Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina

Saturday. Off to Magdeburg, about 90 minutes and seven euro by bus, or five times the cost for the same time by train. Multiple busses going there every hour—not so many making the return trip. Magdeburg, capital of Sachsen-Anhalt, where the right-wing crypto-facist Alternativ für Deutschland won 24% of the vote in the recent state elections. Formerly in East Germany, and prior to that a fascinating history stretching back 1200 years to Charlemange.

Magdeburg, the city Berliners ask, “Where’s that, exactly?” and when I reply, they go, “Eww, why do you want to go there?” Fascinating history. The Archbishopric of Magdeburg was responsible for Town Law (Magdeburger Recht, developed by Otto I of the Holy Roman Empire in mid-late 10th century, husband of Eadgyth of England, which spurred the urbanisation of much of northern and north-eastern Europe), joined the Hanseatic League in the 13th century (when it was one of the largest cities in the empire, engaging in maritime trade throughout the Baltic and North Seas), was where Martin Luther went to school, (which he hated, and later returned to the city to cause its defection from Catholicism, later still the first major city to publish his works), was repeatedly outlawed and sacked (German Peasants’ War, Thirty Years’ War), had the utter shit bombed out of it late-Second World War, and was largely left to decay by the Soviet and East German governments. (Cheers Wikipedia.) And let’s not forget, also home to the brilliant mediæval scholar, Mechthild of Magdeburg, she of Das fließende Licht der Gottheit.

All well and good, but what’s your interest, Frances? That would be the Magdeburger Dom, otherwise known as Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina, first built by funds from Otto I in 937 (an abby called Saint Maurice, where his wife Eadgyth was buried), and rebuilt after being destroyed by fire into its current monstrous Gothic form over 300 years from 1209 ’til the early 16th century. And Saint Mauritius is the reason I wandered south and west into old Germany. Saint Mauritius, the black knight who appears consistently in mediæval and renaissance art (not as frequently as Balthazar does in Adoration of the Magi), particularly in northern-central Europe and along the Hanseatic trade routes (later in Flemish and Dutch art, and spreading across western Europe and the Mediterranean), had his first known and extant representation in a stone sculpture mid-late 13th century, probably around 1250-70, which currently sits in the Hoher Chor in Magdeburger Dom, opposite his companion Saint Katharina, sculpted by the same artist at the same time.

All that way for one sculpture? Well, there’s not much to see that gets me all thrilled in Berlin Museums at the moment, plus I miss travelling. And turned out it wasn’t just one sculpture, but a museum’s equivalent packed into the cold grey heights of the church.

I went to the church before the museum because I erroneously thought there’d be not much to see in the former—and conversely plenty in the latter (wrong twice, Frances), and the church closes at 4pm. I’d rolled out of bed kinda late and didn’t even have arse on bus until midday, all a bit rushed and impromptu. I get to the museum and the front door’s closed. Tourist busses though, so I wander that-way-wards, and find the side entrance. Which is the main entrance, because Archbishop Ernst II. von Sachsen has been using the main, west entrance for the past half a millennium as his personal grave, the Ernstkapelle—and it was he of whom the lovely old woman at the info desk, when I asked if it was possible to get into the Kapelle (there’s a huge St. Mauritius statue in there) said with pursed lips, “…und Ernst, er war ein echt Judenhasser!!!” loud and clear for half the church to hear.

I’m still outside though, cos on the left pillar above the door is one fine Saint Mauritius. On the right is an equally fine St. Katharina, and I’m remiss here in not giving equal attention to them both, because here’s a church that from the early middle ages had a black man who was both knight and saint, and a woman who was a great philosopher, orator, martyr and saint (whether or not she existed, and whether or not the veneration of them both is of individuals more fictional than real) as the two to whom it was dedicated.

Renovations have been going on since 1983, with a new organ, and other bits and pieces, but despite it being in relatively good condition, it urgently needs the kind of work Vienna’s Votivkirche has undergone in the last decade or so. Inside then, and more Sts M and K. So very many. What I was completely unprepared for. (Also so cold. And huge, fucking gargantuan and cold and airy and light.) He’s everywhere. I’ve never seen such a concentration of works of art depicting him, so many it’s as if to the church (the city, state, Germany) it’s unremarkable, “Oh yeah, we have a few bits and pieces of Morrie from the last millennia or so, it’s not so unusual, is it?” Why yes, yes it is. The face and patron saint of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, representing the church, eastern colonisation for hundreds of years, is a black knight (and that latter ranks him at least as lower nobility). It’s radical as fuck, and why I love mediæval history so much.

I’m inside, wandering past all the altarpieces, Domherren Epitaphs, the majority are stone—there’s no captions though and while some of them have details that can be found around the internet, more than a few I have no idea, so unlike usual, most of the photos have no canonical or otherwise title nor date. The church does have a small catalogue, which is probably the best primary source.

Some of the more exquisite pieces: the small Herrscherpaar. The Royal Couple, Edith of England and her husband, Emperor Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, which resides in the sixteen-sided chapel and dates from around 1250, still early-mediæval in its upright, vertical, symmetrical style, though breaking with this as they lean slightly together. As with all the works, it’s dusty and and a little beat up, nonetheless, any museum would rightly have this as a centrepiece.

