Saint-Petri-Kirche is also located in the midst of the original fortified settlement known as Hammaburg, Hamburg’s historic core edifice. It is believed that a church has occupied the site since the 9th century. It is known that a baptistery was on this site as early as the beginning of the 11th century.
First mentioned as a market church in documents from 1195, Saint-Petri-Kirche was rebuilt in the North German Brick Gothic style between 1310 and 1418. After The Great Fire Of 1842, the central part of the church structure was completely rebuilt according to the original Gothic model. Miraculously, World War II did not cause any significant damage to the church. Saint-Petri-Kirche is the only one of Hamburg’s five main churches that did not suffer significant, if not overwhelming, damage during the war. Consequently, the Saint-Petri-Kirche of today is more or less the same as it was in the early 15th century.
The steeple and the stepped roof are particularly notable architectural features of the church. The photo below, from 1920, provides an excellent view of the spire and roof.
The main entrance doors have a lovely lion’s head as a doorknocker, dating from 1342. It is Hamburg’s very oldest work of art.
The church’s mammoth interior is all white, of classic Gothic design, with three naves and high, arched ceilings.
The church is famed for its amazing number of valuable treasures and artworks. Among other priceless artworks, the church has its own Hugo Van Der Goes and Sassoferrato paintings. The Van Der Goes alone would be worth millions and millions and millions of dollars on the open market. The paintings, windows, and figurines date from various centuries. There are altars from 1500 to the present. The original multi-paneled winged altar of Saint-Petri-Kirche was created by Master Bertram from 1379 to 1383. It is one of the greatest works of art from the International Gothic period of painting, and perhaps the single greatest surviving example from Northern Europe. It may now be admired in Hamburg’s Kunsthalle, where it occupies an entire exhibition room and where it is one of the museum’s most valuable and cherished holdings.
The main pulpit is one of the most intricate pulpits in Northern Germany. A Gothic mural from approximately 1460 portrays Hamburg’s first bishop, Bishop Ansgar Of Bremen, with the words “Apostle Of The North”. A column in the choir area contains a statue by Bernt Notke, from 1480, showing Archbishop Ansgar and the Hamburg Marienkirche, which he founded. From the 17th century are two famous oil paintings by Gottfried Libalt, “Jacob’s Dream” and “Christ’s Birth”. A famous history painting, “Christmas 1813 in Saint Petri”, is on a column in the south aisle of the church. It shows Hamburg citizens hiding in the church from Napoleonic invaders, fearful for their lives because they could not feed the French soldiers. In the front of the church are Neo-Gothic representations of the evangelists. A modern bronze sculpture by Fritz Fleer shows Nazi opponent Dietrich Bonhoeffer dressed as a convict, with his hands bound.
The foundations of the church tower date from 1342. The original tower was replaced in 1516 with a new structure that towered above even the old Hamburg Cathedral. However, the second tower was torn down in 1807, decayed because Napoleon’s soldiers had used it as a horse stable. In 1878, the current church tower—132 meters high, with a copper spire—was completed.
In the first half of the 20th century, Saint-Petri-Kirche lost most of its members as nearby residential neighborhoods were torn down, replaced by banks and department stores as the city center evolved into a pure business and shopping district. The parish currently consists of only a few hundred members.
Saint-Petri-Kirche was the most interesting of the five Hamburg Hauptkirchen, probably because it had the finest collection of artworks. We spent more than two hours exploring the church interior alone.
The church docent on the day we visited was a very nice and very highly-educated man in his late fifties or early sixties. He spoke flawless English. Like the elderly woman docent at nearby Saint-Jacobi-Kirche, he couldn’t take his eyes off Andrew.
The docent took us around the entire church, pointing out anything and everything of note, and then he disappeared into a private room and soon returned with books containing ancient photographs of the church and the neighborhood.
He showed us the old photographs at length, and he talked to us about other interesting Hamburg churches, giving us a long, long list of other Hamburg churches which, he said, were well worth a visit. Alas, we only visited churches in the center of Hamburg, and did not have an opportunity to explore churches in outlying districts.
The docent also asked us whether we were interested in a scholarly art book about Northern German churches. We said that we were. He told us that the book was out of print, but that he would attempt to locate a copy for us at one of Hamburg’s antiquarian bookshops, and that we should drop by the church in a day or two to see if he had succeeded in locating a copy.
We DID return to the church two mornings later (Saint-Petri-Kirche was only a short distance from the Levantehaus, our hotel), and the docent told us that he HAD located a copy of the book, and he provided us with the name and address of the antiquarian bookshop, which he said was holding the book for us.
We walked to the antiquarian bookshop that very day and bought the book. The book is in German, of course, but it contains lengthy discussions about the history and architecture of almost all important churches in Northern Germany, and it is filled with truly stunning photographs. All five Hamburg Hauptkirchen were addressed in the book, naturally, as well as several other Hamburg churches, a few of which we visited. Most of the book, however, is devoted to churches outside Hamburg. The book will be an excellent source of information for us in preparation for our next trip to Northern Germany (whenever that will be).
While we were touring the church interior, Andrew and his mother were riveted by one particular artwork in the church, a large and complicated marble relief of Christ’s Resurrection by one Hermann Schubert, a sculptor about whom we have been able to find no information whatsoever other than the fact that he was born in 1831 and died in 1917 and that the most recent of his works to come up for auction was in 1999 in Munich. The mural was dated 1859. According to Andrew and his mother, the relief was worthy of Pierre Puget, the greatest sculptor of the French Baroque. Puget was THE master of the marble relief, and Andrew and his mother said that the Hermann Schubert relief was as fine as Puget’s very greatest completed relief, “The Meeting of Alexander The Great And Diogenes”, housed in the Louvre. Andrew asked the docent about the Hermann Schubert relief, and the docent said that he had no information about it at all and no information about Hermann Schubert.
We did not climb the church tower the day we made our visit to Saint-Petri-Kirche. However, a few days later, Andrew’s brother and Andrew and I returned to the church in the very late afternoon for the express purpose of climbing the tower. (It is 544 steps to the top—there was no elevator—and we did not want to make Andrew’s mother climb to the top of the tower the day we toured the church interior.) Although dusk was setting, the views from the tower were magnificent.
Happily for us, the stairs were spacious and well-maintained.