St. Mary's Church, Lübeck

The Lutheran Marienkirche (St. Mary's church) in Lübeck (German: Lübecker Marienkirche or officially St. Marien zu Lübeck: St. Mary's of Lübeck) was constructed between 1250 and 1350. For many years it has been a symbol of the power and prosperity of the old Hanseatic city, and as Germany's third largest church it remains the tallest building of the old part of Lübeck. It is larger than Lübeck Cathedral . Along with the city, the church has been listed by UNESCO as of cultural significance.

It is a model for the brick Gothic style of northern Germany, reflected in approximately 70 churches in the Baltic Area. In Lübeck, the high-rising Gothic style of France was adapted to north German brick. At 38.5 meters (125 ft) the church has the highest brick vault in the world. Taking the weather vanes into account, the towers are 124.95 meters (406 ft) and 124.75 meters (405.5 ft) high.

St. Mary's is located in the merchant's borough, which stretches from the docks of the River Trave all the way up to the church itself. It is the main church of the local council and the people of Lübeck, and was erected near the market and town hall.

History and construction

Constructions previously began during the course of the first German colonization, resulting in a wooden church and then during the reformation of the town's establishment in 1156, a bigger Romanesque brick church. However, in the 13th century the prestigious spatial demands of the self-conscious, commercially motivated inhabitants were no longer satisfied. Romanesque sculptures of the décor of this second Marienkirche are shown today in the St. Annen Museum.

Gothic Cathedrals in France and the Flanders made out of natural stone were examples of modern construction from the three aisled Lübeck Basilika. It is an exemplary stone gothic church and was the model for many churches in the Baltic Sea area.

No one had ever built a church complete with a vault this high before. A system of stilts diverts the force of the vault over a buttress, thus making the enormous height possible. The incentive for the Lübeck town council to commence such a huge construction was justified due to an acrimonious dispute with the Lübeck Diocese. It was wanted as a symbol of the free will of remote buyers and the world power of the city after obtaining Reichsfrei status in 1226. With this huge structure dwarfing the nearby romanesque Bishop’s church in the market (founded by Heinrich der Löwe: Henry the Lion) and the Lübeck town hall, it was a claim of supremacy regarding the acquisition of power opposite emerging members of the Hanseatic League of 1356.

The Briefkapelle, or Epistle Chapel, was added by the south tower in 1310. This chapel with its doorway to the public market also served as an entrance hall to the cathedral itself. Another significant chapel was added in 1390 by the Rat (city council). This brick chapel belongs not to the church but to the city council itself.

In 1310 the Briefkapelle was built on to the east of the south tower. At the same time it was an atrium and chapel, and formed a portal; the church's second main entrance conveniently in the direction of the market. Probably originally dedicated to the Holy Anna, the chapel received its current name during the Church Reformation, when paid scribes began to move in. The chapel, 12 m long, 8 m deep and 2 m high is arched over a stone vault and is considered a master work of high gothic construction. It has often been compared to English gothic cathedrals and the chapter house of Marienburg. Today the Letter Chapel serves the community as a church during winter, with services from January to March: the main church area is far too cold to be used at that time of year.

On the southeast corner of the ambulatory, the town council built its own chapel in 1390, known as the Bürgermeisterkapelle (literally: mayoral chapel). This can be recognized by the difference of glazed and unglazed brick on the outside walls. In the upper floor of the chapel is the "Trese" (tresecamere), the well secured depository for municipal documents, rights, handfasts and contracts of the Lübeck city council. This part of the church is still used to hold town property today.

From 1444 the eastern section of the ambulatory was extended with a single bayed chapel, its 5 walls forming five eighths of an octagon – the last gothic extension of the church. This chapel served as the location for sung hourly prayers as part of the Marienverehrung (St Mary's Worship), the Marienzeiten or Marientiden and consequently earned the names Marientidenkapelle (St Mary’s Tidings Chapel or Sängerkapelle (Singer’s Chapel).

In total the Marienkirche has nine large chapels and ten smaller ones. The small ones serve mainly as gravesites for family members of the Lübeck city council.

