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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of Museum Nikolaikirche in Berlin

What is Museum Nikolaikirche?

Museum Nikolaikirche, or St. Nicholas' Church Museum in English, is the oldest surviving church in Berlin, which now serves as a museum exploring the history and culture of the church and its community.

St. Nicholas Church Museum in Berlin

Museum Nikolaikirche History

The church of St Nicholas is as old as Berlin itself. It was built in the early 13th century when the city was just a small riverside settlement. Most medieval Berliners were practising Roman Catholics, their lives controlled by the Church. They lived in fear of burning in Hell, and believed that the only way to reach Heaven was to gain God’s grace by attending mass and receiving absolution from a priest after the confession of their sins. It followed that there had to be a church in every town. Historians mostly suppose that a smaller wooden church existed on this site prior to the 13th-century structure; this wooden building, if it existed, was erected by the earliest mercantile settlers along this stretch of the River Spree.

Excavations in the 1950s revealed the original, Romanesque design of the Church, whose architecture has been modified many times over the centuries. It was a large, flat-roofed basilica with three aisles, a transept and large square columns which supported the heavy vaulted ceiling. The Gothic pointed copper towers were a 19th-century addition. The church was dedicated to three early Christian saints: Nicholas of Myra, Katherine of Alexandria and Martin of Tours. Nicholas was a patron saint of merchants and seafarers. His patronage therefore reflects the importance of river trade to Berlin’s medieval population.

Berlin cityscape with Nikolaikirche

In 1517, a monk named Martin Luther nailed his ‘95 Theses’, outlining his objections to Catholicism as organised and practised, to a church door in Wittenberg, only 100 kilometres southwest of Berlin. Luther questioned the controlling and extortionate practices of the Catholic church, in particular the buying and selling of ‘indulgences’, whereby forgiveness for those in purgatory could be purchased with a donation to the church. By 1521, the Reformation was beginning to spread rapidly throughout northern Europe, but Brandenburg – and the church of St Nicholas – didn’t adopt Protestantism officially until 1539. Joachim II of Brandenburg had sworn to his father that he would remain Catholic, but after his father died in 1535 he soon became a reformer. The people of Berlin appear to have had a rather muted initial interest in the Reformation, partly because the church, in concert with secular authorities, successfully suppressed it.

In 1938, St Nicholas served its religious community for the last time. A year earlier, the Nazis had announced plans to replace the church with a museum and a concert hall. The museum was never built, but St Nicholas remains a concert hall today. This area, Nikolaiviertel, had become less residential, and its church-going population had accordingly declined. Its parishioners moved to St Mary’s near Alexanderplatz, Berlin’s other medieval church.

During the Second World War, the church was so badly damaged that its vaults and northern pillars had collapsed by 1949. The secular East German authorities didn’t consider the church’s repair to be a priority, neglecting the building in its ruined state until the 1980s. The government used old architectural plans to restore the church to its former splendour, as part of the Nikolaiviertel redevelopment project. It reopened in 1987, but it remains secular. Today, the former church of St Nicholas contains a museum which explores the history and culture of the church and its community over the past 800 years.

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