The Mosel Romanesque

The Mosel Romanesque architectural style isn’t really a style in the sense that Rhenish Romanesque is. If anything the Mosel is characterized by both the embrace and the rejection of the Romanesque. This reflects its connection with both the cities of Lorraine and the Rhineland. This guide takes you on a short, if not somewhat eclectic, journey to the most interesting landmarks of this style.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel This tour starts in Maria Laach, getting there can be an adventure though, its best done by Train/Bus from Koblenz via Sinzig. You can then catch a bus to Mendig and back to Koblenz, and then from there down the Mosel River. Reaching Münstermaifeld also requires a bus, but this should be more straight forward than the Bus from Sinzig.

A Mighty Fortress: The Abbey of Maria Laach

In 1093 the childless Count Heinrich II of Laach donated his castle to the Benedictine Order and construction immediately started on a church and a monastery complex following the plan of St. Gallen. 

The church would follow the pattern set by the center of Salian architecture around Speyer, utilizing a standard five tower design plus the crossing tower, in addition to the ornamentation following the Lombard influence of other great churches of the time. The Paradise, or Cloister-like compound in front of the church, dates to a much later period. Construction started in the late Staufen period in 1225, but in Germany is unique to Maria Laach.  It is otherwise the most intact and richly decorated church from the Salian Romanesque period.

Designed with the symbolism of strength, the towers following those of a castle, with thick walls and clean simple lines. The symbolism of strength combined with the classic roman motifs in the triumphal arch was arch-typical of the time period.

Following some 20th century renovations, the appearance of the building is largely unchanged since the Middle Age. It is one of the finest and most recognizable Romanesque monuments in Germany. For those who might faintly recognize the building, it is the Wonder associated with the Teutonic Knights in the game Age of Empires II.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The towers resemble those of a fortress, a common metaphor during this period. The extension from the main building dates from a century later (see below). The square tower is an innovation from the North Rhenish area around Cologne, i.e. Brauweiler, though most of the design arch-types here are from the Upper Rhine.
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Paradise is a cloister-like addition to the entrance of the church, and served similar liturgical purposes. While common in Italy, this is the only surviving example north of the Alps.

The Frescos Old St. Cyrakius in Mendig

The church of St. Cyrakius is a small three aisled basilica from around 1180, built at the end of the Salian period. The vauling and tower come from the Staufen period around 1225. More interesting for us the the entire cycle of Romanesque frescos from the construction and other Gothic additions from 1300. The quality of the frescos here is unmatched in Germany and for what they represent.

In the Romanesque period, frescos were painted as part of the design. The paining was incorporated into the architecture in order to convey a story and the architecture is used to draw the observer to the central point. Similar to the architecture of the Counter-Reformation. As a result, in Romanesque frescos we see entire walls painted with a common narrative or themes. These themes are shared between elements and other frescos, much like a comic book. The main difference from this and later Baroque frescos is the target audience. By the 16th century the purpose was either education or immersion of the general populace. The liturgical purpose of these older frescos is unclear. Its possible they may have been used to visualize sermons, but more likely they were only appreciated by an educated elite, well versed in the stories and symbolism.

By the Gothic period, the hypocrisy of early Christianity’s polemic and practice had been thoroughly exposed, and the attention of liturgical innovators slowly turned towards the laity. Frescos (and most Christian art) became singularly focused on the emotion of Christ’s suffering. The liturgical purpose was to draw the average person in, with images of Christ or of Saints that the viewer might recognize and sympathize with. Great vistas of the dammed being burned alive and cryptic symbols of Revelations were replaced with sympathetic images of Saints and people.

This church has good examples from both periods, and the extent of its preserved Romanesque fresco cycle is worth visiting.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Source: Wikipedia – The church is very small and very typical for Salian construction. Originally it would have had a flat wodden roof.

Lost Relic of the 5th Crusade – The Chapel of St. Mathew in Kobern

According to legend, the Chapel of St. Mathew built within the walls of a 13th century castle in Kobern once housed the head of the Apostle Mathew. The castle is now a ruin, and the relic disappeared centuries ago, but the chapel has been completely preserved. Its of a design not found anywhere else in Germany or the Lowlands, and its closest archetype is likely the Templar’s chapel in Tomar Portugal. The ornamentation show’s strong North-Rhenish connections, perhaps with St. Severus in Boppard. Why it was built and why the relics of such an important figure were kept there remain a mystery.

At once we know quite a bit about this church while also knowing next to nothing. The political farmework is more or less clear, the Church was built in 1220 or 1240 by the knight Heinrich II. von Isenburg, returning from the Holy Land. The head of the Apostle Mathew was kept here for more than a century before ending up in Trier, and then ultimately being lost. In the ornamentation, we see a great deal of commonality with churches of the Lower-Middle Rhine, especially in Boppard and Andernach.

Beyond that there is only speculation. The central plan of the church comes from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Similar designs had existed in Germany for some time, can can still be seen in St. Michael in Fulda. However, the central plans had been typically associated with the Emperor Charlemagne, and thus often represented imperial authority, especially in monasteries, such as in Fulda. The plan of this church much more closely resembles the Templar chapels found in France and Iberia, and of which the most famous can be still seen in Tomar, Portugal.

This doesn’t answer the question why and it is unlikely we will ever know the full truth behind the mystery of St. Mathew’s Chapel.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel More specifically, the spider-vaults are similar to those in Boppard, and the capitals similar to many other places on the lower-middle Rhine, such as Andernach. The Trifoil Arch is also a north-rhenish motif.

