Merseburg Cathedral Abbey

An Ottonian foundation

In the 10th century, King Heinrich I acquired Merseburg and the surrounding area and developed it into a palatinate. In 968, Otto I (the Great) founded the diocese of Merseburg, which was consecrated to St. Lawrence. The Merseburg Cathedral of St. Lawrence and St. John the Baptist was built in connection with a St. John's church. The bishopric was dissolved in 981 and reestablished in 1004 by Emperor Henry II.

The Merseburg Palatinate, founded by the Ottonian rulers in the early 10th century, was one of the preferred places of residence of the German kings in the High Middle Ages. Since the re-foundation of the Merseburg bishopric by Emperor Henry II in 1004, Merseburg developed into a spiritual and cultural centre on the eastern border of the empire. 

The cathedral and the bishop's palace still rise on an imposing plateau on the west bank of the Saale. With its rich architectural and artistic furnishings and a precious collection of medieval manuscripts, Merseburg Cathedral is one of the most important places of remembrance of medieval sacred culture.

A holy emperor as benefactor

As early as the 10th century, King Heinrich I acquired the count's seat of Merseburg and developed it into a palace for himself and his court. His famous son, Emperor Otto the Great, founded the episcopal see for the new Merseburg diocese in the immediate vicinity of the palatinate in 968, but it was abandoned again after a few years. 

Only the extensive donations of Emperor Heinrich II and his wife Kunigunde made the solemn re-foundation of the Merseburg diocese possible in 1004. Heinrich II personally took part in the consecration of the early Romanesque cathedral, which was begun in 1015. The ruler, who was later canonised, is still revered in Merseburg today as an outstanding founder personality. 

The Merseburg Spells

The early donations to the Merseburg Episcopal Church did not only include large estates and far-reaching privileges. The basis for the clergy's work as missionaries and pastors was the procurement of liturgical books, which formed an important part of the imperial endowment. 

To this day, the Merseburg Cathedral Library preserves outstanding evidence of early medieval written culture and book illumination. such as the Merseburg Spells.

Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg - chronicler of the Ottonians

The fourth Bishop of Merseburg, Thietmar (1009-1018), became known far beyond the borders of Germany as one of the most important historians of the Middle Ages. His high-ranking contacts with the royal family and his intimate knowledge of conditions at court make his chronicle one of the most important sources for the age of the Ottonians. 

To this day, the memory of the famous bishop is kept alive in Merseburg by his gravestone in the cathedral and by a Thietmar fountain in the Kreuzhof. 

A missionary bishopric for the Slavs

Until the 12th and 13th centuries, one of the most important tasks of the Merseburg clergy was to missionise these areas of the largely pagan Slavs east of the Saale and to cover them with an ecclesiastical structure. In the late Middle Ages, Merseburg not only had ecclesiastical supervisory power over hundreds of villages, but also over flourishing trade metropolises, first and foremost the trade fair city of Leipzig. 

In keeping with the importance of the monastery for the region, the powerful Wettin dynasty, as electors of Saxony, tried to influence the election of the bishop and the cathedral chapter in Merseburg from the 15th century onwards, making the monastery territories the plaything of major politics.

Bishop Thilo von Trotha and the Merseburg Raven

At the end of the Middle Ages, Merseburg once again experienced a period of prosperity under Bishop Thilo von Trotha (1466-1514). The most significant testimony to his almost fifty years in office is the impressive architectural ensemble of the bishop's palace and the cathedral church, which still characterises the appearance of Merseburg's old town today. 

In the centre of his family coat of arms of the von Trotha family is a raven with a golden ring in its beak, to which the legend of the raven is linked.

The Merseburg Cathedral Abbey and the Reformation

While large parts of the diocese were quickly taken over by the Reformation due to the influence of the Lutheran-minded Electors of Saxony, the Old Believers continued to offer fierce resistance for a long time in the Merseburg High Collegiate area, which was directly controlled by the bishop and the cathedral chapter. It was not until the death of Bishop Sigismund von Lindenau (1535- –1544) the masses were also "sung" in Merseburg Cathedral. In the following year, 1545, Martin Luther was able to consecrate a Protestant bishop in Merseburg Cathedral in the person of Prince George III of Anhalt. 

The brief intermezzo of the last Catholic bishop Michael Helding (1549- –1561), did not change the ultimate success of the Reformation in the Merseburg Abbey area.

The Merseburg cathedral chapter in modern times

In the second half of the 16th century, the bishops were succeeded by so-called Protestant administrators, who were to administer the former secular domain of the bishops. The administrators always came from the Saxon ruling family of the Wettins and endeavoured to annex the Merseburg cathedral to their Saxon hereditary lands. The Merseburg cathedral chapter nevertheless managed to secure its existence.

Although the remaining Catholic canons were succeeded only by Protestant ones, many customs and liturgical practices dating from the Middle Ages were carried over into modern times. The chapter was able to formally retain its sovereign legal status by continuing to exercise the right to elect administrators. 

Between 1657 and 1738, the administrators ruled as dukes of Saxe-Merseburg, which meant that the former bishop's seat once again experienced a brief heyday as a princely residence.

From the foundation to the endowment

With the transfer of a large part of the Saxon territories to Prussia after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the end of the last remaining cathedral monasteries in Central Germany seemed imminent. However, the Prussian government quickly realised that for centuries the administrations of the cathedral monasteries had fulfilled a variety of sovereign tasks, including acting as judicial rulers and maintaining churches and schools. Therefore, the cathedral monasteries were incorporated into the new Prussian provincial administration instead of being dissolved. The legal status of the monasteries, however, remained unclear for over a century.

It was not until 1930 that a new and contemporary basis for existence was created with the transformation of the institutions into foundations under public law. The last dean of Merseburg Cathedral, Field Marshal General August von Mackensen (1849- –1945) became the first dean of the newly formed United Cathedral Chapter with its seat in Naumburg in 1935. 

After the previously formally independent foundations were merged into a single corporation in 1994, Merseburg Cathedral Abbey is now part of the United Cathedral Foundations of Merseburg and Naumburg and the Collegiate Abbey of Zeitz.

You can find more information about Merseburg Imperial Cathedral at www.merseburger-dom.de.