Bamberg Rider



by 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.

Hungary’s king was thus not only known as the one who turned the country once feared for its strong equestrian army into a Christian one, but he also belonged to the network of the high nobility that ruled Europe’s destiny at a decisive time. Specifically, however, Stephan is connected with Bamberg Cathedral by a legend that is not very flattering to the monarch: He is said to have entered the church on horseback, still unbaptized:

“The Hungarian horse sees
the candlelight, startled.
The Lord is instructed by his own horse
that he may come here on holy ground” 1

writes Andreas Haupt as late as 1842.

As much as this could be associated with the depiction of the awake, indeed almost frightened horse, this story can actually be referred to the realm of legend due to historical facts: The marriage to Bavaria’s Princess Gisela was undoubtedly preceded by the baptism of the Magyar, which in turn was followed by his coronation as king – in the year 1002, when there was no Bamberg Cathedral yet, Istvan cannot have seen him as a heathen.

The rider’s attentive, sideways gaze, however, may well be a clue to the interpretation of the work of art, which with great certainty remained in this place throughout the centuries. His gaze is directed towards the west choir – where his brother-in-law Henry II and his wife lay in their graves for centuries. It may be possible that Stephan made a stop in Bamberg as part of his pilgrimage to Aachen (or Cologne?) and only learned of the death of the two relatives there. What is certain is that the artist deliberately depicted the connecting line between the rider’s reaction and the burial place – neither Rome’s Emperor Constantine nor King Philip of Swabia would have had any reason to do so.

In view of the Christian place of worship, there are also considerations as to whether it could be none other than the King of Kings himself, whom the artist depicted so impressively here: The “Bamberg Horseman” as the Messiah who – as Hannes Möhring explains in 2004 – does not carry a sword with him, but whose weapon is the Word that comes out of his slightly opened mouth – and who does not need insignia, since he is simply the ruler of all and of all? Does he look to the West, where Christian armies are pushing back the Islam of the Moors and thus the rule of the Church is gaining more space?

The horseman was once assembled from five pieces and his hold is an almost frivolous-looking leaning of the relief against the pillar. The fact that removing the figure would also mean its simultaneous destruction saved it. It was none other than Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring who demanded the figure for his country estate Karinhall like so many works of art in Central Europe – but was convinced that the horseman must remain where he had already experienced so many centuries of secular and ecclesiastical history.

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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