As the UNESCO comments:
The initial property, inscribed in 1988 on the World Heritage List, was formed by the Grande-Île, the historic centre of Strasbourg, structured around the cathedral. The extension concerns the Neustadt, new town, designed and built under the German administration (1871-1918). The Neustadt draws the inspiration for its urban layout partially from the Haussmannian model, while adopting an architectural idiom of Germanic inspiration. This dual influence has enabled the creation of an urban space that is specific to Strasbourg, where the perspectives created around the cathedral open to a unified landscape around the rivers and canals.
Originally I planned to visit Strasbourg in October 2017 but unfortunately the trip was postponed until early March 2018. When I was chatting with the staff from the tourism office, they informed me that currently, not only the historic center, the Grande-Île, but also the Neustadt are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list. I was surprised and a bit skeptical because I remember clearly that I checked the official website of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention (in 2017) and only the Grande-Île was on the list. After returning home, I checked the website again and I see that now the title of this property has become “Strasbourg, Grande-Île and Neustadt”. Why, after the first inscription in 1988, is the Neustadt added as an extension to this property? In my third post about Strasbourg which focuses on a guided tour and a boat cruise, you will find out the reason.
I total, I’ll write four posts about Strasbourg with the first one focusing on the magnificent cathedral, the second one on the city’s role as the European capital, the third one on a guided tour and a boat cruise and the fourth one on various museums in the historic center. Except the second post, which will be talking about the European Parliament and some other international organizations, all the other three posts will be dedicated to elaborating Strasbourg’s historical and cultural heritage. Now let’s take a brief look at the reason why the Grande-Île and the Neustadt are protected by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
1. UNESCO World Heritage
Do you know that Strasbourg is the first French city whose inscription concerns not a single monument but an entire historic center? Even earlier than Paris! In 1988, “Strasbourg – Grande-Île” was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list for its cultural and historical heritage and outstanding value. Enclosed by the Ill River and Canal du Faux-Rempart, the historic center, the Grande-Île island, is connected with other parts of the city by 21 bridges. It features a remarkably high-quality collection of monuments including the cathedral, the steep roofs with their beautiful dormer windows on several levels, the churches of St. Thomas, St. Pierre-le-Vieux, St. Pierre-le-Jeune, and St. Etienne, the buildings of Œuvre Notre-Dame, the former Grande Boucherie, the Neue Bau, the Rohan Palace, Aubette and many more. Instead of being isolated monuments, these buildings create an original and unique urban fabric, which reflects the city’s revolution from the Middle Ages to the present day.
If you think Strasbourg is only about half-timbered houses, then I’m afraid you are mistaken. As you can see from the two groups of pictures I attached above, the newly inscribed Neustadt, which is also called the German Imperial Quarter, is rather different from the Grande-Île. Does it give you a feeling of Paris, Berlin or Vienna? After the 1870 Prussian siege and French defeat, the city center was severely damaged and three of the four large avenues were destroyed. Though the reconstruction was completed within five years, the extension of the city took much more time because the business circles desired efficient infrastructures and the political authorities wanted a capital for “Alsace-Lorraine Reichsland” that would be “exemplary, grandiose and entirely dedicated to the glory of the Empire and ‘Germanity’“. The plan of the New City was approved in 1880 and the designer was Jean Geoffroy Conrath, the city’s architect since 1849. He gave priority to the development of a prestigious area reserved for official buildings such as the imperial palace, ministries, regional assembly headquarters, library and university, which were completed around 1900. The development of the residential areas progressed at a lower speed and continued after 1920.
Compared with the narrow streets in the Grande-Île, the Neustadt is occupied with large open squares and broad tree-embellished avenues. Particularly noteworthy is the feature that the monuments blend harmoniously with the landscape, for example, the banks of the Ill River and the Church of St. Paul. Both public buildings and private homes in this district to certain degree testify to eclecticism, a 19th- and 20th-century architectural style in which a single piece of work incorporates a mixture of elements from previous historical styles to create something new and original. Some beautiful Art Nouveau constructions such as the Egyptian House and the buildings on 22 rue Sleidan and 56 allée de la Robertsau can also be found here.
In order to be inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the property must meet at least one or two of the ten Selection Criteria proposed by the World Heritage Convention. The Grande-Île and Neustadt of Strasbourg meet Criterion (ii), “to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design” and Criterion (iv), “to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history”.
