St. Michael’s Monastery and Church in Bamberg

St. Michael’s Monastery and Church in Bamberg

Michelskirche Michaelskirche Michelsberg Michaelsberg

It was in Bamberg in 1015 the Bishop Eberhard established, with the support of the Emperor Heinrich II, a new Benedictine Monastery dedicated to St. Michael, called Michaelsberg (also Michelsberg), built on a high hill overlooking the town. The organizational structure of the monastery was such that the abbot was under the control of the Bishop of Bamberg. The monks came in the beginning from Amorbach and Fulda.

The first flowering of the monastery took place under the Bamberg bishop Otto in the 1100’s. and continued when Otto was canonized and venerated as a saint in 1189, with his tomb at the monastery. The monastery came under imperial protection after 1251 and thus it achieved a certain amount of independence from the Bamberg Bishop. The important economic underpinnings of the monastery were its large property holdings which included 441 surrounding properties.

The monastery then suffered a century of depredations in a series of wars: The Peasants‘ War (Bauernkrieg) of 1525, the Franconian Margrave’s War (Markgrafenkrieg) and finally through years of occupation in the 1630’s by Swedish troops during the Thirty Years‘ War. The horrors of 1632 to 1634 are captured in a Jesuit account of the Swedish occupation of Bamberg:

On February 11, 1632, after three days of siege, Bamberg fell to General Gustav Horn (1592 — 1657), commander of the Swedish army, and General Wildenstein. The latter instructed his soldiers not to harm St. Martin’s, the Jesuits‘ Church; however, he quartered his troops in their college. The church, sacristy, cloister, refectory (communal dining hall), and capitals served as stables for the soldiers‘ horses. Choir and church stalls were broken up for fire wood. Most of the paintings were spared. The relics were removed, images of saints and crucifixes were destroyed. The organs were badly damaged. Many of the portable objects, notably mental work, disappeared over the next three years since the Jesuits like other religious communities and the laity, had to pay a war tax to the occupiers.

The monastery enjoyed a second flowering in the 1700’s until it was secularized in 1803. At the time of its breakup or divestiture the monastery controlled not a small number of properties in the city and 141 properties in the surrounding communities. The monastery fell under the ownership of the city of Bamberg which moved the almshouse for the poor from the inner city out to the monastery on the hill. Today the monastery is still the home for the city’s old people’s home.

The Cult of St. Michael Around 1000 AD

The 10th and 11th centuries witnessed an extraordinary increase in interest for the Archangel Michael in Western Europe. What explains the rapid growth of his cults during the period, especially in the years between 950 and 1050 when St. Michael’s Church in Bamberg was founded?

Saint Michael was a symbol of militancy for this turbulent epoch, the hothouse years of the crusades, and much attention has been devoted to the place of this archangel in the Christianization of warfare, in particular the carrying of banners with the insignia of St. Michael by the German Imperial forces of the Emperor in the 10th and 11th centuries. This development of sacred militancy is unquestionably one of the principal reasons for the popularity of the saint. Another is the increasing prominence given to St. Michael as a personal protector of every Christian soul. And perhaps some of it also rises from the Celtic tradition in which, during the early Middle Ages, St. Michael was seen as a soul mate, one responsible for conducting each person after death to judgment.

Some historians believe that Heinrich II believed himself to be the so-called Last Emperor, presiding over the end of the world and seeking to restore order to prepare for the last judgment. In 1022, during his third and final journey to Italy, Heinrich II visited Monte Gargano and reportedly had a vision in which he was ministered to by the Archangel and witnessed the apocalyptic Christ ruling in majesty and surrounded by his heavenly court. (Monte Gargano, in southern Italy, was an especially important cult center for St. Michael. For it was there that he appeared in the early sixth century. After the Lombards became masters of the area, they adopted in Saint Michael as their particular protector, and his cult spread rapidly in Italy in the course of the seventh and eighth centuries). Although this episode appears to have been recorded first in the 13th century account from Bamberg, where the Emperor is buried and was prepared after he been declared a saint, it does at a minimum testify to the continuing association of Heinrich II (Henry II) and St. Michael in the minds of the German clerics of Bamberg, and Bamberg remained one of the two great centers of devotion to the Archangel during the Middle Ages.
The Tomb of St. Otto of Bamberg – A Cure for Back Aches

Behind the main altar in St. Michael’sis the tomb of St. Otto. It is still visited by many pilgrims today. It was created in 1443 and is perhaps unique because it has a passageway through it, and believers who bend over and crawl through this passageway are said to be cured of backache. To the left of the passageway’s entrance is the famous polychromatic frieze showing Emperor Henry II (Kaiser Heinrich II) and his wife Kunigunde (Cunigundis) holding a model of the Bamberg Cathedral, the construction of which they had brought about, with its famous four towers. Children may note that the tomb also has the only colored carving of a dragon in all of Bamberg.

