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Thursday, March 3, 2011



Thursday, July 8, 2010



[This section is a continuation of Part I, below]

On July 8, 2010, I traveled to Hildesheim, a city located west of the Elbe River, in Lower Saxony, in the district of the same name, about 40 km southeast of Hannover. I was there to visit the Church of St. Michael’s, one of Bishop Bernwald’s cathedrals. The church contains a treasure trove of Romanesque Art from the Ottonian period of German history. I have reviewed the objects of Ottonian Art in Hildesheim under the rubric of the Romanesque because I believe this to be the overall genus of the style. The Ottonian has been described as a translation of the gentle Byzantine image into German expressive realism (H. W. Janson, History of Art, N.Y. 1971), and to be thereby unique, but there are too many links and overlaps with the subsequent development of the Romanesque for the style to be completely isolated by emphasis on its earliest characteristics in this fashion.


Bishop Bernward

The great church foundations and the great treasure trove of Ottonian and Romanesque Art in Hildesheim are primarily the legacy of Bishop Bernward (ca. 960-1022), an ambitious patron of architecture and art. It is probable that he worked himself as a craftsman and artisan on the brass ornamentation and monuments that decorated his churches. Little is known of the facts of his life, despite the account of his life set down in writing by his student, Thangmar, in the Vita Bernwardi. His time in office fell during the era of the Saxon Emperors, who had their roots in the area around Hildesheim and were personally related to him. During his lifetime, Hildesheim was a center of power in the Empire and Bernward was determined to provide his city with an image that would fit one of its stature. Thus the column he designed for the cathedral was planned on the model of Trajan’s Column at Rome. (See Part III). Bernward was descended from a noble Saxon family and was educated at the Cathedral School in Hildesheim. After 977 CE, he served as scribe and chronicler at the court of Otto II and the Empress Theophanou. Thereafter, from 987/88 to 993 CE, he served as teacher of the young Emperor Otto III, together with the future Pope, Sylvester II. In 993 CE, Bernward became the 13th Bishop of Hildesheim.

Bishop Bernward

The foundation of the church of St. Michael’s was laid in 1010. As early as 1015, the lower church (crypt) was consecrated, the site Bernward had planned to house his tomb, and where he is buried now. (See Part IV). Close to his death, in 1022, he dedicated the church to the Archangel Michael and it is claimed that construction was finally completed in 1033, eleven years after the death of the founder. Bernward was Bishop of Hildesheim from 993 to 1022, and was himself architect and metal-worker. Three other churches besides the cathedral survive in the city from his time or that of his immediate successors, and Hildesheim of all North German cities is richest in monuments of the Romanesque.

Bishop Bernward

In his controversial history, The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler makes reference to the Hildesheim of Bishop Bernward in the context of his “Faustian vision” of Western culture:

Cultures are organisms, and world-history is their collective biography. Morphologically, the immense history of the Chinese or of the Classical culture is the exact equivalent of the petty history of the individual man, or of the animal, or the tree, or the flower. For the Faustian vision, this is not a postulate but an experience; if we want to learn to recognize inward forms that constantly and everywhere repeat themselves, the comparative morphology of plants and animals has long ago given us the methods. In the destinies of the several Cultures that follow upon one another, grow up with one another, touch, overshadow, and suppress one another, is compressed the whole content of human history. (I, 104, emphasis in the original).

Every Culture passes through the age-phases of the individual man. Each has its childhood, youth, manhood and old age. It is a young and trembling soul, heavy with misgivings, that reveals itself in the morning of Romanesque and Gothic. It fills the Faustian landscape from the Provence of the troubadours to the Hildesheim cathedrals of Bishop Bernward. (I, 107)."

Spengler continues:

"Henceforth we shall designate the soul of the Classical Culture, which chose the sensuously-present individual body as the ideal type of the extended, by the name (familiarized by Nietzsche) of the Apollinian. In opposition to it we have the Faustian soul, whose prime-symbol is pure and limitless space, and whose “body” is the Western Culture that blossomed forth with the birth of the Romanesque style in the 10th century in the Northern plain between the Elbe and the Tagus. (I, 183)”

In looking at the works of the Ottonian Romanesque, I believe it is most enlightening to keep in mind Spengler's conception of "pure and limitless space" as a symbol of the Faustian Western culture and its eschatological thrust towards God's ultimate purpose. I suggest it is visible in the ceiling of St. Michael's Church, for example, and in the look towards Heaven of the humble people of Nain, sculpted into the Bernward column.


