The Marienkirche tower presides over what some sources claim to be the largest market square in Germany (although frankly I have my doubts about whether this is really true or not). Regardless of its relative size ranking, the square is a vast space so disproportionate to the modestly compact size of the rest of the town that I found it almost impossible to imagine it half way full.
With an area of approximately 10,000 square metres, it is about the same size as the Old Town Square in Prague or the Grote Markt Square in Brussels - but located in the heart of a town that has only a tiny fraction of the population of these cities. I imagine that it would probably be particularly beautiful during its famous Christmas market, which runs from late November to late December each year (but as I'm a bit of a Christmas junkie, I probably think that every Northern and Central European city square is at its best over that period!).
The Marienkirche (Church of Mary) was the tallest of Wismar's three Gothic churches, and so inevitably attracted the attention of the squadron of bombers that was sent to decimate Wismar during mid April 1945 - sadly only three weeks before the end of the war.
In 1960, the East German authorities razed the damaged remains of the church - with the exception of the tower - in what has been reported as a punitive act of cultural vandalism designed to punish those townsfolk who valued the Marienkiche's religious and cultural significance.
The Marienkirche's tower is 82m high and looms over the Wismar skyline from virtually every angle, making it a useful landmark for navigation.
Of all the Red Brick Gothic churches we visited in this part of the world - and that was a lot - St Nikolai in Wismar was my unquestionable favourite. It sits on the northern fringe of the old town, in a quietly picturesque location adjacent to a small canal and away from the main thoroughfare. It is a place that encourages contemplation and feels like a church that is still in use as a regular place of worship, rather than just a tourist attraction.
St Nikolai is located close to the port and was built to serve Wismar's fishing and seafaring community - in a touching nod to the town's longstanding relationship with Sweden, there is an altar specifically dedicated to Swedish sailors. It is a massive church with three aisles and immensely high ceilings and was designed on such a vast scale that it took nearly 125 years to build (being only completed in 1508).
It was the only one of the three large Gothic churches to survive intact from the World War II bombing raid. However, it did not emerge completely unscathed, as some of its stunning wood carvings were burned as firewood by desperate townsfolk in their attempt to survive the last winter of the war. Other works of art were saved by bricking them behind a false wall in the church to prevent them being looted. Today it houses some gorgeous ecclesiastical art salvaged from other locations - most notably the jawdroppingly beautiful Altar of Martyrs, which was originally located in a Dominican friary.
The New Church next to the ruin of Marienkirche takes us back to the times of destruction and need after the end of the war. Among the debris, people needed consolation and prayed for a better future. Rebuilding Marienkirche and Georgenkirche was (and still is) a distant dream. As a substitute the small Neue Kirche was built next to the ruin of Marienkirche in 1951. Provisories often have a long life...
The parishes needed new churches that were cheap, easy to build and didn't look too much like barracks. In 1948 the architect Otto Bartning, famous for his protestant church architecture since the 1920s, developed a construction kit, a skeleton of prefabricated wooden frames that could be set up in a day or two. The walls were then filled with bricks from the debris, a work the parish people could do by themselves. Windows and doors were again prefabricated.
About 50 of these so-called "Notkirchen" were built all over Germany in the years 1948-1951 (so Wismar is one of the latest). They show the architect's genius even more than his big pre-war buildings. From practically nothing he created rooms of timeless beauty. Wood and bricks make a warm, homely atmosphere.
The altar and the bronze baptismal font are medieval pieces from Marienkirche that have been saved. They were transferred into the new church and are still in use.
In market square and next to Alter Schwede, this house was built around 1900 when Jugendstil was en vogue. Its stepped gable is an interesting translation of Hanseatic brick gothic architecture into the language of art nouveau.
The house of the main priest at Marienkirche in a brick gothic building, erected around 1450. The stepped gable must be the most beautiful of its kind in Wismar – right now (summer 2009) the building is in restauro and hidden behind scaffolding. All you get is a glimpse through gaps in the plastic foil.
The main street to the west was named after the direction it leads to. Lübsch, lübisch is the adjective that refers to the city of Lübeck.
The wide street is accompanied by the typical gable facades from all eras, some painted in bright colours.
Heilig-Geist-Hospital is the main sight in this street (see separate tip).
