Wednesday, 28 September 2011

11,002 virgins

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.


Richard said...

Stunning photos. Who knew Cologne had so much to offer?

Andrew CRH said...

Ooh, the latch on the door to your soul is tantalisingly fragile!

Meanwhile.. aren't there some lovely Bellini S Ursulas in Venice, at the Accademia? What am I half-remembering....?

David said...

I like to think it's wide open already, father, and not in need of CofE prompting...

Carpaccio's cycle of paintings for the Scuola (di) Sant'Orsolo are in the Accademia. The bedroom dream is such fun, though there's also a good one of the ships arriving in Cologne.

And yes, Richard, who knew?

Susan Scheid said...

There is so much here to savor, David. I dropped by the Arts Desk--what a wonderful idea, those post-concert CDs. Pure magic.

Cologne, so full of treasures. As has been said, who knew? I'm also struck, once again, with how strange and bloody Christianity can be. I remember, when in Florence, finally so stunned by all those St. Sebastians, that I confined myself to Annunciations for the remainder of the trip!

I have just put Winder’s book on my wish list (for I dare not buy another book to add to my stack just now). The insight into Germany’s place in European history that you cite in the last paragraph is poignant and profound.

Last, not least, I have been listening to your selected version of Mahler’s 4th as I write—of course you drew me right in with that gorgeous slow movement. (I somehow missed out on Mahler. While at college, there was a peculiar girl who came out of her dorm room breathless and proclaimed, “Oh, I can only make love to Mahler!” It’s put me off listening to him ever since. I think perhaps it’s high time I got over that, eh?)

I had to look up “gurning”—oh, and you are right!—though I solved the problem by minimizing the screen so as just to listen. (Abbado, however, is wonderful to watch.)

TY for your lovely comment over my way. You made a certain young composer and his family's day, I think, and mine as well.

David said...

Viz Maureen Lipman in 'Educating Rita' - her not very credible character swans around cooing 'couldn't you just die for Mahler?' - and she almost does. The record of Karajan's Mahler 6 gets stuck...

I used to think the Spanish had a monopoly on cruelty as depicted n religious art; seemingly not. S'pose the message is that Christ REALLY suffered and didn't just have stigmata from that time on the cross...

Gurning is a north-of-England talent. I don't know if they still have competitions, but I remember the day when Bill Loony was the winner year after year.

Winder can be profound, as you observe, but wit is his forte. How I laughed when he observes that many fellow guests in Lubeck's Rathauskeller 'do seem in shocking condition. Massive figures with girths and complexions like Gert Frobe's Goldfinger and beards covered in bits of lager foam and pig are perhaps not ideal role models'.

As for Dylan Mattingly, if I hadn't been sincere, I wouldn't have written anything. True talent, without a doubt

Willym said...

My memories of Koln are clouded - visited there probably when you were still at your mother's knee - but your, as always, stunning photos make me want to visit it anew.

Thank you for the Mahler - the beauty is overwhelming and brought tears to my eyes.

David said...

Had they finished the right spire by then, Will? (My little joke - was surprised to learn that completion wasn't achieved until 1880 - AFTER the railway station...)

Susan Scheid said...

I have just read and re-read your quote from Winder and laughed aloud each time. I have witnessed the very sort of scene in Munich!

David Damant said...

One thing about Cologne ( on my first visit when young I was surprised how many shops there were selling Eau-de-Cologne) which is relevant to present arguments about who should have bombed what in WWII: the Hohenzollernbrucke is very near the ( very prominent)cathedral and was/is very important as a rail/road link across the Rhine. Yet the Allied bombers failed to hit it and only injured one tower of the cathedral. Bombing was very inaccurate in those days.

Carpaccio - a women lunching in Harry's Bar in Venice pre WWI commented that a thin slice of raw beef was of just the red/brown colour so often used by Carpaccio. Hence the name was adopted, and should really only apply to beef, though now to all thin slices of raw something.

David said...

How enlightening - I never knew (or bothered to find out) that about carpaccio the raw beef...Why Bellini for the refreshing drink, any idea beyond the Venetian connection?

Catriona said...

I loved Cologne the first time I visited, in 1971. Next time I was there, in September 1989, I was surprised by how many b+w postcards of the bombed area around the Dom were on sale. But then the contribution of the bombers to archaeological research was very apparent as soon as I went into the museum beside the concert hall. I was also very impressed with the acoustics in the concert hall, at least where I was standing at the very top back in the Stehplatze.
I enjoyed GERMANIA very much and, as a result, have added many places to my wishlist for visits.

David said...

I suppose it's a bit like Beirut, Catriona - destruction made excavation possible...and they're currently digging up the area around the Ratshaus to reclaim the old Jewish quarter. With that and work on what the locals think is a superfluous new tram line bang through the middle of town, the whole city centre still feels very much like work in progress.

Catriona said...

Oh goody - glad to hear another city has troubles with its tramline!
I'm going to a friend's wedding in Konigswinter in two weeks time, so looks like I'll have a trip to Cologne the day after, before I come home.

David Damant said...

The query about Bellini reminds me of the cartoon in a Punch of many years ago

Two urchins - one says to the other:

Botticelli isn't a wine, you juggins ! Botticelli's a cheese !