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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of Marienkirche in Berlin

What is Marienkirche?

Marienkirche, or St. Mary's Church in English, is Berlin’s second-ever Christian church built in the mid-13th century, which features a wonderful 15th-century fresco called ‘The Dance of Death’.

Marienkirche in Berlin

Marienkirche History

800 years ago, Berlin’s main exports were timber and rye, which were shipped along the River Spree and throughout Northern Europe. Meanwhile, textiles and salted fish were imported from France and Belgium, and exotic produce such as spices, olive oil and rice imported from even further afield. Thanks to this thriving economy, the little town of Berlin began to expand. By the mid-13th century, a new church dedicated to Saint Mary, and an adjoining market square, were built to accommodate the town’s growing population. Marienkirche became Berlin’s second-ever church.

The building miraculously survived the Second World War, but has been modified many times over the centuries. In 1539 it converted to Protestantism, along with the neighbouring Nikolaikirche. Iconographic art and intricate decoration were removed for an altogether plainer aesthetic. The tower was added in the 15th century, and was later crowned with a Baroque and neo-Gothic dome in 1790, designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans (the architect of the Brandenburg Gate).

Inside Marienkirche is a 22-metre-long fresco called Der Totentanz (or ‘The Dance of Death’), which dates from the 1480s. It was hidden for many years, only to be rediscovered in the 19th century in a dilapidated state. If you look closely, you can deduce something of the lives of the medieval Berliners who would have gazed upon it. Churches throughout Northern Europe feature similar memento mori paintings, which feature a series of figures dancing with the skeletal figure of Death. Back then, human mortality was a much more visible and vivid reality; plagues and famines were recurring catastrophes which claimed the lives of millions, while public executions punctuated everyday life. Paintings such as this one inspired Christians to live a pious life, so that they would be ready to meet Death when their time came.

Despite these Christian sentiments, the Marienkirche congregation reacted to inexplicable tragedies like the plague in hateful ways. They thought that the pestilence was sent down by God to punish sin, so they indulged in old superstitions by blaming and persecuting their Jewish neighbours for these misfortunes. In 1510, 38 Jews were executed in the market square outside Marienkirche. They had been accused of desecrating the Body of Christ in a church, a common pretext for anti-Semitic pogroms in medieval German states. Some 500 years later, a multi-faith service was held in Marienkirche to honour the victims of this pogrom.

The church has entered the modern era with more positive associations. In 1964, three years after the Berlin Wall had gone up, American civil rights activist Martin Luther King made a visit to East Berlin. Addressing the Marienkirche congregation, he spoke against the city’s division, saying: ‘For here on either side of the Wall are God’s children, and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact’.

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