27 September, 2009

Saturday 19th July 2008, St. John’s Cemetery, Nuremberg, Germany

After leaving Prague (which remained relatively unaffected by the black death in the mid fourteenth century) for Nuremberg I came down with some kind of sore throat.  The time on my watch was 13:49, and my diary entry for the day read:  "Woe is me of the Euro in the neck gland".  I was in Nuremberg and I'd contracted the plague.

The black death was to visit Nuremberg on at least fourteen separate occasions between 1349 and 1508, with 5500 (or a quarter of the population) dying during the outbreak of 1462-63.  Not only did the average Nuremberger have to fear the ashen buboes, simply surviving until adulthood was an achievement.  In the sixteenth century, the average life expectancy of a Nuremberger was around thirty to thirty-five, but such a low figure can be attributed to the high level of infant mortality, as an average adult could expect to live until their mid fifties.  It is therefore hardly surprising that those living in the late-medieval and early-Renaissance periods were constantly reminded about death.

Nuremberg's original cemetery was located immediately to the north of St. Sebald's Church and was used up until 1516 when - with the support of Emperor Maximilian I -  it was decreed that anyone not considered notable should be buried outside the city.  The existing cemetery of the village of St. John's (a short distance to the west of the old city) was chosen as the new site.  St. John's cemetery began as a leprosarium - referred to as early as 1234 - and was initially divided into three burial sections:  lepers to the south, plague victims to the west and villagers to the north.  That plague victims were originally separated from general burial perhaps indicates a fear of contagion.

Indeed, the fear of plague contagion was a contributing factor in the decision to move cemetery outside the city, though as the city grew, the relatively small area available for burial must also have played a role.  Nevertheless, due to pre-Reformation fears of purgatory and the need to aid the salvation souls of the dead, the moving of the burial sites met with some opposition.  This may in part account for the commissioning of Adam Kraft's stone reliefs dedicated to the Seven Stations of the Cross, completed in the early part of the sixteenth century.  The reliefs led the way from Nuremberg to St. John's Cemetery and would have served as a reminder of the salvation achieved through Christ's death on the cross.

In 1528, the notable remains of one Albrecht Dürer found their way into a burial plot in St. Johns, indicating that even those of importance were now buried outside the Nuremberg city walls.  It is interesting to note that the majority of the graves - including that of Dürer - contain multiple occupants, many completely unrelated by birth.  Clearly the new cemetery became plagued by limited space, just as the earlier cemetery outside St. Sebald's Church had been.  Furthermore, what was once the new cemetery is today well and truly within the bounds of the city of Nuremberg.  And so the cycle of life and death continues.

Thankfully my plague was cured by some particularly powerful German pseudoephedrine.

Wednesday 16th July 2008, Stadtbibliothek, Nuremberg, Germany

Nuremberg's Stadtbibliothek (or city library) was established in 1605.  The collection is currently housed within the Pellerhaus, a former patrician family residence, however the collection was only moved after World War II when the reconstruction of Nuremberg began.  Prior to 1945, the collection was kept in a former monastery, both the building and the early collection having been obtained by the council after the Reformation was introduced to Nuremberg in 1525 and the monasteries were dissolved.

Exhibited in the ground floor foyer are examples of the work of Johann Neudörffer the Elder (born 1497), a writing master - famous throughout Germany - who worked in Nuremberg in the early to mid sixteenth century.  What is particularly interesting about Neudörffer and his craft is that he rose to prominence during an age when the demand for written manuscripts had experienced sharp decline.

The invention of the printing press is commonly attributed to the year 1450, with the press being introduced to Nuremberg in 1469.  By the 1470s, the number of hand-written manuscripts in Nuremberg declined rapidly which put a number of "writers" out of work.  As a result, many turned to private tuition.  However, Neudörffer is famous for the "writing handbooks" he produced in the mid sixteenth century, notable in the development of "fracture script" (German cursive script based on early medieval script).

Indeed, the art of writing clearly endured, if not merely for the production of elaborate leading capital letters adorning early printed books.  And in the production of early printed books, few cities could boast a pedigree equal to Nuremberg.  First published in 1493, the Weltchronik (or world chronicle, otherwise known as the Nuremberg Chronicle) was a masterpiece of production, skilfully combining moveable type with specialised woodcuts.  While the Weltchronik marked a revolution in quality printing, it also demonstrated the expert project management of Anton Koberger who - in Nuremberg - went on to establish Europe's largest printing house.

As many as 2500 copies of the Weltchronik are estimated to have been printed, the Latin edition running to 1500 copies with the remainder in German.  Such a publication is certainly worthy of a place in the Stadtbibliothek's rare books room, but due to the importance of the chronicle and the large numbers printed, it is not surprising that copies are to be found as far away as the University of Melbourne.

