Under the Ottonian kings and emperors, Merseburg gained far-reaching importance. In 968, Otto I (the Great) founded the Bishopric of Merseburg, which was consecrated to Saint Lawrence, in accordance with an oath he swore before the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. The Merseburg Cathedral of St. Lawrence and St. John the Baptist was built onto the existing Johanniskirche. The bishopric was dissolved in 981, but re-established by Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor, in 1004.
The Merseburg Cathedral of St. John and St. Lawrence is today considered one of the most important cathedral buildings in Germany, and 1,000 years ago was the favourite place of the only canonised imperial couple, Henry II and Cunigunde. None other than Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg, one of the most famous chroniclers of the Middle Ages, laid the foundation stone for the construction of the cathedral on 18 May 1015. Emperor Henry II was present at the consecration on 1 October 1021 and bestowed great gifts on the Merseburg church.
The porch, or narthex, dates from the first half of the 13th century and was originally an extension of the nave. The character of the basilica of the old cathedral can still be seen today. The porch has undergone many changes over the centuries, such as the construction of the exceptional vault – known as a rib vault – in the 16th century. The seven medallions along the centre of the three early-Gothic windows above the main portal, which date back to around 1260, are a fine example of medieval stained glass.
The late-Gothic nave contains many impressive features, including the remarkable net vault. Standing in the middle of the nave, looking back at the main portal, one is overwhelmed by the sight of the monumental Ladegast organ in its Gothic surroundings.
The long rows of benches in the side aisles of the nave are particularly remarkable. The backs of these rows of seats are crowned by carved foliage and crenellations. Further imaginative design elements include depictions of the main patrons John and Lawrence on the side panels of the pews in the western part, and the two founders on the eastern side panels. Henry and Cunigunde are each carrying half of a model of the cathedral.
The richly decorated oak pulpit is also extraordinary. The pulpit was built around 1520, and the sounding board only in the Baroque period. It is decorated with Madonna and Child, Lawrence with the gridiron and the Four Evangelists: Matthew with the angel, John with the eagle, Mark with the lion and Luke with the bull. Luke is painting the Virgin Mary, who appears to him as a half-concealed figure in the clouds. According to tradition, he was not only the author of the Gospel of Luke. He is also depicted as a painter and as the first iconographer, and is said to have been the first artist to portray the Virgin Mary.
In the middle of the northern transept wing, the Bischofskapelle (Bishop’s Chapel), lies the tombstone of Thietmar of Merseburg. Thietmar, who was descended from the house of the Counts of Walbeck, became Bishop of Merseburg in 1009. He is considered the most important chronicler of the Ottonian period. His chronicle provides first-hand information about the establishment of the bishopric, its dissolution by Otto II and its re-establishment in 1004. The history of the Ottonian dynasty was particularly close to Thietmar’s heart. However, a dedicated monument to the bishop was probably not constructed until the 13th century.
The crypt was built under Bishop Hunold and consecrated along with the new sanctuary and the new eastern towers on 29 June 1042. The entrance used to be on the opposite side of the crypt. Here, you can see the relief of a blessing hand, so those entering were blessed by the hand of God.
Tomb of King Rudolf of Swabia
Rudolf of Rheinfelden (near Basel) was born in the 1020s, and in 1057 he became Duke of Swabia. As part of the disputes between King Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII (Investiture Controversy) and the Saxon opposition of princes, Duke Rudolf was elected anti-king in Forchheim in 1077. In these two interlinked conflicts, Rudolf of Swabia also had the support of the Saxon bishops, especially Werner, the Bishop of Merseburg. His opponent, King Henry IV, had deprived him of the Duchy of Swabia in 1079, which led to the decisive battle at Hohenmölsen on 15 October 1080. Although the anti-king’s troops were victorious, Rudolf of Swabia’s right hand, the hand of oath-taking, was cut off. The opposing side regarded this as a judgement from God, especially since Duke Rudolf died of his injuries in Merseburg a short time later.
The Bishop of Merseburg, Werner, had Rudolf of Swabia buried with the greatest of honour in his episcopal seat in the choir of the cathedral, under the crossing, in front of the high altar. His tomb effigy shows Rudolf with all the royal insignia, which he had in fact never acquired.
Further evidence of the veneration of Rudolf of Swabia is the mummified hand attributed to him, which has been kept in a specially made box since the 16th century. The hand can be seen in the treasury in the south cloister.
The cloister of Merseburg Cathedral was built in as early as 1150. It was first mentioned in documents at the end of the 12th century, when the dean of the cathedral, Berthold, endowed a liturgical lamp that is located there. Originally, the cloister had a fourth wing next to the church. This was removed at the beginning of the 16thcentury, during the course of rebuilding the cathedral.
Since 2008, the Europäisches Romanik Zentrum (European Romanesque Centre) has been located in the east and south wings above the cloister. The rooms below, in the southern cloister, are where you will today find the cathedral treasury with the manuscript and incantation vault.
On the west side, the Wort-Gottes-Kapelle (Chapel of the Word of God) projects into the cloister garth. This chapel dates back to Romanesque times and is thus one of the oldest parts of the cathedral. Today, the chapel is a place of silence and reflection.
Merseburg cathedral close
Cathedral close was the term used to describe the area around a cathedral in which the bishop and the cathedral chapter had jurisdiction. This area was therefore free of the jurisdiction of the surrounding city, which is why in German it is known as “Domfreiheit” (cathedral freedom).
This medieval right of subordination of the clergy to a separate jurisdiction remained even after the Reformation. From then on, the administrator as well as the cathedral chapter exercised jurisdiction in the cathedral close. The curiae, i.e. the residences of the canons as well as the servants of the episcopal court or the administrators, were located in the cathedral close.
The majority of the curiae still preserved today in the Merseburg cathedral close date from the Baroque period, when numerous curiae had to be rebuilt after the Thirty Years’ War. The Merseburg cathedral close extended over Domplatz, Dompropstei, Grüne Straße and Burgstraße.
19th Century to the present
The Merseburg Domgymnasium (cathedral grammar school), which was transferred from the administration of the cathedral chapter to that of the Prussian state at the end of the 19th century, also belongs to the cathedral close. This was connected with the construction of the new Domgymnasium, which still exists today. It was previously housed above the west wing of the cloister. When the school was demolished, the portal was saved and incorporated into the sexton’s house built in 1883.
Since 2004, the Merseburg cathedral close has been gradually revitalised. A shared visitor centre was built for the cathedral and palace, the chapter house was renovated, and a gallery was established in the Nova Curia.
In future, the fountain on the cathedral square as well as the Martinikurie at the south end of the cathedral hill are to be extensively restored.
Since 2008, the European Romanesque Centre has been located above the south and east wings of the cloister. Here, the Romanesque era comes to life.
The Merseburg cathedral close represents a cohesively preserved architectural ensemble in the
Merseburg urban landscape.