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The Beautiful Churches of Central Berlin

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

Berlin's architecture has a long and rich history. Every major European style from Roman to Postmodern is represented. Its churches are undoubtedly some of its most beautiful structures and these three situated in central Berlin are well worth a visit.

1. Marienkirche

Berlin’s second-ever Christian church built in the mid-13th century, which features a wonderful 15th-century fresco called ‘The Dance of Death’

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-everchurch.

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 19thcentury 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 Deathwhen their time came.

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’.

2. Berliner Dom

Iconic late-19th-century cathedral commissioned by KaiserWilhelm II that was reconstructed following the Second World War

Designed in the 1890s by Julius Raschdorff in striking Renaissance Revival style, the Berliner Dom (or Berlin Cathedral) was a prestige project for Wilhelm II intended to serve as the primary cathedral of the new German Empire. TheKaiser imagined the Berlin Cathedral would become to world Protestantism what St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican was to Catholicism. On its inauguration in 1905 he declared that Protestantism would soon replace Catholicism as the dominant world religion and the Berliner Dom would be its headquarters. But so grand a project inevitably had its detractors and, as one architectural critic wrote, ‘what has been achieved here is empty elegance, nothing more... It shows off, that is all’.

The cathedral was heavily damaged during the Second World War by Allied bombing. The cupola (or dome) collapsed and much of the interior burned out. But plans for the restoration of the Berliner Dom had to wait until the 1970s. Walter Ulbricht, head of the East German government from 1950 to 1971, had intended to tear it down, but his successor, Erich Honecker, saw an opportunity. The restoration would not only become part of his grand plans for the rejuvenation of Berlin’s historic centre, but might also improve relations with the Evangelical Church.

But in spite of Honecker’s zeal for the reconstruction of Berlin’s Prussian centre, one notable demolition was that of the Denkmalskirche, an annexe to the cathedral’s northern side that contained the dynastic crypt of the House of Hohenzollern, Germany’s imperial and Prussia’s royal family. This had been constructed to replace the Campo Santo, a never-completed royal burial hall built atop the old royal laundry. The Denkmalskirchewas demolished in spite of the fact that it had survived the war largely intact.

3. Nikolaikirche

The oldest surviving church in Berlin, which now serves as a museum exploring the history and culture of the church and its community

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.

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, only100 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.

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 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 Nicholascontains a museum which explores the history and culture of the church and its community over the past 800 years.

#UrbsTravel #Germany #Berlin #Churches

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