Halberstadt: Bones and Clay in the German Heartland

The second instalment of our journey tracking down the Top 5 Attractions along the Romanesque Route in the German heartland.

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‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ seemed an apt analogy, or at least the first that came to mind. Roaming from room to room in a seemingly unending series of galleries showcasing gold, jewels, tapestries, art works, altar triptychs, and stonework, I quickly lost track of being in the Halberstadt Cathedral (more accurately, the Church of St. Stephan and St. Sixtus) rather than a modern museum. How could so much be jammed into one building? That the cathedral and museum occupied the same footprint but offered so much space truly felt a like a miracle in its own right.

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From the outside the cathedral has the looming and oh-so-impressive presence that comes with its very nature. With roots dating back to Emperor Charlemagne in 804, the Romanesque cathedral blends with an early 1200s to late 1400s Gothic style modeled upon the likes of Notre Dame de Paris.

As impressive as is the cathedral itself, the contents are what really captivate. Halberstadt is not only home to the famous Halberstadter Wurstchen (reportedly the first sausage to be made available in a can back in 1896) it also one of the finest reliquary collections to be found anywhere. This is definitely one of my Top 5 Attractions along the Romanesque Route.

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From gold trimmed skulls to finger bones visibly encased in golden hands to book covers embedded with teeth and gemstones, the reliquaries (that is to say, bodily remains of saints contained in objects that are then used to vest their power upon the faithful) are awe-inspiring even for those with little interest in religious history. Alongside such intriguing relics are a vast number of triptych altars, religious adornments, and, one of the cornerstones of the exhibit, 350 tapestries.

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Impressive as the gold and tapestries are, amongst my favourite pieces are a set of doors that bore a dramatic amount of graffiti. Upon them one finds names and dates from over the centuries, and even a carved heart declaring a couple in love. Such testaments to the lives of regular people making their (albeit vandalistic) marks somehow made the history feel all the more real and, importantly, humanized. These are not just religious relics but items that had their place and time within daily lives, hopes, and dreams. People who simply wanted to leave their mark and managed to do so for hundreds of years.

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Exiting the dim cathedral my eyes struggled to adjust to the sunlight ricocheting off of the bleached white sand of the main square. The hottest day of the year was upon us, and so too was one of the biggest events of the year, the annual mid-summer Ton am Dom (‘clay’ and ‘cathedral’) festival. Assembled in front of the cathedral were more than 50 potters selling their wares in the thousand-year-old public square.

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Vases and mugs, pots and decorative items, swung from their holders as waves of curious consumers explored the colorful ceramics. Friends chatted while leaning against booths in the beer garden. A man of very tall height handed out balloon animals to people of all ages.

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A trip to Halberstadt is made all the better if coinciding with Ton am Dom. And what a great opportunity to pick up a handcrafted German beer stein.

 

 

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