St Stephens Minster

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Things to do


Date of travel

August, 2016

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St Stephen’s Cathedral stands on top of a steep volcanic cliff high above the town of “Breisach.”:

It is a steep climb, but well worth the effort.

Dating from the C12, with later additions, the Cathedral was almost completely destroyed by bombs in 1945. Fortunately many of the furnishings as well as the west end survived. It took 20 years to rebuild it to the original design. The walls are a mix of light coloured sandstone and darker volcanic rock, with some plastered. Much of the building is Romanesque, although the apse at the east end is Gothic. There were plans to rebuilt the Romanesque west end but fortunately work ground to a halt because of political uncertainty at the time.

The ground drops steeply to the east and the east end is built over a crypt. This is now open to the elements with its central pillar supporting the vaulted ceiling.

The tympanum above the west door has scenes from the life of St Stephen, with his ordination, preaching and death by stoning at the bottom. Above is his burial.

The west end with its late C15th wall paintings was the only part of the church to survive the bombing. The rest has all been rebuilt and the new architecture melds seamlessly into the old.

The murals were painted by Martin Schongauer, one of the most talented painter in the area. They are some of the largest to survive north of the Alps. They were restored in the 1990s when varnish applied in the 1930s restoration was carefully removed.

They represent the Last Judgement. On the west wall Christ in a green robe sits on a rainbow. Mary and John the Baptist kneel at his feet with the apostles, prophets and patriarchs of the church. On either side of the window are angels with the emblems of Christ’s Passion. On either side of the door, the dead, awakened by trumpets are rising out of their graves. Those on the right have expressions of wonder. Those on the left expressions of despair. The north wall is covered with images of hell fire and damnation.The south wall has images of Heaven. The Latin inscription speaks of the delights of redemption.

The rest of the church is simple with solid square pillars and pointed arches separating the nave from the side aisles. The clerestory windows are plain glass. The side aisles have abstract designs of Biblical stories. These flood the area with colour and made photography difficult at times as they gave a colour cast to teh pictures. I never did manage to get a picture of the font in the south transept.

The stone chancel screen dates from 1490 and is beautifully carved with images of the Virgin Mary, her parent Joachim and Anne as well as the patronal saints Gervasius and Protasius. The reverse is a lot more plain with the Annunciation with God the Father at the centre top.

In front of the screen, in a modern glass altar is a silver reliquary dating from 1496 which holds the relics of Gervasius and Protasius. They were two brothers who were martyred by the Emperor Nero. The reliquary is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship with the crucifixion with figures of the saints on either side. It is supported by four gilded wooden lions.

The reredos above the high altar dates from the early C16th and is one of the most important pieces of German wood carving. In the centre is the Coronation of the Virgin Mary with God the Father, Christ and the Holy Spirit represented by a dove. On the left are St Stephen and St Lawrence. On the left Gervasius and Protasius. Beneath are the four evangelists with their symbols.

The solid wood choir stalls with their carved misericords are late Gothic

In the north transept is a small chapel with a crucifix above the altar with the Virgin Mary and St John. Near it is a C15th carved wood scene of the burial of Christ, with the sleeping Roman soldiers beneath, which was probably part of a late Gothic altar.

The cathedral is open daily and is well worth the steep climb. The views across the rooftops of Breisach are pretty good too.

There is more information and pictures “here.”: .


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