Destruction and restoration

On the night of Palm Sunday from 28 to 29 March 1942, the church was almost completely burnt out during an Allied bombing raid along with about a fifth of Lübeck city centre, including the Lübeck Cathedral and St. Peter's Church.

The famous Totentanzorgel (Danse Macabre organ), an instrument played by Dieterich Buxtehude and, due to requests asking for it to be examined when it needed repair, most probably Johann Sebastian Bach, was also destroyed. Its namesake artwork Totentanz (Bernt Notke) was replicated in 1701, but destroyed in World War II.

Other works of art also destroyed in the fire include the Gregorsmesse by Bernt Notke, the carved figures of the jube, the Dreifaltigkeitsaltar (Trinity Altar) by Jacob van Utrecht and the Einzug Christi in Jerusalem (Entrance of Christ into Jerusalem) by Friedrich Overbeck. The bells of the church, which fell down during the ensuing blaze, lie where they fell to this day, where they remain as a memorial. They can be seen in the Gedenkkapelle in the south tower.

The church was protected by a temporary roof for the rest of the war. Reconstruction began in 1947, and, in 12 years, the majority was complete. Because of the devastating effect of the fire and the bombing, wooden construction of the roof and spires was dispensed with. Instead, all the spires of churches in Lübeck rebuilt after the war utilized a specially developed construction procedure, in which the roof comprised a layer of lightweight concrete underneath a layer of copper. The copper covering would match the original design and the concrete roof would avoid the possibility of a second fire.

The gilded flèche, which stands 30 metres higher than the nave roof, was recreated in 1980 from old designs and photographs.

Lothar Malskat and the frescos

The heat of the blaze in 1942 had dislodged large sections of plaster from the walls and ceiling, revealing the original decorative paintings of the Middle Ages, some of which were documented by photograph during the Second World War.

In 1948 the job of restoring these gothic frescos was given to Dietrich Fey. In what became the largest counterfeit art scandal after the Second World War, Fey hired local painter Lothar Malskat to provide assistance for this task and together they would use the photographic documentation to restore and recreate likeness to the original walls. Since no paintings of the clerestory of the sanctuary were available, Fey had Malskat invent one. Malskat consequently "supplemented" the area with his own work in the style of the 14th century. In 1951 a committee of experts criticised this work as improper, but only after Malskat's declaration of his deeds in a 1952 judicial hearing.

Public perception overlooked the fact that the actual phonies by Malskat make up only a small part of the church’s abundant paintings; nevertheless they were erased at the insistence of the then-bishop.

The red-green-ochre triad high above the nave’s north wall with its so called Annunciation scene with an angel between two pilgrims, was used as the motif for postcards and as a template for both of the two stamps of the commemorative charity celebrating 700 years of the Marienkirche as of 1951 (Wohltätigkeits-Gedenkausgabe 700 Jahre Marienkirche Lübeck), which produced four million stamps. It is not, as often thought, the work of Malskat, but an original work of the 14th century, as documented by photos taken in 1944.


The Marienkirche was generously equipped by donations from the city council, its authorities and by families and individuals. At the end of the Middle Ages it had 38 altars and 65 other donations. These include:

