27 September, 2009

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.


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