Naumburg Cathedral Chapter

Naumburg Cathedral Chapter

Outcome of an Unprecedented Relocation of an Episcopal See

An unparalleled medieval family foundation prompted the relocation of the See of Zeitz to Naumburg in 1028. Benefitting from its location on such important trade routes as the via regia, the See of Naumburg evolved into the center of an extraordinary high medieval cultural landscape that can be experienced to this day. Naumburg Cathedral is the most famous landmark of an entire region and one of the best known churches of the Middle Ages.

Founded under the Protection of the “New” Castle

Around 1000, the Ekkehardine margraves of Meissen built a new castle, the Nuwenburch, on a plateau on the eastern bank of the Saale, thus not only laying the cornerstone for the further development of the city and see of Naumburg but also making the new settlement the center of an enormous realm extending from the Saale to the Oder. The new location lacked the proper sacrality, however. The margraves therefore sought to relocate the episcopal see established in Zeitz in 968 to Naumburg, approximately thirty-five kilometers away. With the consent of the pope and the emperor and citing the constant danger of Slav incursions, they relocated the See of Zeitz to the protection of the new castle in 1028, an event hitherto unparalleled in the history of the empire.

In return, the Ekkehardine family endowed the new prince-bishopric of Naumburg with substantial estates, thus making the construction of the first early Romanesque cathedral in Naumburg possible. This singular family foundation was the reason the two margrave brothers Hermann and Ekkehard II as well as their wives Reglindis and Uta were revered throughout the entire Middle Ages as primi fundatores – Naumburg Cathedral’s first benefactors. The Naumburg Master memorialized these benefactors inimitably in the 13th century with his statues of them.

The King’s Confidants: The First Bishops of Naumburg

The first bishops of Naumburg came from the immediate milieu of the royal court. They performed important administrative duties for the itinerant monarch as chaplains and chancery scribes before they assumed important episcopates as his close confidants. Even after their elevation to episcopal thrones, most of the bishops of Naumburg still remained at the monarch’s side, serving him as counselors on travels in Germany and Italy and even following him on Crusades in the Holy Land. Bishop Eberhard of Naumburg was the last imperial bishop to remain loyal to the excommunicated Emperor Henry IV when, deserted by all the potentates of his empire, he begged the pope for forgiveness in a hair shirt before Canossa Castle in 1077. The king’s high esteem for Naumburg Cathedral manifested itself in numerous gifts.

The Naumburg Master’s World Famous Statues of the Benefactors

The bishops of Naumburg increasingly concentrated on internally consolidating their diocese over the course of the 12th and 13th century. In addition to establishing numerous new churches, they focused their efforts on expanding the territories of the bishops and the cathedral chapter. The construction of a new cathedral in Naumburg between 1200 and 1250 is both evidence of the prominence of Naumburg’s clergy and also marks the height of the cathedral chapter’s economic and cultural flowering in the High Middle Ages. One of the most important Gothic sculptors and architects, the Naumburg Master was engaged to complete the new cathedral. His reliefs of the Passion of Christ on the west chancel screen and his cycle of twelve statues of the benefactors in the west choir are some of the highlights of European medieval art. His statue of Margravine Uta has become world famous.

Abiding Late Medieval Splendor

When the bishops of Naumburg moved back into their former residence in Zeitz in 1285, the cathedral chapter became the most important political and cultural force in Naumburg. Late medieval Naumburg Cathedral became the church of the canons, who were instrumental in its future decoration. The mostly aristocratic clergy had magnificent domiciles called curias built in the cathedral’s vicinity. These residential complexes were similar to small castles and had large domestic outbuildings, expansive gardens and even private chapels. An impressive ensemble of these curias encircling Naumburg Cathedral like a wreath has survived in Naumburg to this day.

Martin Luther and the First Lutheran Bishop in the World

Although the Reformation spread rapidly in the Diocese of Naumburg, the cathedral chapter succeeded in putting up dogged resistance against the new doctrine. Unfazed by the religious conversions in its immediate vicinity, it elected a new Catholic bishop, Julius von Pflug, in 1541. The Lutheran Elector of Saxony wanted to set an example, though, and designated Nikolaus von Amsdorf, a theologian from Luther’s circle of friends, bishop of Naumburg. Thus, a key event of Reformation history took place in Naumburg on January 20, 1542. The elderly reformer Martin Luther installed the first Lutheran bishop in the world in his office at the lay altar in the cathedral in the presence of the elector and all of the Wittenberg notables.

Naumburg Cathedral Chapter in the Modern Era

In the second half of the 16th century, the bishops were succeeded by so-called Protestant administrators who administered the bishops’ erstwhile temporal domains. The administrators always came from the Saxon Wettin dynasty and strove to annex the See of Naumburg into the Saxon hereditary lands. The Naumburg Cathedral Chapter nevertheless managed to ensure its survival. Although the remaining Catholic cathedral canons were succeeded only by Lutherans, many of the customs and liturgical practices dating to the Middle Ages were retained into the modern era. The chapter was able to formally preserve its sovereign legal status by continuing to exercise its right to elect its administrators.

From Chapter to Foundation

The end of the last cathedral chapters still remaining in Central Germany appeared to be imminent when a large part of their Saxon territories devolved to Prussia after the Congress of Vienna of 1815. The Prussian government quickly realized, however, that the cathedral chapters’ administrative bodies had had been performing a wide range of sovereign duties, including administering justice and running churches and schools, for centuries. Instead of being disbanded, the cathedral chapters were therefore incorporated in the new Prussian provincial government but the chapters’ legal status remained unresolved for over a century. A new and more modern means of existence was not established until 1930 when the institutions were transformed into nonprofit foundations.

In 1935, the last dean of Merseburg Cathedral, Field Marshall August von Mackensen (1849-1945), became the first dean of the newly established Combined Cathedral Chapters based in Naumburg. Since the hitherto formally independent foundations merged into a single corporation in 1994, Naumburg Cathedral Chapter has been part of the Combined Chapters of the Cathedrals of Merseburg and Naumburg and the Collegiate Church of Zeitz.