  • A bronze font in 1337. Until 1942 it was located in the west of church, which is now in the middle of the sanctuary.
  • Darsow-Madonna of 1420, heavily damaged in 1942, restored from hundreds of individual pieces, positioned again in 1989.
  • Sakramentshaus (tabernacle) of 1479 with approximately 1000 bronzed, partly guilded individual pieces, at 9.5 m high, on the north wall of the sanctuary. (Sakramentshaus = Sacrement House)
  • Winged altar of Christian Swarte (around 1495) with the Madonna on the crescent.
  • Gravestone made out of bronze by Bernt Notke for the Hutterock Family (1505) in the prayer chapel in the northerly ambulatory.
  • From the destroyed jube in 1942 only an elbow and the stone figures remain: Elizabeth with John the Baptist as a child, Anna Selbdritt, the Archangel Gabriel and Mary (Annunciation), St. John and St. Dorothea.
  • Sandstone reliefs in the ambulatory (1515) with scenes from the Passion History: in the north foot washing and the Last Supper, in the south Christ in the Gethsemane and his capture.
  • In line with the Last Supper relief is Lübeck's emblem: once significant in Lübecken legend, kleine Maus (small mouse), which gnaws at rose trees. Its contact brings good luck.
  • The rest of the original pews remain in the Marientidenkapelle, as well as the impressive Antwerpener Altar (Antwerp Altar) (1518). Accompanied by scenes from her life, the death of Mary is shown in the centre of the carved festive day side of the double winged altar. The painted second consecration (to be seen during Lent) shows scenes from the life of Jesus and of Mary. If the altar is completely closed (these days during the Holy Week), the Annunciation can be seen.
  • St. John, wooden statue by Henning von der Heyde (around 1505).
  • St. Antonius, stone statue (around 1460).
  • In the Bürgermeisterkapelle (Mayoral Chapel) in the southern ambulatory are parts of the original gothic pews.
  • With Christ weeping, one of the main works of the Nazarene Friedrich Overbeck hangs in the Prayer Chapel in the northerly ambulatory.
  • The choral barriers have been reconstructed from recent time. During the new installation in 1959 the sanctuary had been enclosed with walls to the tower gallery. These were broken off again in the 1990s. The brass poles of the barriers were mainly still standing while wooden parts were completely destroyed in the fire of 1942. Frames and crowns of the arch were reconstructed from their remains with Oakwood.
  • "Verehrung der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit" (Worship of the Holy Trinity) by Bernard van Orley.

The main article from the Baroque period, a vast High Altar which was donated by merchant Thomas Fredenhagen and sculptured by Antwerp sculpturer Thomas Quellinus from marble and porphyry (1697) was heavily damaged in 1942. In 1951 the decision was made not to restore the altar, but to replace it with a simple altar table out of limestone, with a bronze crucifix of Gerhard Marcks. Individual items of the altar are set up in the ambulatory: the Crucifixion with Mary and John, the marble Predella with a relief of the Last Supper as well as the three crowned figures, the allegoric beliefs and the Hope and the return of Christ. The debate as to whether it is possible and desirable to restore the altar as a main piece of baroque art to show European status has not been decided yet.


In the renaissance and baroque periods the church space filled up with more and more epitaphs so that the church became an almost hall of fame of various patriots of Lübeck. The epitaph in the main nave had to be made out of wood due to static reasons, while those in the side naves could also be made from marble. With all 84 wooden epitaphs succumbing to the bombing raid fire in 1942, only 17 stone ones on the walls of the side naves remain, some heavily damaged. These remaining ones give an idea of how generously St. Mary's church was once furnished. The several times restored epitaph of the Schonenfahrer and town councilor Johann Füchting († 1637) is a Dutch work of the transitional period between the Renaissance and Baroque times by the sculptor Aris Claeszon who works from Amsterdam.

The Fredenhagen Altar

The main article from the Baroque period, a vast High Altar which was donated by merchant Thomas Fredenhagen and sculptured by Antwerp sculpturer Thomas Quellinus from marble and porphyr (1697) was heavily damaged in 1942. In 1951 the decision was made not to restore the altar, but to replace it with a simple altar table out of limestone, with a bronze crucifix of Gerhard Marcks. Individual items of the altar are set up in the ambulatory: the Crucifixion with Mary and John, the marble Predella with a relief of the Last Supper as well as the three crowned figures, the allegoric beliefs and the Hope and the return of Christ. The debate as to whether it is possible and desirable to restore the altar as a main piece of baroque art to show European status has not been decided yet.

Stained glass

All windows and therefore stained windows were destroyed in 1942. This includes the panes that had been saved from the Burgkloster (Dominican/black frairs abbey) when it was demolished during the 19th century and had been inserted in Saint Mary's by Carl Julius Milde. In the reconstruction, simple lozenge shaped windows were inserted into the lead glass with frugal decoration that usually portrayed the crest of its donator. Some windows were crafted more artistically:

