7 highlights from St. Mary’s



St. Mary’s of all places? This church, which has been described hundreds of times as the “Mother of Brick Gothic”? Are there any new findings from archaeology, art history or church painting that justify this article? To be honest: no. The reason for my visit to this unique brick basilica today is quite mundane: it is one of my favorite places in Lübeck. I would like to take you into the church and give you seven suggestions for your next – or your first – visit to St. Mary’s. My St. Mary’s Moments.

7 towers – 7 tips


The memorial chapel – a Place of rememberance

During the night of 28 to 29 March 1942, Lübeck was attacked by Royal Air Force aircraft. Many historic buildings, almost a fifth of the Old Town and almost all of the city’s churches were destroyed or severely damaged in the retaliation for an earlier German air raid on Conventry Cathedral in 1940. The bells of St Mary’s still lie in the Memorial chapel of St Mary’s, having been smashed down and buried in the ground from a height of 60 metres. It is said that the decision to leave the bells in this place was a spontaneous idea of the people who were busy clearing up at the time. Indeed, the sight of the bells is deeply moving.

On the front left – close to the grille – you will see an open memorial book.

Lübeck took in around 100,000 displaced persons and refugees as a result of the Second World War.

The pre-war population was 140,000. Many people came to the memorial chapel at St Mary’s to remember their loved ones who had died on the run and those who had gone missing. Their names were recorded in large books of remembrance.

To the left on the chapel wall hangs a Coventry cross. The original was put together after the destruction of Coventry Cathedral from three carpenter’s nails that had once helped to hold the vaulted ceiling together. In this way, a symbol of forgiveness and a new beginning was created from the remains of the destruction. It still hangs in the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral today. St. Mary‘s congregation is a Membran of the Community of the Cross of Nails which is committed to peace and reconciliation in many places around the world. What could be more important!


The church mouse

Of course I always visit Rosemarie, the church mouse, to make a heartfelt wish. The mouse is located in the choir aisle on one of four large-scale limestone works of art by Heinrich Brabender from the late 15th century. The “Last Supper” on the north-eastern balustrade surrounding the chancel shows the little mouse at the foot of the foliage on the left-hand side.

It is linked to the legend from around 1200, according to which Lübeck would always retain its freedom as long as the magnificent climbing rose bloomed in a niche on the south wall of St. Mary’s Church. However, after a mouse had built a nest at the root of the rose and bitten it, Lübeck had to surrender to Danish troops.

Thus the stone relief also stands for the wisdom of life that great misfortune can arise from small evils.

As you make your wish, you must stroke Rosemarie, who has turned black from all the touches of the churchgoers, with your left hand. Otherwise, your wish won’t come true!


The Chapel of the Dance of Death and time

The Lübeck painter, graphic artist and sculptor Bernt Notke created the Dance of Death frieze with 24 clerical and secular figures in 1463, presumably under the impression of the consequences of the plague. In 1701, a 30-metre-long copy of the painting was created, which was destroyed in 1942. The cycle depicted medieval Lübeck and 24 dancing couples, symbolizing that all people are equal in the face of death. Whether poor or rich, old or young, famous or unknown: death was and is always present and makes no difference.

This theme is also taken up by the 12-metre-high stained glass windows in the chapel designed by Alfred Mahlau. Both windows are divided into seven levels, each with three figures. Memento mori. Depressing? Not at all for me. I feel more called to make the most of my talents and use my time well. The replica of the astronomical clock in the Chapel of the Dance of Death, which was destroyed in 1942, is also reminiscent of this idea. I already introduced them to you in a brief article in our LÜBECK ZWISCHENZEILEN.


The Kemper organ and Dietrich Buxtehude

Church music was used for religious devotion and was an important carrier of cultural and social values. It was often also the centre of the musical life of a congregation, offering composers the opportunity to express their creativity and at the same time deepening the spiritual experience of the faithful. The importance of organ music can also be seen in the fact that organ music is part of the UNESCO Intangible world heritage of mankind.

Dieterich Buxtehude, who was already considered an important organ virtuoso and composer during his lifetime, worked at St. Mary’s. The “ Lübeck Evening Music” were known far beyond Lübeck. Buxtehude’s catalog of works lists 275 surviving numbers. In 1703, George Frideric Handel was interested in succeeding him as organist of St. Mary’s and at the turn of the year 1706-1707, Johann Sebastian Bach visited the famous musician. He had made the pilgrimage on foot from Arnstadt to Lübeck to “listen” to Buxtehude. To learn from him and find inspiration. A stay of 4 weeks was planned. Bach stayed for 4 months. Legend has it that Bach might even have succeeded Buxtehude had it not been for the fact that he was obliged to marry Buxtehude’s daughter Anna Margaretha, who was said to be “of austere charm”.

