Wolfenbüttel: Where Mediaeval and Baroque Meet

If you are ever in Lower Saxony (Nieder Sachsen, as they call it) and looking for a nice, quiet place to spend one or two days, I recommend to you Wolfenbüttel. Wolfenbüttel is a small city about ten minutes by train from the larger smallish city of Braunschweig. Its two highlights are the baroque Schloss (palace) and the Herzog August Bibliothek. However, wandering through this old town, untouched by the extensive bombing of Germany by the Allies in WWII, you will find other wonders to tickle your fancy. If you like late mediaeval timber-frame buildings, that is.

Wolfenbüttel has, I understand, over 600 of these intact. And many buildings built in the intervening centuries match them in style. Walking from the Baroque Schloss and Bibliothek into the Aldstadt (old city), over one of Wolfenbüttel’s many waterways, is a passage from one time long past – the 1700s – to another, those last years of the Middle Ages, picturesquely portrayed before you like a fairytale.

It is difficult to really explain the effect of walking through a city centre where almost every building is built in this style. It is a breathtaking and enchanting sight. The atmosphere is automatically different, as you walk down street after street, surrounded by these centuries-old reminders of days past.

In these buildings are shops, bars, cafés, houses, offices – all the regular places of a modern city. But each of them is enveloped by this ancient style of building. And so, for this reason alone, Wolfenbüttel is well worth a visit.

Perhaps late mediaeval doesn’t quite tug your heartstrings the way it does mine. No matter, for perhaps the Baroque calls your name! Wolfenbüttel has a very lovely Baroque Schloss, Bibliothek, and Hauptkirche – Kirche Beatae Mariae Virginis, as well as a very sizeable Baroque church down the street from the Hauptkirche, Trinitatiskirche.

The latter is simple, red sandstone on the outside. Within, however, all is light, all is glory. It is not as ornate as some Baroque churches I’ve met – its sister down the road or Theatinerkirche down in Munich, for example. But it is a fine specimen, with ornament and light all around. It interests me because, unlike the traditionalist, more ‘catholic’ Hauptkirche of a century before it, Trinitatiskirche is more Reformed in style – the pulpit is central, and the original gallery goes around the sides of the nave.

This is not to downplay the loveliness of Trinitatiskirche’s sister, though! Wolfenbüttel’s Hauptkirche is a wonder to behold. Its exterior is in highly-ornamented grey stone (I can’t name rocks; sorry), with a larger-than-life Moses on one side of the main (western) entrance, his brother Aaron on the other. I observed multiple Green Men scattered across this building’s exterior.

The inside – well, I think the Baroque frame of mind is something along the lines of, ‘Hey, look, I could put stuff there!’ Every pillar has painted decadence in the form of ‘cherubs’* surmounting various leafy things. And the multiple-kinds-of marble pulpit – why not put seven saints on it? And hey, Moses would sure make a good central pillar, wouldn’t he? The altarpiece is an endless riot of carvings, showing Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. That sort of thing. And unlike a lot of other Baroque survivals, the Kirche BMV has a lot of these items in full colour. Fantastic.

The biggest Baroque building in Wolfenbüttel is the Schloss, former home of the local dukes. Its opera stage no longer exists, but its exterior, flanked by a small platoon of classical-esque Baroque sculptures stands there to greet you. And you can tour part its inside, where the only surviving High Baroque state apartments of northern Germany are available to you – stucco ceilings, ornate furniture, paintings, fancy dishes, and all that jazz. Also, a wee museum with a must-see porcelain room, including a set of Commedia dell’Arte figurines (not so numerous as at the Gardiner, but one takes what is available).

The Herzog August Bibliothek, built by Duke (Herzog) August in the early 1700s is our next bit of Baroque in town. It’s across a lawn from the Schloss, and a grand building it is. Here you will find a lovely Baroque central room with a painted dome. But more importantly, you will find books. Books and books and books. The Bibliotheksmuseum has a nice handful of mediaeval manuscripts on display, primarily psalters, evangeliars, breviaries, books of hours, and the like, all of them lovely and all of them worth looking.

The Herzog August Bibliothek specialises in rare books, and has done since August founded it. Today, they are an important research library with extensive holdings of mediaeval manuscripts and early printed books, as well as the requisite collection of modern literature that serves as an aid to the study of the rare books. This library brought me to Wolfenbüttel, and I happily spent time with a parchment (made from animal skins) manuscript from the second quarter of the 800s and a paper one from the 1500s. The paper manuscript was the more fragile. Also, that bookhand was considerably harder to read than the older one.

I love Caroline minuscules.

And if all that history and architecture doesn’t get your motor running, Wolfenbüttel is home to Jägermeister.

*Really, they should be putti or cupids. Any of you who know the Bible would have to agree that these little fellows are not cherubic at all.

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