Bamberg Rider


von Stefan Havlik

A mystery is visited – the “Bamberger Reiter”

Since the 9th century, people have been settling where we speak of Bamberg today. The bishop’s town is enthroned above the civil town, impressive bridges connect the two parts of the town. Above the Regnitz, for example, rises the Bamberg Cathedral, entrusted to St. Heinrich as its patron saint, seat of the archbishop to this day – and in its interior the only grave of a pope north of the Alps: Pope Clement II. had died in 1047 after a ten-month pontificate under circumstances that have not been completely clarified to this day, and preferred his former bishop’s church as his burial place. His body was thus transported to Bamberg – to “German Rome”, whose cathedral once resembled Old Saint Peter in the city on the Tiber.

In this episcopal church we encounter a very controversial work of art: not in the sense of a rivalry of taste, but in an actual dispute between scholars that has been going on for some 200 years. The question that is constantly being discussed and reconsidered is: Who is represented by the oldest, post-antique equestrian relief made of reed sandstone by an unknown master in the 13th century?

Would it have been imaginable in the unmistakably Christian Europe of that time to depict a secular ruler, who is neither buried there nor led a holy life, in a church? That is open to clear doubt. Since the days of antiquity, equestrian statues have adorned squares, castles and boulevards – but a house of God has always represented figures from the history of salvation and saints.

If one now considers the horseman in the Heinrichsdom at first in the light of Bamberg’s reputation as the “Rome of the North”, the representation of the Emperor Constantine would be possible. By the decision of the first – so the legend wants it – baptized on his deathbed, Christianity, sometimes more, sometimes less persecuted according to the will of the ruling emperor, becomes state religion in a short time.
Constantine, as it is splendidly portrayed again and again by artists of many centuries, receives in a dream the order to place his military action under the monogram of Jesus Christ. Constantine’s troops win, his rival for power in Rome is defeated. This emperor of the Roman Empire, to whom even the donation of central Italy to the Church was attributed for a long time – as much as he shaped Europe’s Christian history, it would be difficult to imagine that he would be depicted without weapons and without the monogram of Christ, which built a bridge from the ancient to the Christian continent.


Is the horseman the memorial to a murdered man? On 21 June 1208 Philip of Swabia, king of the Staufer dynasty, attends the wedding of his niece Beatrix of Burgundy with Duke Otto of Merania in Bamberg – a few hours after the liturgy and banquet he is murdered in his chambers by Otto of Wittelsbach. Ambitious marriage plans for his daughter Cunegond had brought the noble murderer to the scene. Before he was transferred to Speyer Cathedral after only a few years, he first found his resting place in Bamberg’s Episcopal Church. However, it can probably be ruled out that of all places this cathedral was intended as a memorial to King Philip, who had been ecclesiastically cursed for six years. After all, Bamberg’s bishop, Eckbert von Andechs-Meran, was considered an accessory to the murder plot for quite some time: he would certainly not have agreed to a memorial being erected for the murdered man, in order to prevent the question of his guilt from becoming a lasting stone.


The cathedral of the city on the Regnitz – it is not only the site of the mysterious equestrian figure and the final resting place of a pope, but also houses the graves of a holy couple: the diocese founder Heinrich II and his wife Kunigunde, whose imposing high graves can be visited today in the immediate vicinity of the equestrian figure. Some depictions of the horseman, who was buried by Pope Eugene II. We find some representations of the canonized by Pope Eugene II in the cathedral – all of them show an impressive ruler with a long beard. It is unlikely that this should be different in the impressive relief of the horseman. It is also unlikely that Heinrich, of all people, would have been depicted in the cathedral of the diocese he founded, not as emperor but – apart from the simple crown – without insignia, and thus as king or duke.

In the interpretation of a work of art, no majorities decide between right and wrong. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that for several decades now, numerous interpretations have seen St. Stephen (Istvan) of Hungary depicted with the “Bamberg Horseman”. Since the developments and horrors of the 20th century in particular made Southern Germany far away from the land of the Magyars, it is helpful to remember the proximity of the holy king of Hungary to Bamberg: It was Gisela of Bavaria with whom Stephan I. became engaged in Scheyern, Bavaria – and this Gisela was the sister of Emperor Heinrich II.

Ungarns König war somit nicht nur bekannt als derjenige, der aus dem einst wegen seiner starken Reiterarmee gefürchteten Land ein christliches werden ließ, sondern er gehörte auch zum Netzwerk des Hochadels, das Europas Schicksal in entscheidender Zeit regierte. Konkret mit dem Bamberger Dom wird Stephan aber durch eine Legende verbunden, die dem Monarchen gegenüber wenig schmeichelhaft ist: Er soll, noch als Ungetaufter, mit dem Pferd in das Gotteshaus gelangt sein:

“Das Ungarross erblickt
den Kerzenschein, erschrickt.
Der Herr wird belehret vom eigenen Pferde
dass er hier trete auf heilige Erde” 1

schreibt Andreas Haupt noch 1842.