Otto had to play the role of a skillful diplomat and politician during the Investiture Controversy between Emperor Henry IV and papacy, during which he remained loyal to the Emperor. As a consequence he was removed from his post by papal representatives at the synod of Fritzlar in 1118, but he soon regained his place and continued to exercise an important role in imperial politics by successfully negotiating a peace at the Congress of Würzburg in 1121.

During Otto of Bamberg’s (German: Otto von Bamberg) tenure as bishop, the Monastery of St. Michael rose to great prominence. Otto had been born of a noble family in Swabia and entered into the service of the Emperor Heinrich III (Henry III) in 1090. He was appointed Chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1101. In 1102, the Emperor made him bishop of Bamberg, and Otto became one of the leading princes of the Holy Roman Empire. Otto rebuilt and completed the cathedral after it had been destroyed by fire in 1081, improved the cathedral school, and greatly expanded the town of Bamberg.

When Otto was in his 60’s he achieved fame as a missionary. Today he is known as the Apostle of Pomerania, because he brought the people of that area to Christianity. Before his work, many brutal attempts had been made by Poles and Italians to convert Pomerania to Christianity — without success. But when Otto became the papal legate he converted a large number of Pomeranians and founded eleven churches. After he returned to the Monastery of St. Michael in Bamberg in 1125, some pagan customs began to reassert themselves into Pomerania, and he traveled there again at the age of 68. During his second trip he succeeded in converting all the nobles, converted more communities, and sent priests from Bamberg to serve and Pomerania.
The Basel Antependium of Bamberg

In 1021, shortly before leaving on the Italian journey of the following year when he visited Monte Gargano, Heinrich II (Henry II) and a number of churchmen participated in the dedication of the new monastic church of St. Michael. It seems likely that it was at this time that he presented this church with a golden antependium for its main altar. Today, an antependium is the decorative cloth that hangs down over the front of the altar. This example, however, was made of thinnly hammered gold. It is still in existance and is today known as the Basel Antependium:

This famous piece measures 120 cm. by 77.5 cm. and, modeled on the coffins of classical antiquity, is divided into five parts. It depicts Christ with the Archangel Michael and St. Benedikt (Benedict) standing on his right and the archangels Gabriel and Raphael on his left. Tiny suppliant figures of Heinrich II and his wife Kunigunde, are at the feet of a stern Christ .The Latin inscription refers to the figures standing above and below:

Quis sicut Hel (Archangel Michael) Fortis (Archangel Gabriel) Medicus (Archangel Raphael) Soter (Christ) Benedictus (Benedict of Nursia) Prospice terrigans clemens mediator usias. In English: Who is like God, strong, a healer and redeemer, worthy of praise? Take care, oh intermediary, of these mortal beings.

From this inscription can be read in the purpose of its donation. When the good and the evil shall be judged, the three archangels and St. Benedikt will watch out for and put in a good word for Heinrich II and Kunigunde. A strong sense of the proximity of the Last Days radiates from the art and imagery of Bamberg in this period.

The antependium subsequently made its way to Basel, Switzerland. It was first referred to there, four hundred years later, in 1416, where it was written in the Basler Annalen (Basel Annals) that the Antependium had been a gift of the Emperor Heinrich II to the cathedral of Basel upon its consecration in 1019. However, this is unlikely, because there was no reference in the antependium to any of the cathedral’s patron saints at the time: Mary, John the Baptist, and the Apostels. the citizens of Basel highly honored Emperor Heinrich II, and after he was made a saint in 1146, they made him the patron saint of this city. After the iconoclasm of the Reformation, the Basel Antependium and all other surviving artworks of the Basel cathedral were removed from view for 300 years. And in 1836 it was auctioned off. Today, his artwork which was once the centerpiece of St. Michael’s Church in Bamberg and the cathedral in Basel, is now in the Musée National du Moyen-Age in Paris.

The Chapel of the Holy Sepulcher (Heiliges Grab Kapelle) in St. Michael’s Church Bamberg

The Garden of Paradise Ceiling Painting

The Michelskirche in Bamberg (Michael’s Church) was part of a monastery until 1803. In the early 1600’s , the inside of the church was ornamented with „The Garden of Paradise“ – a painted ceiling that portrays over five hundred different types of plants, when possible in flower or bearing fruit, in incredible and realistic detail. There are exotics such as pineapple, cotton, pomegranate, and tobacco as well as trees, shrubs, and grasses that are native to Bamberg, such as the apple, pear, blackberry, or beech. We have writings from the early 1600’s in which locals referred to the ceiling as the „herb garden“ – which leads to the speculation that origin of the painting springs from the monestary’s herb gardens. Some of the plants painted on the ceiling were not growing in Europe att he time the ceiling was painted, for example, lilacs, jasmine, and golden rain. Examples of these plants were sent to the monastery by the natural philosopher Carolus Clusius in Vienna, and the monastery artists sometimes relied on printed pictures as well. Several song birds and six parrots are the only animals included.

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