The organ on which Buxtehude played was destroyed in 1942. With 101 stops and 8512 pipes, the teak Kemper organ in the vault today is one of the largest church organs with mechanical action. The longest pipe measures 11 metres, while the smaller pipes are only a few millimeters long. If you stand in the central nave of St. Mary’s and look up, you can only see a very small part of the organ pipes.


The murals and a scandal

Wall paintings played a central role in the churches of the Middle Ages, especially for ordinary people who could not read or write. These artistic depictions were visual sermons and instructive stories that helped the faithful to understand the most important aspects of the Christian faith. In addition to biblical scenes, the lives of the saints were also depicted.

Wall paintings also served to convey moral teachings.

Scenes of the Last Judgement, torments in hell and heavenly rewards reminded believers of the consequences of their actions and encouraged them to live a life pleasing to God. These depictions were powerful and often had more impact than words.

The Gothic image of St. Mary lasted until 1476. Apart from St. Christopher, who can still be seen today – reworked and renewed – larger than life on one of the pillars of the nave, the painting was removed. Walls and pillars were whitewashed, creating space for baroque altars and epithaphs.

The heat of the fire in St. Mary’s in March 1942 revealed paintings from 1330 that had been hidden under the thick layer of lime whitewash. Systematic uncovering and restoration began as early as 1944.

One of the restorers, Lothar Malskat, did too much of a good thing: he designed the figures of saints in the choir himself. An art book with paintings from the Middle Ages served as a model. After completion, he worked on the pictures with sandstone, powder bags and sponges to make them look as old as possible. In addition, he usually signs them in a hidden place with t. f. L. M.(totum fecit Lothar Malskat). In 1955, he was convicted of fraud and forgery. Malskat’s overpaintings have been preserved in the nave, while the forgeries painted in the choir spandrels were completely washed away in 1957.

Take the time to stroll around the church and get an impression of the 14th century interior and the colours of the time. Red and green dominate. The pale walls and pillars of the nave are covered with ashlar paintings with red joints. You will also notice the deep red of the choir pillars. And do you recognise the larger-than-life figures of saints in the nave under the clerestory windows? They don’t look so big from where you’re standing, do they?

Wall paintings in St. Marien in Buxtehude
Crucifixion group in a blind area

The epitaphs and the commemoration

Until March 1942, St. Mary’s wore a baroque dress. The interior contained almost 40 side altars and individual works of art and so many epitaphs that St. Mary’s Church was also known as the “Hall of Fame of the Lübeck Patriciate“. Only a few of the 80 Baroque epitaphs – memorial plaques of wealthy Lübeck citizens, mayors and aldermen – have been preserved. The large marble and alabaster epitaph of the merchant Füchting in the north aisle was made in Amsterdam in 1633/1634. I have already introduced you to the Stiftshof in Glockengießerstraße, named after Füchting, in an article. You can find it here. The Füchting epitaph also includes a magnificent three-armed brass candelabrum from 1636 with an inscription.

Chandeliers were donated by private individuals or corporations. The chandeliers that you can still see in the interior today come from the 16. and 17th century. On some of them you will recognize the name and coat of arms of the founders on shields. I like the many cross-connections that closely link individual objects in St. Mary’s with Lübeck’s history.

IMG 5281 scaled
Chandelier of the Novgorod seafarers from 1768

St. Mary’s as your place

I like to walk around the church and enjoy the different perspectives. It is impossible not to look up again and again. With a clear height of 38.5 metres, the interior is simply overwhelming. Looking at the slender buttresses and pointed arches, it is easy to understand the motivation of the 120 or so founding families and the master builders, who wanted the church to represent heaven on earth and convey a sense of closeness to God.

I am also fascinated by the technical innovation of the master builders. The brick basilica on the highest point of Lübeck’s Old Town was built over a period of about 100 years – between 1250 and 1350. Looking north from the altar towards the organ, you can even see that the floor of the church is slightly sloping. Some real pioneers were at work back then! It is not for nothing that the building is part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Perhaps you would like to simply sit down somewhere and feel the spatial experience?

The changing moods illuminate a different part of the room each time. You could light a candle on the Tree of Lights in memory of a loved one. And in a very simple side chapel, you are invited to write down (your) greatest wish and place the paper in a small box. I am sure there is one place in the room where you can recharge your batteries and feel safe. You don’t need an understanding of art history or a specific belief to feel this. Just a willingness to engage.

St. Mary’s is open daily from 10:00 – 18:00. As your contribution to financing the preservation of this church and its art treasures, a fee of € 4.00, the so-called MarienTaler, is charged. At various locations in the church, you can immerse yourself in audio sequences that provide detailed information free of charge via QR codes. If you fancy a little pre-visit, watch our video.

You can enjoy the wonderful sound of the organs in St. Mary’s almost every day. The programme is available here.

My tip: Admission is free to the“Orgelpunkt Zwölf” concerts at lunchtime.

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written by:

Barbara Schwartz