“Is he entombed in Carbonite?”
Looking upon the tombstone of Archbishop Friedrich von Wettin, his hands extended outwards, face frozen in time, perhaps my question was lost in translation. Or perhaps my tour guide was not a Star Wars fan (Han Solo was frozen in Carbonite and left with a similar expression in the Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back).
Either way, my joke fell flat and we moved on, as there was much more to see among the intricate stonework and sunlight cast by the large Gothic windows of the Cathedral of Saints Maurice and Catherine (more commonly known simply as Magdeburg Cathedral).
Here, in the architectural centerpiece of Magdeburg, the capital of Saxony-Anhalt Germany and geographic centre of a series of roads that makes up the ‘Romanesque Route’, I embarked on a week of exploring the heartland of historic Germany. Destinations connected to the Holy Roman Empire period became my stomping grounds as I delved into an area often overlooked between the Munich beer halls and Berlin nightclubs.
Do not let the label ‘Holy Roman Empire’ confuse you. “This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire,” satirist Voltaire caustically remarked, “was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Rather it comes from the extent to which Otto the Great, King of Germany and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, extended Germany’s influence over the Slavs and Bohemia to the east and, to the south-west, the Kingdoms of Burgundy and Italy, between 962 and 973. Upon taking Italy, and winning the favour of a pope in need of a powerful ally, Otto was coronated with title of Emperor much like Charlemagne back in 800.
To say that Otto had ambition is an understatement. Through his calculated use of rulers and religion, dukes and clergy, and strategic multi-generational family marriages, Otto succeeded in bringing about control over a vast area in an empire that would last (with significant geographical and influence changes) for almost a thousand years.
Magdeburg is not simply a convenient way to jump into the route given its proximity to Hannover Airport, nor my starting location because it is the capital of the region, but rather it possesses something that others on the Romanesque Route does not: the resting place of Otto the Great. Where best to start but with the man himself?
Although Otto’s grave lacks Carbonite, his marble grave slab is nonetheless interesting given that, as the story goes, it is in fact a recycled Italian marble kitchen counter complete with residual cutting marks. Nor is that the only element borrowed from elsewhere. Common at the time was the importation of foreign building pieces to vest the new cathedral with a sense of authority and spirituality. The mixture of Italian marble columns in Magdeburg Cathedral are a prime example.
With origins dating back to 937 and undergoing significant rebuilding between 1209 and 1362, Magdeburg cathedral evidences an evolving blend of Romanesque and Gothic in its intricate stonework, floods of light from large gothic windows, sandstone sculptures, richly carved choir stalls, renaissance art works, and of course, tombstones and grave markers. It is typical in many cathedrals to find a blend Romanesque soft light, flat ceilings, and small high-placed windows of the 10th century merging with the Gothic high-arched ceilings and large windows that were all the rage two hundred years later.
As I remarked to one tour guide (and rightly eliciting a skewed facial response), the simpler Romanesque is to the dramatic Gothic what, in popular music terms, seemed to be like the early Rolling Stones compared to Nicki Minaj. Roots versus Glam. Simple versus highly produced. But maybe that’s just me.
Although the historic sites along the Romanesque Route are an important draw, other attractions really made the regions worth visiting with offerings sure to appeal to a broad selection of travellers. “Come for the cathedral, stay for the attraction” increasingly became a motto. Thus my choices for Top 5 Attractions along the Romanesque Route, as will be explored in a series of articles over the next five weeks, ended up taking shape within a broader sense of what the city had to offer.
For Magdeburg, I came to visit the cathedral yet it was the eclecticism and energy of the city itself that won me over. Tremendous bombing during the Second World War left an open canvas for reconstruction. A mix of earlier German marketplaces, GDR Soviet block buildings (Magdeburg fell under soviet influence following the war), the Green Citadel (technically pinkish in colour but ‘green’ in environmental terms) designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and recent reconstruction along wide modern streets all invoke a cityscape mélange. Magdeburg is truly a top attraction along the Romanesque Route not simply for Otto and the cathedral but also the dynamic energy and amenities it has to offer.
This is a city not of historic timber-framed homes but a modern city of shopping arcades, bars and restaurants, piazzas, and swaddled with the bike paths, skateboards, and tattoos that come hand-in-hand with a vibrant young population.
Nothing during my stay more highlighted the city’s eclectic energy than did witnessing Theatre Magdeburg perform Rocky Horror [Picture] Show in the public square beside the Magdeburg Cathedral. The juxtaposition of the two signified much of the core appeal of Magdeburg – the old and the new, the rooted and the growing. This is no sleepy stop simply harkening back to an earlier age. Rather it has an underlying throbbing energy sure to appeal to modern-minded visitors.
As I sat in an adjacent park and watched dusk consume the cathedral, listening to the sounds of Rocky Horror, I was left with one lingering question. “What would Otto have thought about the performance?”
Over the next five weeks, join us as we feature our Top 5 Attractions along the Romanesque Route. You are sure to find a hidden gem for your next trip to Germany!