Basel’s cathedral at 1,000
Basel's landmark building is celebrating a birthday! With its red sandstone and two slender towers, the famous “Münster” soars high over the city. The cathedral is the face of Basel – after all, it can be seen in almost every image of the city. Its hidden secrets astonish many a visitor. For example, here are six facts for you.
Elephants from the 12th century.
They look a little peculiar somehow. Their ears and trunks, reminiscent of flippers, a bulging chest and teeth which look almost human. And still these elephant sculptures, enthroned upon the walls at the far end of the cathedral, make a big impression on many a visitor. How were the 12th century sculptors able to guess at their appearance? Inspired by tales and pattern books, they attempted a true-to-life reconstruction of these animals. That they succeeded but partially only increases our pleasure today.
What would the cathedral be without its towers?
Only a few people know that there were once five of them: next to the Georgsturm (St. George’s tower) on the left and the Martinsturm (St. Martin’s tower) on the right, there was also a “crossing tower” and two towers flanking the choir area. After the great Basel earthquake of 1356, only two of the five towers were rebuilt.
What’s more, appearances are deceiving: the towers appear to be the same height, but this is an optical illusion. At 67.3 metres tall, the Georgsturm is actually almost two metres taller than the Martinsturm. Make the 250-step climb to the top and you will be rewarded with a panoramic view across the whole of Basel.
The golden altartpiece is coming home
On the occasion of its consecration, Emperor Henry II gifted the cathedral a golden altar frontal – the Basel Antependium – mounted on an oakwood core and divided into five panels each containing an effigy, modelled on ancient sarcophagus reliefs. Anyone wishing to see this showpiece usually has to travel to Paris, where it has been on display at the Musée de Cluny since 1852. So, how did it come to be in Paris in the first place?
In 1833, as a result of Basel’s division into the cantons of Basel-Stadt and Basel-Land, the valuable cathedral treasure was divided up. Two thirds went to the poorer, but larger, Basel-Land. However, it had to sell most of the treasures. And that is how the golden altarpiece came into the hands of the French state.
Now, for a special exhibition entitled Gold & Glory – Gifts for Eternity, the altarpiece is coming home again: from 11 October 2019 to 19 January 2020 it will be on show at the Kunstmuseum Basel; a bit of a sensation!
Erasmus of Rotterdam has his resting place here
During his lifetime, theologian and humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam found his way to Basel on a number of occasions, and ultimately died here, in 1536, at the age of around seventy. Although a Catholic, he was interred in the Protestant cathedral, where his tomb in the northern aisle can be seen by visitors. His accomplishments are listed here in a 25-line Latin inscription. The commemorative plaque was commissioned by three humanist friends from Basel: Bonifacius Amerbach, Hieronymus Froben and Nikolaus Bischoff.
Erasmus of Rotterdam was a trailblazer for the Reformation. Up until his death, he had his writings printed here. His edition of the New Testament in the original Greek was first printed by Johann Froben. The cathedral is thus even now seen not only as a symbol for Basel’s religious history, but also as a starting point for the city's spiritual development and as one of the birthplaces of European humanism.
Locals call it the “whispering arch” – the round arch forming the door frame at the bottom of the Georgsturm on the left-hand side. If you whisper something on one side, your listener will hear every word clearly at the other side of the arch. The reason for this is what is known as an “acoustic mirror”, which focuses the sound and relays the sound waves in this concentrated form. This phenomenon is especially popular with children.
Parts of the Gothic choir stalls can be found across the entire interior of the cathedral. The stalls were constructed in 1363 for the cathedral's canons. With 96 seats, they remain one of the largest seating installations in a cathedral in the German-speaking world. These valuable pews are ornamented with depictions of people, animals, hybrid creatures and emblems.
Something known to very few: Today’s rather slangy phrase “Klappe halten!” (“Shut up!”) originated with these very choir stalls: on sitting down, the canons had to hold onto the heavy hinged wooden leaf (“Klappe”) of the seat to make sure it did not come down with a bang and thus cause a great racket in the church. And so the canons would say to each other: “Halt die Klappe!” (literally “Hold the leaf”)