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Saxony’s career within the medieval German empire is striking. It took Emperor Charlemagne over 20 years to subjugate the rebellious Saxons and make them a loyal member of the Frankish Empire. And only some 100 years later, Saxons successfully rule the vast realm as emperors themselves. With the election of the Saxon duke Henry I to the royal throne in 919, the Ottonian dynasty’s rise to power began. By founding palaces and endowing the church, they distinguished their Saxon heartland stretching from the fabled, densely forested Harz Mountains to the sandy plains around Magdeburg on the river Elbe. Quedlinburg, one of the region’s many beautifully preserved or sensitively restored towns, became the preferred site of imperial visits. Some of Germany’s most spectacular Ottonian architecture is to be found in and around this delightful half-timbered town. To enforce their rule, the emperors heavily relied on the learned bishops of their realm. Their impressive cathedrals in Hildesheim, Halberstadt, and Magdeburg, replete with sumptuous sculpture in stone, wood, stucco and bronze, testify for Saxony’s international artistic connections at the time. The wealth of church treasuries in this region, the precious metalworks and textile arts they hoard, are hardly paralleled anywhere else in the country. Monumental works of art in bronze – church doors, chandeliers, a throne and an altar – are preserved in pristine conditions in Goslar and Hildesheim. When the Ottonian house became extinct in the male line, power shifted from Saxony to the Rhine. However, the new Salian emperors remained loyal to Saxony, again testified by artistic treasures created for Saxon institutions on imperial commission. And not before long, a Saxon duke, Henry the Lion, will challenge imperial power by marking his claim to the throne with yet another palace and church building, this time in his residence at Braunschweig.
Morning flight from London Heathrow to Berlin. Transfer by private coach to Magdeburg. Its cathedral – a miraculous survival of the vagaries of the city’s troubled history – is among Germany’s most impressive. It was begun in 1207 after the original building, erected at the instigation of emperor Otto the Great, had burnt down. The rebuilding’s architectural styles and rich decorations include the remains of an Ottonian crypt and spectacular early Gothic sculptures, incunabula’s of the new style in Germany. Continue to Quedlinburg to our cosy four-star hotel, our base for the first three nights.
Leave the hotel on foot for an exploration of Quedlinburg. Its many beautifully decorated half-timbered houses built over a period of 600 years make it one of Germany’s best-preserved medieval towns. Perched upon a hilltop above town, the collegiate church of St Servatius offers an abundance of 10th to 12th century art and architecture including exceptional fragments of a knitted carpet and an awe-inspiring crypt with the tombs of the first Ottonian king, Henry, and his wife. After visiting the archaic Wiperti crypt we take a short coach ride to neighbouring Gernrode for a visit of the collegiate church of St Cyriakus, a rare, almost complete survivor of Ottonian church architecture.
Full-day coach excursion. En route to near-by Halberstadt we visit the outstanding Romanesque collegiate church of St Pankratius at Hamersleben. With its freshly restored architecture it evokes the severity of Cluniac monasticism. Halberstadt’s cathedral is a perfect example of French Gothic transferred onto Saxon soil. Fine sculpture and stained-glass windows embellish the interior, while in the adjacent cloister three large 12th century tapestries and precious Byzantine reliquaries are the main attraction. Across the cathedral square, the Romanesque former Augustinian collegiate church has a rare choir screen adorned with polychrome stucco relief figures.
A scenic coach ride takes us right through the Harz Mountains, past the legendary Broken, and to Goslar. The town gained importance when silver mines were discovered in the vicinity and an imperial palace was first erected in the 11th century. Although its grand hall has been lavishly decorated with a 19th century cycle of historicising wall paintings, the architecture is a rare survivor of secular architecture of the Ottonian-Salian period. Two major works of bronze art, an altar and a throne, document the throne controversies between the excommunicated emperor Henry IV and his rival, the counter-king Rudolf. Continue by coach to Hildesheim. First of three nights in Hildesheim.
A day on foot to explore Hildesheim. In the morning we visit St Michael’s church, a pious foundation of Hildesheim’s most famous medieval bishop, Bernward (†1033). This magnificent building represents the epitome of grand Ottonian architecture with its double choirs and transepts, monumental crossing towers and the newly invented cushion capital. The recent, exquisite refurbishment of the cathedral has created a most tasteful surrounding for the outstanding works of art it houses: the famous bronze church doors commissioned by Bishop Bernward in 1015, two massive chandeliers suspended from the ceiling of the nave, and a bronze column. A plethora of goldsmith works is on display in the treasury situated in the cloister with its fabled 1000-year old rose. The church of St Godehard offers well-preserved 12th architecture with elaborately carved capitals.
Half-day coach excursion to Höxter. The abbey of Corvey lies idyllically just outside Höxter. Founded in the 9th century, the imposing westwork of the abbey church is among the most important architectural remains of the Carolingian era. Return to Hildesheim for a free afternoon.
By coach to Braunschweig (Brunswik), once the residence of the Saxon Duke Henry the Lion and his English wife, Matilda. To underline his claim to the imperial throne, Henry rebuilt the ducal castle in a grand style modelled on the imperial palace in Goslar. Today’s cathedral of Braunschweig was built a Henry’s and Matilda’s burial church and lavishly decorated with artworks in bronze, wood, and stone. Some free time in the afternoon allows you to visit the rich art collection of the newly refurbished Herzog-Anton-Ulrich Museum. After an early dinner together, we set of for Berlin airport and the flight back to London Heathrow.