The Fortified Church of Münstermaifeld

In the 1105, a fortified church in the Salian-Romanesque style was constructed here to guard to relics of St Severus of Ravenna, of which only the impressive west tower remains. The symbolism of the castle-like towers would have been in line with that of Maria Laach, and its questionable if the church was ever meant to serve a defensive role. The rest of the building is in the same Staufen-Romanesque more common in the Rhineland, such as in St. Castor in Treis-Karden.

“Cathedral” of the Mosel – Treis-Karden

St. Castor was a pseudo-historical figure who from France who settled at this site in the 5th century. His relics became a source of money for the town, as pilgrims came down the Mosel to pay respects. By the 9th century, the relics were relocated to Koblenz were they remain today (in the 19th century, a handful of relics came back to Karden). The site would remain a destination on a larger network of trans-European pilgrimage routes. Today the Church of St. Castor in Karden is a beautiful example of late Staufen-Romanesque architecture from the 13th century, already showing a greater willingness to experiment with the Gothic than elsewhere in the Rhineland.

The blind triforium-like windows are a common feature in churches of the Middle Rhine and are related to the development of the gallery churches of this period. The I-can’t-believe-its-not-Gothic style reflects the continuing predominance of the Imperial image program of the Staufen monarchs. Effectively, the builders wanted a church in the latest style, but had to adapt to the traditional plans of previous centuries. There are no other churches of this style on the Mosel, so Treis-Karden serves on this tour as the connection between the high point of the Romanesque in Maria Laach and the beginning of the Gothic in Trier.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The church is very typical example of this style, sometimes referred to as the Rhenish Transitional style. This may be accurate as an observation, but implies a sort of transition process. In reality, the architects would have been fully aware of the Gothic cathedrals in France and could have easily constructed one in that style. The limitations are political and cultural, so its more accurate to say late Staufen-Romanesque or perhaps early German Gothic.

Trier-Pfalzel (Optional):

Originally, Emperor Constantine, after building his capital in Trier, built his personal palace outside of the City in modern day Pfalzel (The German word essentially means “by the palace”). With the end of the Roman Empire, parts of the palace were incorporated into a monastic church complex. This larger structure was reduced over the centuries, and then completely destroyed by allied bombing in WWII. For the dedicated can find traces of the palace complex, both in the reconstructed church and in nearby buildings. The church itself would have been an interesting Romanesque construction, but only the choir and parts of the nave have been preserved.

The Great Cathedral of Trier

The Cathedral and the neighboring Church of our Lady represent the entire extent of medieval construction paradigms in the Holy Roman Empire. The Cathedral represents the absolute beginning of the Romanesque, as the core of the church itself is Roman, even if somewhat truncated. To understand how the Roman building fits into the current one, it may be helpful to look at a diagram. Only the highest point of the Roman basilica was incorporated into the current building, most of the building dates to the Salian and Staufen periods. We can see this on west facade (the flat part facing the square) show Ottonian and Salian designs, from the stacked arcades to the round flanking towers (as we saw in Maria Laach).

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The cathedral is an underrated church in the literature. Typically ignored by studies of the Rhenish Romanesque or mentioned only as a footnote (the round towers and the stacked arcades are often cited). While the neighboring Liebfrauenkirche is considerably more important to architectural history, its a shame that its hard to find an in depth contextualization of the older building.

In contrast, The Church of our Lady represents the end of the Romanesque. Although the church itself is a centrally planned building that has no obvious predecessor. The style and ornamentation clearly abandon the old imperial building traditions in favor of the High French Gothic from Champagne, likely from Reims. The evolution of the German Gothic continues with St. Elizabeth in Marburg, a building constructed near Trierian holdings on the Lahn River. St. Elizabeth shows clear parallels to the Church of our Lady and was likely built by the same construction team.

Other churches in Trier offer glimpses into different styles. The Monastery Church of St. Matthias has a similarly spectacular Salian-Staufen Romanesque heritage, with late Gothic Vaulting and a massive baroque plaza. The Jesuit Church is built in a tasteful high Gothic German style, with all three aisles at the same height.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The core of St. Matthias in Trier dates to late Salian Period, around the same time as when the Cathedral underwent its largest reconstruction.
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

Travel Guide to Trier

The ancient city of Trier deserves its high marks as one of the premier tourist destinations in Germany. Let’s explore the city with everything: Roman ruins, rich museum collections, resplendent churches and an atmospheric cityscape.

Selected Bibliography

  • Kern, Susanne. 2015. Wandmalerei Des 13. Bis 16. Jahrhunderts Am Mittelrhein. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner.
  • Wirtler, Ulrike. 2015. Schloss Bürresheim Bei Mayen/Eifel. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner.
  • Dieter Ritzenhofen. 2013. Burg Eltz. Berlin ; München: Dt. Kunstverl.
  • Gunter Seifert. 1999. Die Moselburgen : Zwischen Koblenz Und Trier ; Lage, Geschichte, Baubeschaffenheit, Kurzinformation. Overath: Seifert.
  • Franz Ronig, and Rita Heyen. 2009. Trier Cathedral. Trier Paulinus-Verlag.
  • Franz Ronig, and Liebfrauen Kath Pfarramt. 2011. Die Liebfrauenkirche Zu Trier. Trier Paulinus-Verlag.
  • Theodor Bogler, and Drutmar Cremer. 2015. Abteikirche Maria Laach. Regensburg Schnell & Steiner.

Image Credits

  • All Modern Maps made with Datawrapper
  • Picture of St. Cyrakius in Mendig from Wikipedia

Return to the Mosel-Valley

Mosel Valley

The Mosel Valley was dominated by the Prince-Archbishops of Trier, but was beset by enemies. This remote region is full of castles and mysterious ruins.

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