represents the earliest depiction of a black African in post-antique times.
A torso on the southern side of the choir was dated to the mid-thirteenth century, i.e. to the early constructioperiod of the cathedral.

The reason for this change in representation is puzzling, especially since his depiction as a Moor in later artworks – with a few exceptions in southern regions – was maintained.
Translation: Erik Eising (M.A.)



The Saint on the Swing

2016.09.18 14:36:37

 The Vinschgau is a region that offers its guests art treasures and culinary delights amidst beautiful scenery.

For art lovers, the Church St. Proculus in Naturns is a must-see. The history of the structure can be traced back to the seventh century. Its Romanesque and Gothic modifications cannot hide its venerable age.

The "star" of the church, however, can be found inside: the saint on the swing depicted as part of the interior's rich mural paintings. It has been a controversial topic among scholars.

As far as I know, the consensus is that the frescoes are pre-Carolingian and date from the eighth century. They are the oldest mural paintings in German-speaking Europe.

In recent times, the figure has most commonly been identified as Bishop Proculus of Verona, fleeing from his martyrdom.

However, it has also been suggested that the figure represent the Apostle Paul, fleeing from Damascus. A herd of cattle, also depicted on the wall, nevertheless points towards Proculus, the patron saint of animals.
Translation: Erik Eising (M.A.)



The Gem in the Valley

2016.08.29 09:00:51
About 15 kilometers northwest of Caen there is a quiet valley with an absolute gem of Norman architecture, the parish church of Saint-Pierre de Thaon. A murmuring brook, trees casting shadows on the ancient stones, white cows grazing the lush meadows... it is just as romantic as described. The place would actually have been ideal for a Cistercian church, yet the Order did not exist here.


Inside the church, which dates from the second half of the eleventh century, a time during which the famous monasteries of William the Conqueror, Saint-Etienne and Sainte-Trinité in Caen were built as well, a far-flung community met for mass. At its core, the building remained almost untouched. Only the aisles were demolished during the eighteenth century, and the arcades were walled up. Noteworthy are the architectural decoration and the tower.

A good description can be found in:
Musset, Lucien, Romanische Normandie (West), Echter Verlag, Würzburg, 1989

The church was cautiously restored, and excavations are conducted inside. Visits should be possible with an appointment. A group of enthusiasts is trying to preserve this old house of worship.

Translation: Erik Eising (M.A.)



Pendant vaults

2016.07.30 07:51:29

Pendant vaults - in German ungraciously called "Abhänglinge", which might be translated as "dangling vaults" -  are the hanging keystones that normally adorn the highest points of ribbed vaults.
But how many times has it not happened that, at the end of a great epoch, the force for fundamental innovation was depleted. This also happened in Gothic architecture. At some point, the building masters started to try out aesthetic gimmicks.

                                Abbey church, Bath (GB), medieval, copied 19th century
Those who look closely will occasionally also find pendant vaults in German churches. Sometimes they are only hinted at, for example in the form of a knob. There are also vaults that only have a purely decorative function.


                                                               St. Pierre, Caen (F), late gothic
Yet, there is also still another adventurous type: pendant vaults as separate structures attached to the ceiling, and not integrated in the actual vault.

Translation: Erik Eising (M.A.)






Many hounds soon catch the hare

2016.07.21 17:27:34

We don't know whether Nicholas of Verona knew this saying, but hares do play a central role in his famous hunting frieze in the apse of the Kaiserdom in Königslutter.

First, the depicted narrative shows the usual course of action. The hunting dog grabs the hare by the neck and brings the booty to the hunter.
But then, something unexpected. The hunter on the ground, tied up by the hare.

It is not surprising that this scene has been interpreted in different manners. The most popular interpretation states that the image symbolizes the triumph of Good over Evil.

The church itself is a fine example of Romanesque architecture, standing on a hill and covered by old lime trees. The structure is beautifully decorated with sculptures and features a wonderful cloister wing. Actually a Benedictine monastery church, the Kaiserdom is the burial site of Lothar III (ruled 1125-1137) who, after the end of the Salian dynasty, managed to prevent the Staufers grabbing power (see also: the 12th century - the Holy Roman Empire).

The church is well worth a visit. Königslutter is near Braunschweig.
Translation: Erik Eising (M.A.)




