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A trip to the past: romanesque architecture in and around Helmstedt

Romanische Eingangstür von einem großen Gebäude (Copyright: Maria Eiselt)

Information: The Helmstedt region is a paradise for admirers of Romanesque architecture: the spires of the Imperial Cathedral in Königslutter can be seen from afar, there are textile treasures in the Mariental Cistercian Abbey, and you can experience nature from biblical times with all of your senses in the biblical garden of St. Lorenz in Schöningen...

When the emperor’s body was returned to his hometown, the project that was close to his heart, the Imperial Cathedral, was still a building site. Lothair III died in 1137 at the age of 62 on the way back from a campaign in Italy. Two years before, he had converted a house of canonesses located next to the stream in what was then the village of Lutter into a Benedictine abbey. The emperor had a monastery church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul built on the walls of its foundations. This church, which to this day is named Kaiserdom (Imperial Cathedral) after its founder, was set to be the final resting place for him and his family. The construction project was suitably large and extensive; its length of 75 metres and an interior height of 18 metres were gigantic dimensions for the time. It took decades until the construction of the church was completed during the reign of Henry the Lion in 1170.

Imperial Cathedral
The style of the Imperial Cathedral in Königslutter is reminiscent of famous italian architecture. (Photo: Holger Reichard)

Italian architecture in the heart of Germany

The style of the Imperial Cathedral in Königslutter is reminiscent of famous Italian churches, such as the cathedrals of Piacenza, Verona and Modena. Builders and stonemasons from Lombardy clearly worked in Königslutter. The north and west wings of the cloister, which have survived the ages, are particularly worth seeing. The older north wing, with its richly adorned pillars and capitals, is one of the most beautiful of its kind in Germany. Emperor Lothair, his wife Richenza and their son-in-law Henry the Proud rest in the Baroque tomb in the nave of the imperial cathedral.

A centre for pilgrims – to this day

Emperor Lothair had his church adorned with a variety of relics. The Imperial Cathedral thus became a place of pilgrimage, with a significance that extended far beyond the region. Pilgrims from Lübeck and Lüneburg, Thuringia and the Rhineland came to the monastery near the Elm range each year on 29 June, the feast of the church’s patron saints. Today, the Imperial Cathedral is a destination for very modern pilgrims and culture lovers: during the warmer months of the year, a diverse range of church and cultural events awaits visitors, with a focus on spiritual and secular music. Particular highlights include the concerts on the large organ built in 1892.

Pipes, timpani and glockenspiel

The interior of the Imperial Cathedral in Königslutter received its current appearance at the end of the 19th century. Besides the magnificent paintings, the large symphonic organ built in the romantic style and located in the gallery is particularly worth seeing and hearing. The work by the Furtwängler & Hammer organ company from Hanover took from 1892 to 1895. The mighty instrument has over 44 stops, which can be played via three manuals and one pedalboard. All in all, an organist playing this organ can produce sound with an impressive 2,136 pipes. The organ was completely dismantled from 2008 to 2010 and renovated from the bottom up. Certain conversions and changes from earlier years and decades were reversed in the process. As a result, listeners today can once again experience organ concerts with the symphonic sound that the builder had in his mind and in his ears over 100 years ago.

It’s also worth noting that the cathedral cafe houses an interesting collection of mechanical musical instruments. Here you can find 250 outstandingly preserved musical instruments, from the tiny, 15 x 15 millimetre music box and the automatic string trio, to the 12-square-metre carousel organ with timpani and glockenspiel, which can also be experienced in action as part of an informative and quite humorous tour. Public tours are available at 3 p.m. on Fridays and at 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Ascents and descents in and around Helmstedt

The Imperial Cathedral in Königslutter is one of the most important Romanesque buildings, both in Germany and internationally. However, it’s by no means the only stony witness from that era that is worth visiting in the Helmstedt region. For instance, a few kilometres to the north of the district town, the former Zisterzienserkloster Mariental – a Cistercian abbey which was also built in the middle of the 12th century – invites you to take an evocative trip back to the Middle Ages by visiting its Romanesque and Early Gothic buildings. Marienberg Abbey was founded on a small hill in the town of Helmstedt shortly after the completion of the Imperial Cathedral and was intended to serve as the direct successor to Mariental Abbey. The building is a Romanesque cruciform pillar basilica with a wood-beamed ceiling that isn’t overly high. The west wing was originally intended to have two spires. However, they only reached the height of the nave and the west wing was then completed with a tower fragment. Stained glass from around 1200 has been retained. Since 1862, the abbey has been home to a vestment workshop, in which textiles for church interiors and use during Protestant services are skilfully made, repaired and restored by hand. A rich collection of these textile treasures is open for viewing by visitors.

Mariental Cistercian Abbey
The former Mariental Cistercian Abbey with its Romanesque and Early Gothic buildings. (Photo: Thomas Kempernolte)

Heaven, hell and fragrant lilies

St. Lorenz Monastery in nearby Schöningen is simultaneously older and younger than the abbeys in Königslutter. It was founded in 984 as a house of canonesses, and refurbished as an Augustinian canons’ abbey in 1120. However, very little remains of the original Romanesque construction, such as parts of the choir and the transept. Following their destruction in the 15th century, the nave and westwork were rebuilt in the Gothic style. In the extension to the nave, there are two richly adorned rooms that have always been known as ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’.

Visitors can find a very special place to spend some time and meet people on the adjacent church site: in the biblical garden, the landscape through which Jesus and his disciples travelled can be experienced with all the senses. Many plants that are mentioned in the Old and New Testaments grow, blossom and thrive here. The scent of lilies mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount fills the air over the fields and under the Lower Saxon sky – and here, between two Gothic tracery windows, the cedar of Lebanon known from Psalm 92 grows in the protective warmth of the old church wall.

biblical garden
The landscape in the biblical garden can be experienced with all the senses. (Photo: Thomas Kempernolte)

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