Friday, October 03, 2008


In July, Joshua wrote about some of our experiences in Hamburg, which we visited in November 2006.

When writing about Hamburg, Josh wrote about four of Hamburg’s five Hauptkirchen (main churches), the five principal Lutheran houses of worship in central Hamburg.

The fifth Hamburg Hauptkirche, and seat of the North German Lutheran Diocese, is Saint-Michaelis-Kirche.

Saint-Michaelis-Kirche is the largest and most famous church in Hamburg. One of the city’s most important structures, sacred or secular, Saint-Michaelis-Kirche is the most important Protestant Baroque building in all of Germany. It is also the newest of Hamburg’s old historic churches.

The church is situated near The River Elbe. Its 132-meter Baroque spire is one of the city’s landmarks, used as a guide for ships sailing up river to Hamburg Harbor. The photograph below, from 1927, shows Saint-Michaelis-Kirche’s proximity to The River Elbe. The church is situated on a slight rise above the riverbank. The ship in the photograph is the Polonia.

The present Saint-Michaelis church building is the fourth on the site. Completed in 1786, the church was built to a restrained Baroque design by Johann Leonhard Prey and Ernst Georg Sonnin.

Although the church survived The Great Fire Of 1842 that destroyed most of Hamburg, Saint-Michealis-Kirche burned to the ground in 1906, victim of a welding accident during scheduled repair work. The church was reconstructed according to the original plans between 1907 and 1912.

The church suffered irreparable damage during World War II—it was burnt out, although the walls and tower were left standing—and, once again, had to be reconstructed according to the original plans.

The church seen today is a faithful reconstruction of the original 1786 Baroque structure, although cheap post-war buildings, situated alongside the church, mar the magnificence of this great edifice (surely intended to be set apart from all nearby structures).

The photograph below is from 1946, and shows the wartime destruction of the area around the church. Although the church appears to have survived the war unscathed, the church was virtually destroyed during the war, little more than an empty shell after fires swept through the city. The roof of the church that appears in the photograph was a temporary effort, hastily attached at war’s end to preserve the integrity of the structure as much as possible until reparations could get under way. Given the vast destruction apparent in the photograph, it is hard to believe that the area around Saint-Michaelis-Kirche was one of the least-destroyed areas of the city of Hamburg.

The church is dedicated to the Archangel Michael, whose bronze figure guards the entrance to the church. Standing above the portal, Michael is shown conquering the devil.

The church interior is plain but impressive, with white and gold embellishments lending the interior an almost theatrical flair. The interior is designed in the form of a Greek cross, with arms of equal length, and arched ceilings. The interior architecture, artwork and organs are sumptuous and massive. The church accommodates over 3,000 worshippers.

The church has an intriguing crypt, which hosts an exhibition providing an interesting overview of Hamburg from the beginning of the church’s existence to the present. The crypt is the burial place of composer Carl Philipp Emmanual Bach as well as many other notables from Hamburg’s history.

The tower still hosts a 300-year-old tradition: a single trumpeter plays a hymn, facing North, then South, then East, then West, at 10:00 A.M. and again at 9:00 P.M. each weekday.

We visited Saint-Michaelis-Kirche four times during our two weeks in Hamburg.

On our first visit, we explored the church’s exterior and interior, and heard the daily Noon Prayer Service, at which each of the church’s three magnificent organs was played for five minutes. It was a lovely 30-minute service—psalms were read and prayers were uttered between organ selections.

On our second visit, we heard a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem, performed by a professional chorus and orchestra, an annual event in the very building in which Brahms’s work was first performed. The church was brilliantly illuminated that evening, and it provided a glorious venue—resplendent white everywhere, framed by subtle etchings of gold—in which to hear Brahms’s music.

On our third visit, we attended Sunday morning service, at which a Bach cantata, with professional forces, was incorporated into the service.

On our fourth visit, we stood outside to hear the trumpet player perform high atop the tower at the appointed hour (we could barely hear him). After the trumpet hymn, we toured the crypt and went to the top of the church tower, which afforded marvelous views over Hamburg (although the wind was whipping us around the platform so violently that we became terrified for our safety, in large part because only one thin metal rod stood as the lone barrier between the entirely open platform and the ground hundreds of feet below).

For visitors German and foreign alike, Saint-Michaelis-Kirche enjoys a poor reputation. Unlike Hamburg’s other Hauptkirchen, Saint-Michaelis-Kirche does not employ retired persons as church vergers. Instead, it hires unemployed handicapped youths to serve as guides to the church. In our experience, these youths were not well-equipped to deal with the public.

Saint-Michaelis-Kirche is the only church in Hamburg to charge a “voluntary” contribution to gain admittance to the church interior—even for services—and this contribution is anything but voluntary. The church vergers treated visitors like swindlers until two Euros per person were handed over directly into their outstretched hands. We observed numerous German visitors complain loudly about the brusque way in which monies were collected, and we witnessed one young lady from Munich get into a frightful argument with one of the young vergers about his rudeness in collecting money.

Additional fees were required to visit the church crypt and to visit the church tower—my recollection is we had to pay eight Euros per person to buy a combination crypt/tower ticket, in addition to handing over two Euros per person each time we wanted to visit the church interior—and the performance of the Brahms Requiem we attended involved substantial charges, too, for tickets.

All in all, Saint-Michaelis-Kirche did quite well by us. We ended up depositing more than three-hundred American dollars into church coffers before we departed Hamburg.

The church comptroller was probably sorry to see us leave town.

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