2016.07.11 09:24:15


After the Benedictines at Cluny, through their accustomation to praying in beautiful vestments, had forgotten about manual work, the foreseeable reaction was the foundation of a reform order by protesting monks. This happened around 1100 under Robert de Molesme, with the Order that would become known as the Cistercians. Central to the Cistercians stood the primary principle of St. Benedict of Nursia, namely labor.


The white monks were versatile. In response to the prohibition of all forms of sculpture, they treated the stones of their churches with the utmost care. They were great farmers and loved the water. Many Cistercian monasteries were built in solitary forest valleys with ample water. The monks cherished water as a source of energy, as the basis for fish farming, and as a means of waste disposal. And naturally, they needed water for cooking and hygiene.


Fountain House Maulbronn


In their cloisters, the monks built beautiful fountain houses for their ablutions before prayer, such as that in Maulbronn, originally from the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Only the the bottom of the three bowls is medieval, however. Other examples can be found in Zwettl and Heiligenkreuz.


Translation: Erik Eising (M.A.)



Blood and Architecture

2016.05.24 13:28:43


Medieval knights did not tend to thoughtfully stare into the fire of their homely hearths. Fights were to be fought, either on their own behalf or on that of their feudal lords. There were heathens to convert or to exterminate. A lot of blood flowed, mostly that of the weak.

At some point, however, these heroes grew old. The average life expectancy of these men lay between 40 and 60. Even the worst ruffians would ultimately start to think about death, the Last Judgment, and eternal damnation.



Collegiate church at Gernrode


What could they do? There was the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, circumstances permitting. Santiago de Compostella and Rome were possibilities as well.



  Geros sarcophargus


Yet, great and rich sinners, or their confessors, occassionally would get doubts about the proportionality of sin and atonement. In that case, the foundation of a monastery was required.

This was also the case for Margrave Gero (c. 900-965).

To this butcher of Slavs we owe the foundation of the collegiate church of Gernrode. It is one of the most beautiful examples of Ottonian architecture.




Translation: Erik Eising (M.A.)








Cistercians - Forbidden architectural ornaments

2016.04.15 16:06:50


The Cistercians, the Order of Benedictine reform, wished to return to the ideals of St. Benedict by living an ascetic life and actively distancing themselves from the pomp and circumstance of the monks at Cluny, who were Benedictines as well. Both of Benedict's commands, "Ora et labora", were to be adhered to again, not merely the prayer part.


The architecture and furnishings of the churches were to demonstrate humility and modesty. Under Bernard of Clairvaux, strict regulations were adopted: no church towers, only modest ridge turrets, no triforia (walkways), no polychrome interiors - indeed, no stained glass windows -, no sculptures, except for a statue of the Holy Virgin, and no ornately carved capitals.


This all had to be substituted by artisanally high-quality architecture, particularly evident in the meticulous stonemasonry.


Initially, the rules were strictly observed and monitored. Yet, the yearning for ornament was stronger. More and more deviations occurred. Real triforia were avoided, yet they were painted on the wall, such as in Doberan.


Painted triforia Doberan


Ridge turrets were not modest, but opulant, such as in Bebenhausen.


Ridge turret, Bebenhausen



By the early fifteenth century, after 300 years, the strict regulations had been more or less forgotten.





Translation: Erik Eising (M.A.)



"Give us this day our daily mush"

2016.03.12 08:46:09

This might have been the prayer of the majority of people in the early Middle Ages. Bread being served to the upper classes only.


The annual consumption of breadstuffs per person, estimated by experts, varies greatly depending on - for example - region and century. As an average, one may assume 200 bis 250 kg. That means that a major German city, such as Cologne or Lübeck, with a medieval population of about 40.000, required around 8000-10.000 tons per year.


Leaving aside the difficulties producing such an amount - with the conventional methods of that day and a cost/income ratio of 1:4 - the transport and storage required exceptional efforts as well.




Noble landlords, cities and monasteries built storehouses, also called tithe barns or fruit boxes, made of quarry stone or half-timber. Architecturally striking were the long rows of windows for ventilation. The enormous buildings dominated their environment and represented hallmarks for their builders.




The preserved buildings, mostly dating from the late Middle Ages, are interesting examples of medieval civic architecture. They had an important function in the prevention of famine, but also played a role in speculation.




Translation: Erik Eising