The Gleichnis von den klugen und törichten Jungfrauen in the northern Paradiespforte from around the same time, 1240-1250, on the left side above the entrance, Der fünf klugen Jungfrauen, and on the right, Der fünf törichten Jungfrauen. Besides the beautiful stonework, draping fabrics, generally remarkable works in their own right, the faces, tragedy and comedy, the foolish ones so miserable, the virtuous ones so smug. Gloriously funny now, but it must have been such an oppressive dictum to women at the time.

More Saint Mauritius. Occupying the left lower pillar of a Domherren Epitaph in fine armour with banner, sword, and Imperial Eagle at his side. In another one, he’s tiny, hiding in the central pillar behind the Domherr, leaning on his shield. On the Alabaster-Kanzel (I think by Christoph Kapup in 1595-97), the huge, multilevel pulpit, this time looking rather jovial and jaunty, massive baroque shield, a sash across one shoulder, banner raised high and his name in gold lettering: S. Mauritius. Preciosa In Conspectu Domini Mors Sanctorum. Eius. Psal. 16.

And many, many more beautiful works. All fine, but where’s the Saint M I came here for? I’d scuffed my way around most of the church, hadn’t seen him, scuffed into the Hoher Chor, the chancel up the back, past the choir banks, looked right, and there he was, all quietly majestic and really not so big. He flanks the entrance to the outer ring of the chancel and faces St. Katharina on the opposite side. As I’d said earlier these two works are by the same artist and certainly made together to be displayed together (with his legs they’d be almost the same height), representing as a unity the Magdeburger Dom. St. Mauritius is predominately documented, discussed, represented in isolation—it wasn’t until I saw them both I even knew about her position in this church, let alone that this artwork is in fact a couple, the two of them together. So as much as I’m all enthusiastic for St. M in my photos, she’s just as important, and his representation in this work cannot be understood separate from her.

There he is then, about human size, on a plinth that puts the top of his head near 2 1/2 metres. He and St K both look down from there, making eye contact. There’s no artificial light here, outside is grey, it’s all a little dim, dusty, colourless. On both flecks of the original polychrome remain, his a deep, rich green and gold with red details, hers cerulean blue for her dress, red and gold on her cloak. Both have the initials H. L. carved into their foreheads, on him later overpainted. Of the two, her face is more generic, typical of representations of the time, it could be a model stood for her, the shape of her eyes, her nose and mouth both show individualism, whereas her eyebrows and forehead are stylised, so equally possible there’s no person behind this work. His face though, either the artist had very good sketches to work from, or had a model to work with, because there’s no way this was just making up what a Germanic artist in the early middle ages imagined a black person to look like. Just as with Peter Paul Rubens’ Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor there’s no fantasy here. Except for in their eyebrows and foreheads which are very similar.

Over his green, knee-length tunic he wears long-sleeved chain mail, mail gauntlets and hauberk, and an apron with belt and rivets. On his left hip hangs a sword, his wrist guarding the hilt; his left hand held a banner pole, now lost, and under his forearm a dagger is sheathed. He’s missing his legs (I looked up his tunic to be sure—the detail continues there), and the outside of his left upper arm is shaved flat, possible where his shield was affixed (one central pin hole is visible, though no matching straps or grips can be seen on his torso). As with St K, most of the original polychrome is gone, along with part of his nose. The paint on his face is actually black, unlike St K, it looks like he’s been overpainted at least in places since the H.L. was carved, though his lips and hers are another match.

Edit: I was thinking about this absent shield again, and looking at his left hand, now think there is evidence of what might be the grip, or the body of the shield itself. It’s not unusual in sculpture for delicate elements to be connected directly to the body, a hand appears to be outstretched, but the underside is a solid block. This is what I thought was going on with his left hand. Yet on the St K sculpture, there’s far more delicate hands that are clearly carved clear of her dress, and the rectangular block under St M’s hand doesn’t conform to the shape of his gauntlet. He always holds the banner in his right hand, and often supporting the upper edge of his shield in the left while it stands on the ground, but his left hand isn’t in the correct orientation for this, which leaves the possibility the shield was created separately so the detail of his arm, hand, sword could be carved, and then the shield affixed to his left upper arm after, or in his original setting (and St K’s with her wheel), his upper arm was shaved to fit him into the scene. (End edit.)

Maybe also to say, in the last couple of years I’ve seen and photographed thousands of works of art, mediæval or otherwise, and quite a bit of that rare, profound, estimable; more than once I’ve been left breathless, and often—regularly—been wordless in joy. In all of that, I’ve never seen anything like Saint Mauritius. It—he is unique. Even among all the other representations of St M, this one, the first we know of, is like nothing that came before or after. It’s incredible, and sits not in the Louvre, or some other national museum in the capital, but in small, sleepy Magdeburg in the church for which it was made 800 years ago.

And a small addendum to that, there is one other work that matches Saint M more than first glance reveals, and that’s Saint Katharina opposite.

I spent a long time with the both of them before venturing into the cloister and gardens. It would be glorious here in summer. And as I left, I saw on the main, west entrance Saint Katharina between the doors, and far above her at the apex, again, Saint Mauritius (as usual missing his banner).

Some photos!