The Harz mountain region of Germany is known for its narrow gauge railways that pass ancient towns as they zigzag en route to the Brocken, the mountain range’s highest peak. One of those picturesque locales is Quedlinburg, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is such an outstanding example of a medieval town.
In the building’s council hall, six hand-painted murals illustrate scenes from Quedlinburg history, illuminated by a stained glass window that depicts the passing of the crown to Henry I, the first king of Germany who was known as Henry the Fowler, in 919.
A tiny passageway leads from this busy place into the Schuhhof, a courtyard where shoemakers once offered their wares from shuttered windows. When the shutters were folded down, the shoemakers were open for business; when the shutters covered the windows, their businesses were closed. This practice led to the term “closing time.”
Nearby stands the oldest house in Quedlinburg — a stone house that was built between 1215 and 1301.
Over 1,200 half-timbered houses from six centuries line the town’s narrow, cobblestoned streets. Ornamental features that characterize this region’s style of Fachwerk houses include sun motifs within triangular fields at the end of upright beams, diamond cuts at the end of horizontal beams, and geometric forms such as stars and rosettes.
In the Market Churchyard, we found a row of half-timbered houses adorned with decorative features known as Ship’s Keels, Foot Bands and St. Andrew’s Crosses.
A trumpet carved into the timber of one house built by master carpenter Martin Lange in 1688 suggests the occupation of one of its previous residents — the town piper, who used a trumpet to draw attention to the notices and decisions of the city council.
Other half-timbered homes in the area are adorned with typical ornate decorations of Lower Saxony, such as fan rosettes, rope mouldings, roll-shaped beam heads, diamond-shaped carvings, small pyramids under the upper floors, and carved inscriptions.
More picturesque half-timbered houses populate the narrow cobblestone streets leading to the castle hill. One is the birthplace of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, the 18th-century poet best known for his epic poem, The Messiah. Today, the house is a museum to his accomplishments in founding a new era of German literature that was eventually characterized by the works of Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Next door is the Lyonel Feininger Gallery, devoted to the artist who was the master printmaker of the Bauhaus art movement.
St. Servatius, the Romanesque church that towers above the town on a steep sandstone rock, is around the bend.
The church is significant for several reasons. Its crypt holds the vault where Henry I was buried in 936. Next to it is the stone sarcophagus of his wife, Queen Mathilda, who founded a religious community for noblewomen and became a Catholic saint. Her sarcophagus has never been removed from the place where it was positioned following her death in 968. The ceiling of the crypt is decorated with faint traces of medieval paintings depicting Biblical scenes.
In 1179, a special room was added to the church to hold some exquisite medieval treasures. During World War II, the treasures were stored in 16 chests that were placed in in bomb-proof caves under the Altenburg mountains until American troops occupied Quedlinburg. When the treasure was returned to the church, it was discovered that two chests had been opened and 12 pieces were missing. For more than 40 years, the pieces were considered lost. Then, it was discovered that an American lieutenant named Joe Tom Meador had stolen them and sent them to his Texas hometown by army mail. Ten of the stolen pieces were returned and are back on display in the church’s treasury.
In the dimly lit room, we beheld magnificent things like Henry I’s ornamental comb, made of ivory with a handle shaped like a lyre, carved with a vine motif and inlaid with garnets and pearls; a large alabaster jug, described as one of the jugs in which Jesus made water into wine at the Feast of Cana; and a circa-1200 reliquary made in Quedlinburg that features ivory reliefs, enamel and filigree work, and gemstones, including an enormous amethyst engraved with a head of Dionysius.
In another room, we saw pieces of the famed Quedlinburg knotted carpet, a large pictorial carpet made for the church around 1200 that depicts scenes of Mercury’s marriage to Philology, the queen of the sciences.
For more on Quedlinburg’s treasures, read William Honan’s Treasure Hunt: A New York Times Reporter Tracks the Quedlinburg Hoard and The Quedlinburg Treasury, by Anne Bromberg.