Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Saint-Katharinen-Kirche is another of the five principal historic churches of Hamburg known as Hauptkirchen (“Main Churches”). The base of its spire, dating from the 13th Century, is the oldest building preserved in the city of Hamburg.

The church is situated on an island near what was formerly the southern boundary of the medieval city, opposite the historic harbor area on The River Elbe. This may be seen in the photograph below.

Much the same view is offered in this photograph from 1920.

Saint-Katharinen-Kirche traditionally served as the church of Hamburg’s seamen, as well as shipbuilders and brewers living in the district.

The earliest attestation to the existence of the church dates back to records from 1250. From 1350 to 1425, Saint Catherine’s was rebuilt as a Gothic Basilica. It is this building that may be seen today.

The main body, consisting of a triple nave, was constructed in the North German Brick Gothic style.

In 1657, a Baroque rooftop was added. A spectacular Baroque spire was added two years later, designed by Peter Marquardt, who also designed a spire for Saint-Nikolai-Kirche (the old Saint Nicholas's, destroyed in The Great Fire Of 1842). Saint Catherine’s Baroque spire, with its two magnificent rotunda arcade levels, reaches a height of 115 meters. This is the spire that adorns the church today, a copper-plated feature that is one of the greatest landmarks of the city. A Baroque west façade was added in 1737 in order to stabilize the church tower. The church’s exterior, aside from its spire, has been criticized, said to resemble a humble country church enlarged to gigantic dimensions. I think such criticism has some validity.

The interior of the church is home to two pieces of priceless ecclesiastical art: a 14th-Century Crucifix and a 14th-Century statue of the church’s patron. Otherwise, the church’s interior is a reconstruction of the medieval church, rebuilt in the 1950’s.

Any distinction in the church interior results from the contrast between its massive round pillars, which support the cross-shaped vault, and the airy height of its middle nave.

The church was severely damaged during World War II—only the outer walls and the base of the spire were left standing. The building was carefully restored to its previous form between 1950 and 1957.

When Hamburg’s free port was founded in 1881, residents of the area were required to vacate, resulting in a loss of 20,000 members of Saint-Katharinen-Kirche’s congregation. This loss forced the parish to look for new tasks. Since the church’s current members are scattered throughout all parts of Hamburg and environs, the church concentrates on offering church services and special events for the entire town. The church is the official church of Hamburg’s main university.

The photograph below, from 1930, is an ideal bird’s-eye view of the church and its surroundings.

We enjoyed visiting Saint-Katharinen-Kirche, but it was probably the least interesting of Hamburg’s five Hauptkirchen because the interior was so spare. We spent only thirty minutes in the church interior, and we did not even bother to climb the church tower.

Saint-Katharinen-Kirche is only three or four city blocks away from Saint-Nikolai-Kirche, and the views are very similar. We visited Saint Catherine’s immediately after visiting Saint Nicholas’s, where we HAD taken the elevator to the top of the tower. We decided not to go to the top of Saint Catherine’s tower, as there was no elevator at Saint Catherine’s, and we did not want to make Andrew’s mother climb the tower.

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