Wednesday, 28 September 2011
Cologne has quite a monopoly there, at least on St Ursula, supposedly a Romano-British princess who arrived by boat along the Rhine in 383 (some say) with her maidenly cohorts on the return from a pilgrimage to Rome (research suggests there may have been a bit of a misreading of the number 11,000 - could be 11, could just be a virgin called Undecimilia), only to be massacred by the Huns. As for the BMV who makes up the total, there are hundreds of medieval statues of her scattered throughout the 12 romanesque churches within the city walls.
Not that you'd really think of going inside did you not know that each is a treasurehouse, for the post-war rebuilding renders most of the exteriors unprepossessing. I took the hint, while in Cologne at the weekend for an ultimately stunning Mahler 8 celebrating the Philharmonie's 25th birthday, while browsing a book on the city's many Virgin statues in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum's shop. I was also delighted to find a serendipitous link with Mahler beyond the obvious one (that he was here in 1904 to conduct the Gürzenich-Orchestra in the first performance of his Fifth Symphony; players from the same orchestra had also participated in the Krefeld premiere of the Third).
For didn't Mahler tell his pre-Alma confidante Nathalie Bauer-Lechner that the Fourth Symphony's slow-movement theme is 'the smile of St Ursula', laughing through tears? This is what he means, ineffably done by the best orchestra in the world at Lucerne and the greatest living conductor (only half the movement, unless you decide to pick up the next instalment, but the plus is that you don't have to watch Magdalena Kozena gurning her way through the song-finale; go back to von Stade on Abbado's first recording for a much better characterised mezzo version of that). Double-click on moving image as usual for the whole screen.
And don't Ursula's elftausend Jungfrauen dance to the unearthly music in the child's heaven of the Fourth's finale? That Cologne owns her is due to an early inscription at the church on the Ursulaplatz. It claims that the basilica was raised on the site where huge numbers of holy virgins had been killed, their bones discovered therein and installed in the Golden Chamber. Which, alas, was closed for restoration up to the saint's day on 21 October.
I didn't even get a proper look at the church, which was closing an hour earlier than the rest just as I got there; the warden was adamant, so I just peered up towards the east end before being shooed out. There's still a 'Bruderschaft' of St Ursula, and the place is in very good nick, so the Catholic money must be pouring in. As it is in several other well-maintained establishments. I saw out a 5pm service at St Kunibert, restoration complete as late as 1985, gazing at the reliquaries behind glass
before briefly speeding round the church prior to lock-up. There are two striking virgin shrines - a Pieta with a typically bloodied and wound-scarred Christ
and our Lady with lilies
as well as fine glass from the mid-13th century (not my photo, this one, as I was operating without flash as I always do in churches, and the camera didn't like the low light-levels).
The next lunchtime, after a wonderfully engaging interview with Markus Stenz, the delightful Bettina Schimmer indulged me in a second church trek (she's no more religious in an official sense than I, incidentally, and told me of the strange anomaly whereby her unbaptised six-year-old daughter wasn't permitted to attend religious instruction classes at school, diverse though they were). We struck out southwards to St. Maria im Kapitol, the biggest of the Romanesque 12.
It was built on a Roman temple to the Capitoline deities at the command of Plectrudis, wife of Pippin II - don't you just love those early Franconian names? - with the huge ambition of emulating the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Again, the post-war rebuild is fairly apparent, but the scale remains impressive, especially in the ambulatory around the trefoiled choir. And there are big treasures here, chiefly the wooden doors of 1065
with scenes from the life and passion of Christ, many with the paint still on them.
Modern though she looks, this Madonna of Herman-Joseph with her apple offerings dates from about 1180
and another expressive Pieta has a fine old window behind it.
Older is this (unlisted) monument on the south wall of the nave.
There's little of the Marian about St. Georg, a more intimate church further south, but like St. Maria im Kapitol it has an extraordinary crucifix at the west end
and what I presume to be a copy - because my postcard claimed that the original is in the Schnütgen Museum, which we didn't have time to see - of an even more amazing early wooden (1067) Christ on the cross above the high altar. St. Georg also has a fine Adam and Eve pillar in the porch.
As for St. Ursula, other reminders are scattered about town. St. Andreas, which I also revisited after a service, has the 15th century 'reservoir' over the sides of which, the inscription tells us, her blood is supposed to have flowed
and there's a fine statue in the cathedral, donated by a Frankfurt pastor.
That brings us back, as every walk in Cologne must, to the mighty Dom and its great west front shining in Saturday's hot late afternoon sun. How different to my first acquaintance when we stepped off an early morning train from Milan on a rainy January morning with only about £5 to last us six hours in Cologne and sat, or so I was convinced, behind Arvo Pärt in the first Sunday service of the day. I love the fact that the cathedral is open to all from 6am to 19.30 every day of the week, the true heart of the city.
Can't forget the lion on the door
nor a parting shot of that incredible situation alongside the Hauptbahnhof. A great city, which will repay many more visits; this was my third, and I've still no more than scratched the surface.
Looking for a decent city guide in Stanfords on Monday evening, I stumbled across Simon Winder's idiosyncratic meditation on Teutonic history, Germania, and found myself both laughing out loud and agreeing with what I read in the introduction. He doesn't shun the shameful era which he says is responsible for making Germany - probably Berlin excepted, now - 'a sort of Dead Zone' for all visitors other than 'those with professional reasons for being there' (like me, in this instance).
Yet Winder also reminds us that Germany is 'in many ways Britain's weird twin', 'a place without which European culture makes no sense, and for over sixty years Germans have been working strenuously to rebuild that culture in a way that, while admitting the legacy of the Third Reich, allows that earlier past to shine again.' As it does in Cologne, though again the nature of the rebuilding means that we never forget the more recent circumstances either.