Bremen Cathedral

Bremen, Germany

Early history

The first church structure that can be verified on the site of the current Bremen Cathedral was a timber church built by Saint Willehad, an early missionary to the Frisians. The church was built about 789 in conjunction with the creation of the Diocese of Bremen with Willehad as the first bishop.

Just three years later Saxons attacked and burned Bremen and its tiny timber cathedral. No trace of it remains. The see remained vacant for thirteen years until it was reestablished under Bishop Willerich in 805. St Peter's was built as the cathedral church of local sandstone in several stages by Bishop Willerich.

After the sack of Hamburg by the Danes in 845, Bremen became the seat of the combined Bremen and Hamburg Archdiocese under Archbishop Saint Ansgar who held the see from 848 to his death in 865. He was one of the most prominent missionaries to northern Europe and is credited with the beginnings of the conversion of the Danes and Swedes to Christianity. It is believed that during Ansgar's time the cathedral had a central nave and two side aisles with a choir at each end of the nave, a typical Carolingian church form. There was a cathedral school and cloister.

Early in the tenure of Archbishop Adalbrand (1035-1043) the church was in the process of being rebuilt and enlarged, but in 1041 most of Bremen including the cathedral was destroyed by a terrible fire. The fire also destroyed much of the cathedral library. Bishop Adalbrand ordered the building rebuilt in 1042, but died before it could be completed.

The current cathedral

Most of the rebuilding fell to Archbishop Adalbert (1043-1072). The cathedral was rebuilt as a pillared basilica with rounded Romanesque style arches and a flat timber ceiling. Two stubby, flat-topped towers were added to the west front. A crypt was built under the west part of the nave. The building plan was based on the cruciform shape of the cathedral at Benevento in Campania, Italy which Adalbert was familiar with. He also brought craftsmen from Lombardy to make repairs and embellish the cathedral, much to the consternation of local builders and artists. Adalbert ignored the criticism and forced his vision for the cathedral on the local townspeople. On Adalbert's orders parts of the city walls were torn down to provide low-cost stone for the cathedral. Adalbert's short-sightedness resulted in Saxons sacking the city and the cathedral in 1064.

Under Prince-Archbishop Gebhard II (1219-1258) the church was remodeled to reflect the new Gothic architecture that swept across Europe. Because of the scarcity of building stone, the church was constructed in baked brick as were many other large ecclesiastic and public buildings in northern Europe. The flat basilica ceiling was changed to ribbed vaulting that was the hallmark of Gothic church architecture. The towers and front wall of the west front were blended together and a rose window was added. The towers were raised above the roof of the nave although left with flat tops. St Peter's is one of the largest historic brick structures in Europe.

Under Prince-Archbishop Johann Rode, officiating between 1497 and 1511, the basilica style church was further transformed into a German 'High Gothic' style church with an new northern nave.

When the Protestant Reformation swept through northern Germany, St Peter's church belonged to the cathedral district immunity, an extraterritorial enclave of the neighbouring Prince-Archbishopric of Bremen. The still Catholic Cathedral Chapter closed the church after in 1532 a mob of Bremen's burghers had forcefully interrupted a Catholic mass and prompted a pastor to hold a Lutheran service. Roman Catholic Church was condemned as a symbol of the abuses of a long Catholic past by most local citizens and the building fell into disuse and then disrepair.

In 1638 the Frederick II reopened St Peter's as a Lutheran place of worship, while meanwhile all other churches in town had become Calvinist. On January 27 the same year, the south tower collapsed causing severe damage to surrounding buildings and killing eight people. In 1642 a Lutheran Latin School opened at St Peter's. Just eighteen years later, a lightning struck the north tower and burned the roof, which collapsed into the nave destroying the roof. The north tower was quickly rebuilt as a stubby, flat-roofed structure. The south tower remained in its ruined form.

In 1803 the cathedral district immunity with St Peter's, meanwhile an extraterritorial enclave of Bremen-Verden, which had succeeded the Prince-Archbishopric in 1648, was incorporated into the Free Imperial City of Bremen. Its burgomaster Johann Smidt, a devout member of the Reformed (Calvinist) church, confiscated the considerable estates of the Lutheran congregation, arguing it would be a legal non-thing, null and void. The representatives of the Lutheran congregation, led by the cathedral preacher Johann David Nicolai, started to fight for its right to exist. The fight lasted until the congregation's official recognition in 1830, asserted by a majority of Bremen's Calvinist senators (government members) against the expressed will of Smidt. Smidt abused his governmental power to suppress the Lutheran congregation by way of ordinances, confiscation and public discreditation.

By the 1880s the citizens of Bremen decided that the cathedral should be restored to its medieval glory. Money was raised for the restoration of the building and work began in 1888. Reconstruction continued off and on until 1901 when the church reopened. The church was struck by a fire bomb during an Allied air raid in 1943 and damaged repeatedly until 1945 when a high explosive bomb caused the collapse of the roof vaulting. The church was reconstructed by 1950.

Interior

The remaining beautifully hand-carved choir stalls from 1365 may still be found in one of the chapels. The stone baptismal font dates back to 1229 and has been moved to all parts of the cathedral over the years and now rests near the entrance.

The pulpit installed in 1638 was a gift to the people of Bremen from Queen Christina of Sweden, whose troops - in the course of the Thirty Years' War - had already captured the Prince-Archbishopric of Bremen, and aimed at gaining the city too. The pulpit has survived the many catastrophes that plagued St Peter's history and remains in its original location.

Two crypts reveal the lower portions of the original walls and columns of the original cathedral. The crypt of the cathedral contains the bodies of almost ninety graves of bishops, archbishops, and others notables.

St Peter's was the original resting place of St Emma of Lesum, a wealthy benefactress of the church, who lived in outside the city in the early 11th century. When her tomb was opened, her body had crumbled to dust except for her right hand; the one that gave aid to the poor. The relic was moved to the church at Werden.

An unusual 'Bleikeller' or lead basement is located beneath the nave, which even before the Reformation had a reputation as an excellent place to preserve bodies of the dead in amazing form. Eight mummies in glass-topped coffins can be seen there. The displays lists among those on display: two Swedish officers from the Thirty Years' War, an English countess, a murdered student, and a local pauper. The crypt has become the cathedral's most visited attraction for more than 300 years. The cathedral museum was constructed in one of the side chapels in the 1970s cathedral restoration.

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Am Dom 2, Bremen, Germany
See all sites in Bremen

Details

Founded: 11-13th century
Category: Religious sites in Germany
Historical period: Salian Dynasty (Germany)

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