Blog WHS Visits

WHS #698: Naumburg Cathedral

We all know about the bumpy road the Naumburg Cathedral had to take to get placed on the List. I decided not to look back on that episode, not to even prepare my visit and just take it at face value. I visited it on ‘Holy Saturday’, the day before Easter. I drove all the way there, 620km from my home, just for my 698th tick!

Naumburg an der Saale lies in the former GDR. This may be the main reason why this cathedral wasn’t proposed earlier – the GDR did have a Tentative List, but came late to the scene in nominating anything. It wasn’t until after the reunification in 1990 that Potsdam as the first former East German site was placed on the List. Naumburg itself still isn’t really on the beaten tourist track, although on the sunny Saturday when I was there both the town and the cathedral were well-visited by Germans.

The cathedral lies a bit outside of the historic town center. With its 4 towers and irregular shape it is already an attractive sight. Admission costs 6.50 EUR plus another 2 EUR to be allowed to take photos. This policy also is emblematic for what the former cathedral represents nowadays: more museum than church. It is owned by a foundation and does not receive money from church taxes or public funds.

Of course I thought “I have already seen so many cathedrals, what more can this one add”? Naumburg does stand out though as a niche site for medieval church architecture: it has preserved its lay-out and design from the 13th century. So it is a much more authentic experience than the many cathedrals that have organically grown over the centuries. One of its oddities is its duality:

  • It has two sets of towers, each set covering its own choir structure. So from the entrance – which is to the side – there is a choir plus altar to the right and a choir plus altar to the left. Both choirs are hidden behind rood screens. There’s a bunch of chairs in the middle for regular churchgoers, but they do seem irrelevant.
  • It has been a simultaneous church for quite some time after the Reformation: so Catholic and Lutheran services were practiced in the same building, albeit in different corners (and probably not at the same hour).

The original features include the two rood screens, a common feature in the Middle Ages that has become obsolete in more recent times. The one in front of the west choir has polychrome biblical sculptures by the Naumburg Master. When you walk underneath the arms of Jesus into the choir, you’re surrounded by the 12 lifelike images of the founders of the church. Especially the sculptures showing the two founder couples are fascinating.

The east choir does lack great sculptures but has some nice woodwork. And I discovered a bit of historical graffiti here from 1689 at the foot of the stairs climbing up to one of the towers. Apparently there is more graffiti carved into the wooden benches.

The nicest part of the cathedral complex lies actually just after the entrance, in the main church. You can also visit the cloister and the garden, buy something in the museum shop, watch an interesting video and descend to the Treasury. The latter is an exhibition space where there are even more statues of the Naumburg Master that once stood in the church. Certainly worthwhile, if only for the sculpture of the severed head of John the Baptist presented on a scale.

Els - 28 April 2019

Leave a comment