However, a particular curiosity in the possession of the Stadtbibliothek is a book containing many of the preliminary designs used in the production of the Weltchronik.  One can clearly see a correlation between the book's rough sketches and the printed work, but what is also clear is that much further work would have been necessary for the printer to marry text and image so effectively.  Without doubt, the Weltchronik was a work of much preparation and planning.

Much has been made of the connection between the printing press and the spread of writings such as Martin Luther's ninety-five theses, and so one may conclude that the early introduction of the Reformation into Nuremberg may have in part been influenced by its position as Europe's printing centre.  Certainly the combination of Reformation and printing press was enough to put Nuremberg's monks out of a job, but at the same time providing the Nuremberg public with a library that it still enjoys today.

N.B.  None of the images appearing in this post having anything much to do with the Stadtbibliothek apart from the fact that they're general photographs of Nuremberg.  To see images from the Nuremberg Chronicle, visit the following link:


Tuesday 15th July 2008, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Rothenburg ob der Tauber - while known for its beauty and well-preserved medieval city walls and public buildings - is famous for its legend of the meistertrunk.  In 1631 amidst the thirty years war, the then Protestant city is supposed to have been overrun by a Catholic army under the control of Count Tilly.  In a bid to make peace with the invading army, Rothenburg's Mayor Nusch offered Tilly a large vessel (three-and-a-half litres in volume) of local wine.  So impressed was Tilly by this gesture that he offered to spare the city if someone were able to drink the contents of the vessel in one gulp.  Ever the quaffer, it is said that Nusch duly accepted the challenge and impressively rose to the occasion.

Rothenburg's famous association with wine began much earlier, though in a much more sober fashion.  Contained within a much smaller vessel than Nusch's offering, St. James's church possesses a holy relic supposed to be a drop of the blood of Christ.  From 1446, the relic attracted indulgences (the number increasing in 1455 and again in 1459) making Rothenburg the destination of many pilgrims.  In order to display the relic, St. James's western choir was extended (over the top of the adjoining road) between 1452 and 1471 and incorporated the Chapel of the Holy Blood.

Between 1499 and 1505, Tilman Riemenschneider was commissioned to produce an altar piece (known as the Altar of the Holy Blood) to house the relic.  It is interesting to note that - more than a decade before Luther is supposed to have nailed the ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg - the altar presents us with clues of the forthcoming reformation.

Firstly, the altar was produced relatively cheaply, Riemenschneider and Erhart Harschner (the builder of the altar casing) receiving 50 guilders each, with Riemenschneider receiving a bonus 10 guilders on completion.*   This perhaps indicates a degree of restraint when compared with earlier church spending.  Second, Riemenschneider's limewood sculpture remains unpainted.  The monochrome finish supposedly reminds the viewer of the representative nature of the work, thus discouraging idolatrous worship.  Similarly, Harschner's casing allows the work to be closed-off so as not to cause distraction, although this serves the dual purpose of perhaps making the altar piece appear more remarkable when uncovered.

Despite the attempt at moderation, the altar piece still reminds the viewer of wine due to the intricate vine-like carvings forming Gothic arches.  No doubt this is a reference to the relic housed within Riemenschneider's work; indeed, the work's central scene depicts Christ and his disciples at the last supper.

Of course, no last supper would be complete without bread, and although an Old Testament reference, the eastern choir of St. James's presents a particularly literal depiction of holy bread.  High up in the rightmost stained glass window of the apse, one can view a scene of the story of the Jews wandering in the desert en route to the promised land.  Following the bible assertion that God provided the Jews with manna from heaven, it seems that the window's fourteenth-century designer believed that this must have been in the form pretzels and bread rolls (see closeup).  Certainly, the same foodstuffs are readily available in Rothenburg today, though one would hate to think that the Jews would have had to survive on Schneeballen.**

In comparison, in 1493 Riemenschneider was paid 120 guilders for his statues of Adam and Eve from Würzburg’s Mariekapelle.
** A particularly nasty traditional pastry that Rothenburg ob der Tauber is famous for.

Monday 7th July 2008, St. Sebald, Nuremberg, Germany

Nuremberg's oldest parish church is St. Sebald.  Building began in 1230 on the site of the church of St. Peter, and St. Sebald's was first recognised as a parish church in 1250 with the original Romanesque structure completed between 1274 and 1275.  The present Gothic shape of the church dates from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

One might expect to find artifacts of spiritual significance within Nuremberg's oldest parish church, however, the contents of St. Sebald are perhaps more interesting for their secular connections.  Of particular interest are the various works of art close to the eastern choir where the altar of St. Peter is located, the most prominent being the tomb of St. Sebald.