[click on images to expand their size]

The outward appearance of the Church of St. Michael’s is characterized by its ‘three-tower-motif’ at each of its ends. The two heavy square towers correspond with the two round towers on each of its sides, which are octagonal in the lower region. These towers form an extension of the transepts of the inner church. The ‘three-tower-motif’ duplicated in St. Michael’s used to symbolize the town in the Middle Ages. In ecclesiastical architecture it refers to the heavenly Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation, Chapter 21, 10-13, a motif that can be seen inside the church as well. “10 - And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God . . . 13 - On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates.” (Book of Revelation, 21, 10-13)

The ensemble of the towers conveys the impression of a castle. “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.” [A mighty fortress is our God].

Interior of the Church facing East

As one walks into the interior of the Church from the south, the ceiling immediately attracts all of one’s attention. Above the rather squat columns and arches and the great empty expanse of the wall reaching towards the opening of the modest arched windows in the high clerestory, a richly adorned Heaven appears to float above the vast interior.


Does the ceiling of this Church substantiate Spengler’s definition of the Faustian soul as a thrust, an arrow, pointed towards the “pure and infinite space” that characterizes it? The outward thrust of Spengler’s conception of the Faustian urge to the vast unknown is the arrow into the blue that he conceives as the true spirit of Western culture, originating in the Romanesque. In the ceiling at Hildesheim, that conception is validated. The Heaven of the Christians stretches above and towards a beyond in the East. The entire ceiling moves with the vision of its splendor as the eye is cast forward into the beyond of its chronicle of God’s greatness and of the salvation of Man in the Hereafter. The vision is a narrative: it is episodic, divided as it is in square sections, each moving the eye of the beholder below in a succession of chapters which constitute the genealogy of Jesus, pointing towards the redemption and salvation of Mankind, in a passage from West to East. Ad Oriente Lux.

Designed and executed over the years from 1220 to 1240, according to recent research, the ceiling is painted on oak boards. The comprehensive range of pictures, altogether ninety different scenes that are to be read from west to east, depicts the Tree of Jesse (Jesse meaning Isaiah, father of David, from whose tribe the Messiah was to be born), which is connected with the Biblical genealogical table of Jesus, as stated in Matthew, 1, 17 and Luke, 3, 23-38. “So all the generations from Abraham to David [are] fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon [are] fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ [are] fourteen generations.” (Matthew, 1, 17). The Church linked this genealogy of the family of Christ with the concept of the tree of life from Paradise (Genesis, 3). It is the first genealogical tree. Thus the first main panel shows Paradise and the Fall of Man: Adam and Eve pick the apple from the tree of Knowledge. The second major panel shows Jesse, or Isaiah, on a luxurious bed from which a tree grows, the family tree of Jesus: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” (Isaiah 11, 1).

[“Philippeau. . . . my friends, we needn’t get too high above the earth before all this confusion and glitter disappear and our eyes see only the few broad lines that God intended. There’s an ear to which all this screaming and crying that we find so confusing is a stream of harmonies.” (Georg Büchner, Dantons Tod, IV, v).

Philippeau. . . . Meine Freunde, man braucht gerade nicht hoch über der Erde zu stehen, um von all dem wirren Schwanken und Flimmern nichts mehr zu sehen und die Augen von einigen großen, göttlichen Linien erfüllt zu haben. Es gibt ein Ohr, für welches das Ineinanderschreien und der Zeter, die uns betäuben, ein Strom von Harmonien sind.”]

The central panels (two of them are shown below) depict the Kings of Judea, David, Solomon, Ezekiel and Joshua, dressed in the medieval attire of the Empire, thus celebrating its divine dignity.

In this panel (below), Mary, completely immaculate, is surrounded by medallions of the four cardinal virtues and is shown as a virgin, a woman working with a spindle and a wooden ball. The tradition is that Mary was one of the volunteers in the spinning of the Veil of the Temple.

Eastern portion of the ceiling

The last panel on the East shows Christ as the Judge of the World.

Ottonian Columns: Only two of the original Ottonian columns survive. The rest date from the twelfth century and replaced most of the originals. The Ottonian column is characterized by the cubic capital and the springer, an innovation of the eleventh century. On the springers the names of saints can be seen. Presumably, the corresponding relics were worked into them.

The Ottonian column and capital

One of the surviving Ottonian columns at St. Michael’s

Because the Ottonian capital is shaped in the form of an overturned Romanesque arch, it provides the overall structure of the columns and arch with a look of mathematical and symmetrical precision.

Columns and capitals. An Ottonian column is seen on the right-front foreground of the photograph

The remaining Capitals, some of which are portrayed below, were replaced at the end of the 12th century. Palm leaves, acanthus-leaves and small heads arte typical of these richly decorated capitals. Christian and heathen motifs are intertwined. Above the capitals is a frieze that combines plant ornaments, animals and heads. The abundance of the leaf motifs can be understood as a reference to Paradise.


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