So sehr dies mit der Darstellung des wachen, ja tatsächlich fast erschrocken wirkenden Pferd in Verbindung gebracht werden könnte, so lässt sich diese Erzählung aufgrund historischer Tatsachen tatsächlich ins Reich der Legende verweisen: Der Eheschließung mit Bayerns Prinzessin Gisela ging zweifellos die Taufe des Magyaren voraus, der wiederum die Krönung zum König folgte – im Jahre 1002, in dem es noch keinen Bamberger Dom gab, so kann ihn Istvan nicht als Heide gesehen haben.

Der aufmerksame, zur Seite gerichtete Blick des Reiters, er kann aber durchaus Spur sein zur Deutung des Kunstwerks, das mit großer Sicherheit durch alle Jahrhunderte an diesem Platz blieb. Sein Blick geht in Richtung des Westchors – dort, wo sein Schwager Heinrich II. und dessen Gattin jahrhundertelang im Grabe lagen. Dass Stephan im Rahmen seiner Wallfahrt nach Aachen (oder Köln?) in Bamberg Station machte und dort erst vom Tod der beiden Verwandten erfuhr, kann möglich sein. Sicher ist, dass der Künstler bewusst die Verbindungslinie zwischen der Reaktion des Reiters und der Grablege darstellte – weder Roms Kaiser Konstantin noch König Philipp von Schwaben hätten dazu Anlass gehabt.




Angesichts des christlichen Gotteshauses gibt es auch Überlegungen, ob es kein geringerer als der König der Könige selbst sein könnte, den der Künstler hier so beeindruckend darstellte: Der “Bamberger Reiter” als der Messias, der – wie Hannes Möhring 2004 ausführt – kein Schwert bei sich trägt, sondern dessen Waffe das Wort ist, das aus seinem leicht geöffneten Mund kommt – und der keine Insignien braucht, da er schlicht Herrscher Aller und von Allem ist? Blickt er nach Westen, wo christliche Heere den Islam der Mauren zurückdrängen und damit die Herrschaft der Kirche weiteren Raum gewinnt?


Aus fünf Stücken wurde der Reiter einst zusammengesetzt und sein Halt ist ein fast leichtfertig wirkendes Anlehnen des Reliefs an den Pfeiler. Dass ein Abnehmen der Figur auch ihre gleichzeitige Zerstörung bedeuten würde, hat sie gerettet. Kein Geringerer als Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring war es, der die Figur wie so viele Kunstwerke Mitteleuropas für seinen Landsitz Karinhall einforderte – sich aber überzeugen ließ, dass der Reiter dort bleiben muss, wo er schon so viele Jahrhunderte weltlicher und kirchlicher Geschichte erlebt hat.

If Göring’s covetousness endangered the existence of the work of art, it was the Third Reich that helped him to a great, albeit ideology-filled, fame: The dictatorship of National Socialism worshipped the “Herrenmensch” and found him in the figure of the “white knight” with a preference for medieval sculpture.
The fact that Bamberg’s rider is depicted unarmed and on a horse, which is modest in comparison to numerous equestrian statues, did not stop the ideologues from appropriating it – even the fact that the relief had space in a church in which the gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed over generations could not stop them: Posters and books about the allegory of a “German hero” went through the printing presses and even a banknote of the Reichsbank was decorated by him, until dictatorship and bombing raids (from which the figure should be saved by a specially installed protective bunker) came to an end.


Rome’s Emperor Constantine, the German ruler Henry II, Hungary’s Holy King Stephen, the murdered Philip of Swabia – and finally even the King of Kings, the recurring Messiah, who ended the world’s time with the Apocalypse according to John – in a two-meter-high equestrian figure, so many different but always meaningful interpretations can be found over the centuries of contemplation. Whoever contemplates the “Bamberg Horseman” today can experience a walk through centuries of Christian, European history in the many interpretations – and sees an alert, concentrated person portrayed, who devotes his attention entirely to interesting things – an important sign into a time of an almost uncontrollable flood of information, of inflation of opinion and of arbitrariness in culture and world view.

1 ….. Bamberg Legends and Legends, Bamberg 1842 – 2nd verm. edition: Buchner’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Bamberg 1878 – current: Gerhard Krischker (Ed.), 2002

2 ….. Hannes Möhring: King of Kings, The Bamberg Rider : In new interpretation

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