Commemorations

Antependium, 1019. Musée national du Moyen Âge de Cluny, Paris. Photo/Foto: TES.

Gold and Glory for Eternity

The cathedral of Basel, the Basler Münster, exists one thousand years in 2019. One of the most crucial moments of its history was the presence of the German Emperor Henry II (973-1024) and his wife Kunigunde (975-1040) on October 11th, 1019. They had financed its (re) construction and attended the consecration of the cathedral on this day in 1019. Basel was also a bishopric and part of the Kingdom of Burgundy (888-1032), but with close ties to the German kings. It is no exaggeration to regard the consecration of the cathedral and the commitment of the (later) German Emperor (s) the beginning of the rise of Basel as city and as mighty Prince-Bishopric (until the reformation in 1525-1529, when the episcopal seat moved to Pruntrut (Porrentruy), and 1792-1798, when Napolean dissolved the Prince-Bishopric). The present-day residence of the bishop is in Solothurn.

The exhibition (Gold und Ruhm, Geschenke für die Ewigkeit) shows a magnificent array of medieval goldsmithing, bronzes and textiles along with some outstanding examples of book illumination and ivory carving from the Empire’s centres of cultural production and archaeological finds from the Basel region. It gives the broader context for the consecration of the Cathedral as a highpoint in Basel’s history. The exhibition also sheds light on how people lived a thousand years ago, Basel’s relations with the Kingdom of Burgundy, the interaction of secular rulers and the Church and the cult of Emperor Henry II and Empress Kunigunde, both of whom were later canonized. Shortly, it provides insight into a completely different (feudal) world and shows the power of religion, politics, rituals and symbolism.

The highlight of the show is the Basel Antependium (probably made in Bamberg), which for the first time in decades has left Paris and temporarily returned to the place for which it was initially intended. The beautiful golden object was a victim of the split in Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft in 1833. The Antependium (1.20 by 1.77, around 5.5 kg gold) went to the new canton of Basel-Landschaft, which desperately needed money, however, and Paris was the highest bidder in 1854 and the museum of Cluny (musée national du Moyen Âge) became the proud owner. The temporary restitution of this Golden Altar Frontal (for three months) affords a unique opportunity to present this masterpiece intricately bound up with the history of the city alongside some of the Emperor’s other gifts.

The commitment of the Emperor and Empress gave the first boost to Basel as a city, and as the residence of the bishop. Its importance was confirmed by the Council of Basel (1431-1449), the foundation of the University (1460) and the flourishing trade, industry and publishing sector afterwards. The city became the centre of humanism, where Erasmus found his last resting place (also in the Münster). Even nowadays, chemical- and pharmacy industries could be regarded as the outcome of the rise of Basel after 1019. (Source and further information: www.hmb.ch; www.kunstmuseumbasel.ch).