The first mention of a church at this location can be traced to 1255, when Saint-Jacobi-Kirche was a small chapel located outside Hamburg’s city walls. After the city walls were extended in 1260, the church became part of Hamburg city territory.
Between 1350 and 1400, the old chapel was replaced by a large hall church of typical North German Brick Gothic design, with three naves. One hundred years later, a fourth nave was added. The attached sacristy was erected in 1438. The sacristy is Hamburg’s only surviving example of secular Gothic architecture.
The Gothic brick building has been constantly changed and enlarged over the years.
The interior of the church—a 1710 Baroque remodeling effort, never since altered—is itself unimposing, but its treasures and artworks are incomparable.
Saint-Jacobi-Kirche houses three magnificent medieval altars: The Holy Trinity Altar in the main choir (1518), The Saint-Petri Altar in the first south nave (1508) and The Saint-Lukas Altar in the second south nave (1500), which originally was installed in Hamburg’s Cathedral.
Medieval piety did not allow the retables to be opened during the week. Only on special Sundays, high festivals of the church and feasts of the saints were the wings of the altars opened and their panoply of panels displayed. Otherwise, the retables remained closed and only the outward paintings could be seen. On the outward panels of The Saint-Lukas Altar, a very special form of sponsorship may be traced: the donors of the altarpiece are prominently displayed among biblical saints. At the time, this was an accepted way of recognizing a donor’s generosity and piety and worthiness.
Saint-Jacobi-Kirche is also known for its ceiling and wall decorations. The Baroque ceiling murals, testaments to civic virtue, show the importance of maintaining both sacred and secular rectitude. The murals were painted, like the landscape paintings on the walls, by Johann Moritz Riesenberger. The many coats of arms on the walls designate the pastors, vicars and jurors who have served the parish since the 16th century.
The greatest treasure in the church, however, and the reason so many people make a pilgrimage to Saint-Jacobi-Kirche, is the Arp Schnittger organ in the West Gallery, one of the largest organs in the world and the most important organ in Northern Europe, famed since the day of its completion.
Built from 1689 to 1693, the organ has 4,000 pipes, 60 registers and 4 keyboards. This is the legendary organ that Johann Sebastian Bach specifically traveled to Hamburg—walking, for days—to see and to play in 1720. The organ has been carefully tended for more than 300 years, and was fully restored from 1989 to 1993 to mark its 300th anniversary.
We took the weekly guided tour of the organ and we stayed for the short organ recital that followed. The guided tour was supposed to be in German, but since we were the only persons who showed up for the tour that particular day, the guide quite naturally gave us the tour in English.
The organ recital that followed the tour, however, was attended by a couple of hundred persons, locals who worked nearby and who were attending the recital on their lunch hours.
In 1944, a bomb hit the church’s steeple and destroyed the dome. Luckily, most of the valuable interior was saved and from 1951 to 1953 Saint-Jacobi-Kirche was restored to its former glory. A new 125-meter spire was erected in 1963, but the new spire bears no relation to the original spire. The replacement spire looks cheap and out-of-place.
The photo below, from 1920, shows the beautiful church tower as it was prior to its destruction during the War.
The photo below shows the tower of today.
Hamburg churches employ pensioners as caretakers. They serve as guides for visitors as well as keep their eyes on the church treasures.
The day we visited Saint-Jacobi-Kirche, the caretaker was an elderly woman, approximately 70 to 75 years old, who spoke excellent English. She couldn’t take her eyes off Andrew, and she followed us around the church the entire time we were there.
She talked to us nonstop, but she didn’t talk to us about the church or its treasures. Instead, she wanted to know all about us—who we were, where we were from, what were our professions, why we were in Hamburg, how long we would be in Hamburg, what else we would be seeing in Hamburg—and she wanted to tell us all about herself.
She was very well-dressed and very well-coiffed, but she complained to us nonstop about how small her government pension was and how tiny her state-subsidized apartment was and how paltry were the sums the church was paying her for her hard work and how she did not have enough money to go to the opera as often as she would like.
Near the end of our visit, she told us that things were soon going to get far worse for her and for other Hamburgers: once the Eastern European countries were granted full membership in the European Union, Hamburg would be overrun by Jews.