Surrounding the tomb is a shrine cast in brass.  Initially designed by Peter Visher the Elder, the shrine dates from the 1480s, but was completed by Visher's workshop over several decades with alterations by Visher's sons Hermann and Peter Visher the Younger.  While the shrine is largely in the late Gothic style, Italian Renaissance influence can be seen in the Classical figures - such as Hercules and various putti - that adorn the artwork.  These are largely attributed to Peter Visher the Younger who is known to have visited Italy some time before the shrine's completion in 1519.

While the shrine shows the incorporation of outside influences into Nuremberg, it is also significant because of the figure of Peter Vischer the Elder nestled at the base of the work closest to the altar of St. Peter.  An early example of an fourteenth-century artist-included self-portrait can be found in the triforium of St. Vitus cathedral in Prague, however, such self-portraits begin to become more common in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries and can also be seen in the works of Visher's Nuremberg contemporaries Albrecht Dürer and Adam Kraft.  This is perhaps indicative of the desire of these artists to elevate their status above that of mere artisan.

Indeed, at this time Nuremberg's artisans were heavily controlled by the secular administration (or City Council), which outlawed the establishment of guilds common in other parts of Europe.  This was possible due to the domination of the council by merchant families, who were clearly keen on perpetuating their wealth and power.  Their wealth enabled the commissioning of works such as the shrine of St. Sebald, and as such, the patronage of the objects surrounding the altar of St. Peter - the stained-glass windows in particular - read like a veritable "who's who" of Nuremberg's families.

St. Sebald's church contains some of the earliest surviving stained-glass windows in Europe, many dating from the late 1300s (the Behaim family window as early as 1379).  The survival of these windows may be attributed to Nuremberg's patrician families who were responsible for their upkeep.  Furthermore, by a controlled and early introduction of the Reformation to Nuremberg in 1525, the council ensured that the transition to Protestantism was smooth, thus preventing their destruction by puritans (as was common in other parts of Europe where stained-glass windows were connected with idolatry).

By commissioning or constructing artworks such as those in St. Sebald's, those involved were seen to be "doing good works" by providing holy objects for veneration.  However, through twenty-first-century eyes it is difficult to see beyond what appears to be shameless self-promotion.

Thursday 3rd July 2008, Karlstejn Castle, Czech Republic

Karlstejn castle (or Charles's stone castle) is located 28 kilometres south west of Prague.  Perched high atop a steep-sided limestone outcrop, the castle is endowed with natural defences and commands an impressive view of the surrounding area.

Built under the instruction of Charles IV (then King of Bohemia) over a nineteen-year period, Karlstejn's original Gothic structure was completed in 1348.  When Charles IV became Holy Roman Emperor in 1355, the castle was restructured to hold the imperial treasures (comprising holy relics and coronation jewels).  These treasures were housed in the newly built Chapel of the Holy Cross located at the top of the great tower.

The importance of securing the imperial treasures is clear when one considers the robust defences of the castle.  Indeed, the castle was supposedly attacked only twice, the more significant attack occurring during the fifteenth-century Hussite wars when the Hussites unsuccessfully besieged the castle for seven months.

A reliable water supply is fundamental to the successful resistance of a siege, and it is interesting to note that in order to supply Karlstejn with water, it was necessary for miners to divert a brook to the castle's water tower.  The water tower forms part of the castle's defences, but is situated at what was originally the rear of the building; its apparent vulnerability such that the miners employed in its creation are said to have been fatally relieved of any chance of exposing their secret.  Attention need not have been focused on the great tower.

Regardless of the castle's inhabitant's levels of dehydration, the imperial treasures were extremely well secured.  Firstly, the great tower has its own secondary defences, which include access via wooden walkways that could be burned if necessary.  Second, the stone spiral stairs were cleverly designed to give maximum advantage to the defenders.  Not only was the steepness of the stairs intended to tire would-be attackers, but the right-to-left descending spiral would have allowed defenders to wield swords right-handed, forcing opponents to fight left-handed.  Amazingly, Karlstejn's defences still pose a compelling impediment to a twenty-first-century student in cotton shorts, let alone an amour-clad knight.

Similarly, time has done little to diminish the majesty of the building and the magnificence of its contents.  The Chapel of the Holy Cross is perhaps no less spectacular than it was when consecrated in 1365, its gilded walls adorned with over one hundred original paintings (executed between 1360 and 1364 by Master Theodoric) and vaulted ceiling encrusted with Venetian glass.

Theodoric's paintings depict large-headed (to give a sense of proportion to the view below) Christian Saints and prophets, including several Saint-sovereigns.  Notable among the latter is Charlemagne's portrait, clearly visible on the lower part of the northern wall illuminated by the sunlight.  Such prominent positioning may have served to remind visitors - lucky enough to gain admittance to the chapel - of the ruler's heavenly links.

Admittance to the chapel even today provides one with a sense of awe, so one can only wonder at the effect - considering the formidable castle complex, elaborate access and the then presence of the imperial treasures  - that the Chapel of the Holy Cross must have had upon the fourteenth-century viewer.