  • The windows in the Marientiden chapel show next to the coat of arms of the hanseatic towns of Bremen, Hamburg and Lübeck, the lyrics of the Lübeck Cantata by Dietrich Buxtehude: Schwinget euch himmelan (BuxWV 96).
  • The monumental west window shows The Day of Judgement, designed by Hans Gottfried von Stockhausen.
  • Both windows in the Totentanzkapelle (Death dance chapel), drafted in 1955/1956 by Alfred Mahlau and originating from the Berkentien glass manufacturer of Lübeck take motifs and aspects from the 1942 burnt up Totentanze (Death Dance) by Bernt Notke.
  • In the window of the Gedenkkapelle in the south tower (in which the destroyed bells lie), coats of arms from towns, states and provinces of east German territories.
  • The Briefkapelle (Letter Chapel) received windows created by Professor Johannes Schreiter. Their torn lozenge pattern not only serves as a reminder of the destruction of the church, but also the divide between young people who do and do not worship Christ.
  • In December 2002 the tympanum window was added above the north portal of the death dance chapel after a blueprint by Markus Lüpertz. This window, like other windows in the Briefkapelle by Professor Johannes Schreiter, was manufactured and assembled by the glass workshop Derix of Taunusstein.
  • Dieterich Buxtehude

The courtyard to the south of the church gives an impression of a medieval cityscape with its enclosure, the northern facade of the Lübeck city hall, the office buildings even the St. Mary workhouse. Lübeckan legend provides sparse substantial detail of the sculptural arrangement on the cladding: a large granite cuboid right next to the entrance was not placed there by the church construction crew and forgotten about, it was put there by the devil’s own hand.

A modern statue (1999) of this devil now sits on the cuboid. The legend is said that the devil thought the workers were building a drinking hall and so helped the construction team. When the devil realized it was a church, the devil tried to destroy the walls (claw marks are still evident on the boulder). The people convinced the devil to leave the church undamaged in return for a drinking hall across the street.

To the north and west of the church the courtyard appears as an open space, which was cleared gradually through construction development in the Middle Ages. Alone on the Schüsselbuden corner of Mengstraße is a reminder of the Maria am Stegel chapel: its stone foundations (1415), which served as a bookshop before the Second World War. A decision was made in the late 1950s against its reconstruction and the remaining external walls of the ruins were cleared away.

On Mengstraße opposite the church courtyard lies a three part structure with facades of the 18th century: the Pastorat known as die Wehde, after which the Blockbinnenhof Wehdehof is also named.

Significant pastors at St. Mary's
  • Jacob von Melle, mainpastor (1706–43) und polyhistor.
Music at St. Mary's

A rich offering of church music was available in the Middle Ages, thus the Marientidenkapelle had its own choir. After the reformation, the Katharineums' choir took over the task of providing choral provisions for religious services.


In 1516–1518 the first “Große Orgel” (Grand Organ) came about. Located on the west wall, it had two manuals, a pedal and 32 registers. This organ was extensively elaborated and enhanced upon throughout the centuries, with among others, Friederich Stellwagen completing extensive work from 1637 to 1641. At the start of the 19th century it had been increased to 3 manuals and a pedal, 57 registers and 4,684 pipes. However in 1851 a completely new organ was developed, built by Friedrich Schulze in the spirit of the time, with 4 manuals, a pedal and 80 voices within the historic prospect, which was restored and adjusted instead by Carl Julius Milde. However because of the 1942 bomb attack, the Große Orgel was destroyed and in 1968 a new one was constructed by organ builders Kemper & Son, with a new mechanical playing action. It consisted of five manuals and pedal, 101 registers with 8,512 pipes, the largest measuring eleven metres, the smallest the size of a cigarette.

Before the Große Orgel was the Totentanzorgel (Dance macabre organ). It was installed in 1477 on the eastern side of the crossed nave and so named because of the Totentanzkapelle (Death dance chapel), which was already established to serve and hold requiems. After the Church Reformation it was used for prayers and for Holy Communion services. In 1549 and 1558 Jakob Scherer added to the organ among other things, a Rückpositiv and in 1621 it received chest work. In addition, extensive repair work was completed by Friedrich Stellwagen during 1653-55, though afterwards only smaller modifications were made to the organ. By this point the organ itself had accumulated various worldwide interest, along with the Arp-Schnitger-Orgel in St Jacob's of Hamburg and the "Klein Orgel" (small organ) in the St Jacob's church of Lübeck. In 1937 it was restored with the primary goal to bring it to a condition of how it would have been in the 16th and 17th century. It was arranged to be restored to a 17th century condition, alas it was destroyed along with the Totentanz work of Bernt Notke in the 1942 fire.