Wismar’s mayor Hinrich Schabbell had the house and brewery built in 1596-1571. He employed the same Dutch architect who designed the Wasserkunst a few years later. It was one of the earliest renaissance buildings along the Baltic Sea coast and shows the typical Dutch “bacon layer” design with white limestone ornaments in the red brick (now plastered and painted) wall.
The building hosts the historical museum which presents the culture and history of the city and its surroundings. The original Schwedenköpfe can be admired here, as well as Nix und Nixe* from the Wasserkunst. The medieval past as member of the Hansa is presented, another part of the exhibition presents the Swedish era. The art collection of an adventurous sailor from Wismar who travelled the whole world and finally settled in Australia together with his two sisters is shown. The industry is represented by the shipyards and the train factory. Etc…
*Nix and Nixe (photo 4), a male and a female water spirit, served as water taps inside the Wasserkunst, later they were transferred to the outside. In the 19th century they were removed "for reasons of morality" - hmmm, understandable...
The museum is not big, you can comfortably see everything in 30-60 minutes. For English speaking visitors there are booklets with explanations about the more important pieces to be borrowed in every room.
The huge church is even more impressive from inside. The central nave is 37 m high and one of the highest in Germany. This structure is completely built from bricks.
Nikolai hosts several art works that belong to the two other, destroyed churches, Marienkirche and Georgenkirche. Unlike those the building is intact and fully functional as a church, so it gets less attention, but St Nikolai is in urgent need of restoration, too.
The church is open in the daytime. Donations for the restoration are welcome.
More pictures of the architecture and art works in the travelogue page
The old harbour basin closest to the old town is still about the same size as in the middle ages. The harbour has extended, the outer parts are now a small but modern cargo port for wood, grain, chemicals and other goods. Then there are the shipyards. The economical crisis has hit Wismar’s harbour with full force. Rumours about the shipyards going bankrupt are around every now and then.
Walk the promenade along the old harbour basin for views of the harbour, the bay and the old town skyline. If you are lucky the Wismaria is in, a reconstructed medieval Hansa ship, which adds a lot to the flair.
Krämerstraße, Hinter dem Rathaus and Altwismarstraße are the city’s shopping streets and pedestrian zone. There is a lot of old architecture along these streets mixed with modern buildings. Here is the liveliest part of the city and the streets have smooth stone pavement instead of the usual cobblestone.
The Ducal palace was the seat of the Dukes of Mecklenburg until 1648. The building has an L-shape. The western wing is the older, it was built in 1512-1513 and still shows gothic ‘curtain’ windows. The northern wing was built in 1553-1555 and adopts the Italian renaissance, thus the ‘modern’ style of those times. Its façade is richly decorated with figures and ornaments in limestone and terracotta.
After Wismar became property of Sweden in 1648, the building became the seat of the highest Swedish law court for the North-German possessions. Nowadays it hosts the regional law court.
The “tree house” was the house of an important official in the harbour who was in charge of opening and closing the “tree”. The “tree” was a long wooden beam which was attached to two poles to close the harbour basin at night and in danger to keep ship from entering and exiting.
Those two poles used to be decorated with the woodcarved Schwedenköpfe (Swedish heads). Copies of these are now put up in front of the Baumhaus, the originals are at Schabbellhaus museum.
The Church of St George, another huge brick gothic building, was severely damaged by World War II bombs. The DDR administration did not bother with rebuilding the ruin. At least it was not blown up like Marienkirche. The outer walls and arcades were still standing but without a roof. They were left as they were for 40 years.
In 1990 construction works began. In the meantime the vaults and the roofs have been closed and the facades repaired. An altar has been put up in the choir, which is already used for church services. The rest of the interior is still a construction site. Works are in progress, though. There is hope for this impressive building.
The people of Wismar dream of rebuilding Marienkirche. The surrounding walls and pillars have already been rebuilt up to a height of about 1 metre. If you want to help to make the impossible come true, you can support the project by donating a brick. For 10 € you receive a certificate and a brick which you can sign with the date and your name or whatever you want to write on it. These bricks will be used for building so your signature will remain in the church wall forever.
I donated one in the name of my little Australian travel companion…
An exhibition in and around the steeple shows more about the history of Marienkirche, a model of what it looked like, historical building machinery and a brickmaker’s workshop.