In 1955 the Totentanz organ was restored by the organ constructors Kemper & Son from 1937 specifications, although in the northerly ambulatory for the Hochchor (high choir). Its original place is now occupied by the astronomical clock. This post war organ which was very prone to repair was replaced in 1986 by a new Totentanz organ, built by the Führer company in Wilhelmshaven and positioned in the same place as its predecessor. With a mechanical action, it had 4 manuals and a pedal, along with 56 registers and approximately 5,000 pipes. This organ is well suited for accompanying prayers and services, as well as an instrument for presentation of older organ music before Bach's time.

A particular tradition of St Mary's is the use of both organs, bass drums and a brass ensemble to compliment the choir in the church's annual Hogmanay service.

Also, once on the jube was a continuo instrument for the choir - the third organ in the church. With the 1854 conversion of the Große Orgel, the chest work done by Jakob Scherer in 1560/61 was abscised. This Lettern-Orgel (literally: Jube Organ) consisted of one manual, 7 registers. In 1900 the main veneer was kept but the mechanics were replaced by a double manual pneumatic construction by master organ builder Emanuel Kemper. This organ was also destroyed in 1942.

In the Briefkapelle there is an original organ intended for home use, located in there as of 1948 and originally from east Prussia. The Briefkappelenorgel (Letter Chapel organ), a singularly manualed instrument with 16 voices was constructed by Johannes Schwaz in 1723 and from 1724 served as the organ of the Schloßkapelle (Castle Chapel) of Dönhofstädt in Rastenburg. From there it acquired the attention of Lübeckan organ builder Karl Kemper in 1933. Several years after serving as the main instrument for church musical events in the Hochchor (high choir) of the Katharinenkirche, Walter Kraft initially obtained this organ as a transitional instrument for the Briefkapelle, which was the first area of St. Mary's church to be arranged so that religious services could take place after the war. Today this organ provides accompaniment for prayers as well as the Sunday services that take place in the Briefkapelle from January to March during winter.


Above all organists in the 17th century that shaped the course of musical tradition at St Mary's are Franz Tunder from 1642 until his death in 1667, and his successor and son-in-law Dietrich Buxtehude from 1668 to 1707. Both were defining representatives of the north German organ school and played the roles of both organists and composers. George Friedrich Handel and Johann Mattheson had already been guests of Buxtehude in 1703 and Johann Sebastian Bach came to Lübeck in order to observe and learn from Buxtehude. Since then, St. Mary's is considered to be one of the outstanding places of organistic significance in Germany.

With Abendmusiken, Tunder and Buxtehude drew away the idea of having music in the church exclusively for religious services. Buxtehude developed a strong form, with a sequence of five concerts on the last two Sundays before Pentecost, as well as on the second until the fourth Sunday of Advent. Strong success after Buxtehude was also led by Johann Christian Schieferdecker (1679–1732), Johann Paul Kunzen (1696–1757), his son Adolf Karl Kunzen (1720–1781) and Johann Wilhelm Cornelius von Königslöw.

Each of the above composed a succession of biblical oratorios for Abendmusiken, among them "Israels Abgötterey in der Wüsten” (1758), "Absalon” (1761) and "Goliath” (1762) by Adolf Kunzen and "Die Rettung des Kindes Mose“ and "Der geborne Weltheiland“ (1788), "Tod, Auferstehung und Gericht“ (1790) as well as "Davids Klage am Hermon nach dem 42ten Psalm“ (1793) by v. Königslöw.

Around 1810 this tradition began to come to an end. The taste in music and the church had changed, and other circumstances (the occupation by Napoleonic troops in the French Time and the consequentially ongoing emergency financial situation) rendered the implementation of ever more expensive concerts impossible.

In the early 20th century, St Mary's organist Walter Kraft (1905–1977) tried to revive the tradition of Abendmusiken, with an evening of Bach's organ music then an annual program of combined choral and organ works. In 1954 Kraft created the "Lübecker Totentanz" (Lübeckan Dance of Death) as a new Abendmusik.

The current organist of St Mary's, Ernst-Erich Stender (born 1944, Kraft's successor since 1973) continues to lead the tradition of Abendmusiken with organ concerts in candle light during the summer months.

The Lübeckan Boy’s Choir at St. Mary’s

Die Lübecker Knabenkantorei an St. Marien, as it is known, has been at St. Mary’s since 1970. It was originally founded as the Lübecker Kantorei in 1948. The choir sings regularly on Sundays and other days of services for church celebration. The performance of the Johannes Passion within conventional religious services in the Good Friday afternoon has become a Lübeckan tradition.

The St. Mary’s Church of Lübeck today

Since the introduction of the reformatorial and evangelical church order by Johannes Bugenhagen through the evangelical 1531 city council, the fold of St. Mary's now belongs to the Nordelbischen Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche (Nordelbischen Evangelical Lutheran Church). Services take place on every Sunday and holiday from 10 o'clock. On Sunday evenings there is normally a prayer service with Taizé singings in the Marientidenkapelle. From Mondays until Saturdays in the summer there is a "Kurzandacht" (short prayer) for the "Wort zum Alltag" (literally: Word to everyday life), with organ music from 12 o'clock (after the figures of the astronomical clock change places), where tourists and the residents alike are welcome to use this service for personal reflection.


May until October: weekdays at 12:15 for approximately 1 hour. Particular opening times: April until December, the dates set by agreement.

Astronomical clock

Built in 1561 through to 1566, the Astronomical Clock is considered to be a real treasure of both art history and sacred history. It was located behind the High Altar in the ambulatory but was completely destroyed in 1942. Only one dial (which had been replaced with an earlier restoration) remains in the St. Annen Museum. The new Astronomical Clock was constructed on the East side of the Northern transept in the "Death dance" chapel. It is the work of Paul Behrens, a clockmaker in Lübeck, who planned it as his lifetime achievement from 1960–1967, collected donations for it and constructed the elements of the clock himself. He also maintained the clock until his death. The clockface is a simplified duplicate of the original. With a complicated mechanical system, the clock shows planetary positions, phases of the sun and moon, signs of the zodiac (astronomically, not astrologically), the date on which Easter falls and the Golden Ratio. At 12 o'clock midday the bells ring out and the movement of the figures before Christ consecrating spurs into action. The figures were originally Electors; after post-war reconstruction they are now eight representatives of the different races and peoples of the world.


The 36 bells of the Carillon partly originate from the Katharinen Church in Danzig and were installed into St Mary's after the Second World War. A complicated system of mechanics play alternating choral melodies on every half and whole hour. At Easter and Christmas time the organist manipulates the Carillon at noon by hand.


The peal of bells originally hung in the south of the two towers in the "Glockenstube" (bell parlour) 60 metres high. The powerful drafts of wind on the 1942 Palm Sunday air raid (in order to feed the fires oxygen) were strong enough to ring the bells before they fell down. The remaining two bells, the oldest one of 1508 and the Pulsglocke of 1668 donated by Christian von der Linde (weighing 7134 kg) were left as a stark memorial. In the south tower the Carillon was installed after the war.

The current bell peal of seven voices hangs in the north tower. It ranks among the largest and deepest pitched of its kind in northern Germany. The three old bells (c´, d´, f´) originate from churches in Danzig: they came as loaned bells from the Hamburger Glockenfriedhof (Hamburg Bell Cemetery) and were immediately installed as emergency bells after the Second World War.

After the new Pulsglocke bell was donated in 1951 by Chancellor Adenauer for the 700 year anniversary of the St. Mary's church, the peal of bells was further completed with the 1985 casting of 3 more. They have inscriptions on them which refer to peace and reconciliation.

In 2005, the entire bell parlour was reorganized. The steel bell chair from the reconstruction was replaced with a wooden one and the bells were hung straight onto wooden yokes, thus the peal of the bells rings out with more brilliance.