The French and Germanic cultures have influenced the composition of a unique space in which both the architecture and urbanism reflect major significant periods of European history. As I read from the UNESCO World Heritage Center official website, “integrated into a Medieval urban fabric in a way which respects the ancient original fabric, the Renaissance-style private residences built between the 15th century and the late 17th century form a unique ensemble of domestic Rhineland architecture, which is indissociable from the outstanding Gothic cathedral. In the 18th century, French classical architecture became dominant, as exemplified by the Palais Rohan, built by the king’s architect, Robert de Cotte. From 1871 onwards, the face of the town was profoundly modified by the construction of an ambitious urbanistic project, leading to the emergence of a modern, functional city, emblematic of the technical advances and hygienistic policies that were emerging at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.” Imagine, in one single city, you can see architecture and urban planning of the classical antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Rhineland Renaissance, the French 18th-century classicism, and then of the 19th and early 20th centuries which saw the emergence of modernism. No wonder Le Corbusier said that “in Strasbourg, the eye is never bored!” Better than any history books, these buildings and city plans are true witnesses to Strasbourg’s political, social and cultural changes.
2. Practical information
2.1 Strasbourg Pass
If you wanna ask me if there’s any good deal for visiting the attractions in Strasbourg, I would recommend the Strasbourg Pass. Basically the advantages are:
- Visit to one of the museums
- Ascent to the cathedral platform
- Boat-tour through Strasbourg (including the Grande-Île, the Neustadt and the European quarter)
- Astronomical clock of the cathedral
- Half day bicycle rental for free
- Visit to a second museum
- Tour with the mini-train (April to October)
- Guided tour
- Visit to the Vaisseau (science museum)
- Audio-guided tour in the old town
For information about some other offers, please click here and click the pass.
In my opinion, climbing to the platform of the cathedral, the boat cruise and the audio-guided tour in the old town are three must-take activities in Strasbourg. Therefore, including free entry to one of the museums and half-price entry to a second museum, the pass is absolutely worth your money.
2.2 Museum Pass
Nevertheless, if you are a fan of museums like me, visiting only two museums in Strasbourg is certainly not enough. In this case you can consider buying the 1-day museum pass or 3-day museum pass which costs 12 € (6 € for discounted price) and 18 € (12 € for discounted price) respectively. These passes give free access to all the museums in Strasbourg including L’Aubette 1928 (free), Alsatian Museum, Archeological Museum, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Museum of Decorative Arts, Museum of fine Arts, Historical Museum, Museum Œuvre Notre-Dame, Museum Tomi Ungerer, Zoological Museum and so on and one single entry to any of them costs at least 6.5 €. Please note, all the museums offer free admission to all visitors on the first Sunday of each month.
- For more information about the entrance fee for each of the museums as well as conditions for discounted prices and free admission please click here.
- For information about the opening hours of the museums please click here.
- For brief introductions to each of the museums please click here, move your mouse to “Museums” and click the museum that you want to know about.
2.3 Public transport
In general, I would say that public transport in Strasbourg, including various bus, tram and train lines, is very convenient. Depending on where you live and where you want to go, different types of tickets are available. If you live in or close to the city center and just want to explore the center, I think all the attractions can be reached within 20 mins by foot. However, if you wanna to explore the Neustadt (German Imperial Quarter), the European Quarter (such as European Parliament, European Council, European Court of Human Rights etc.), Le Jardin des Deux Rives (a large riverfront garden with a pedestrian bridge connecting French & German sides), and so on, I suggest you take public transport to save some time.
A single ticket costs 1.7 € (2 € if you buy it on board) and you can buy a bundle of 10, which costs 14 € or a bundle of 30, which costs 40.5 €.
Some other types of ticket include:
- round-trip ticket (valid for 2 rides within the same day, with or without connection): 3.3 €
- 24H ALSA + CUS (valid for 24h for unlimited rides on all the bus-tram-coach lines and the TER Train within the EMS and in direction of Kehl): 4.3 €
- 24H TRIO (valid for 2 to 3 people for unlimited rides for 24 hours after validation): 6.8 €
- ALSA+ EMS DAILY GROUP TICKET Bus-Tram-Coach and TER Train (valid for one day on Saturdays, Sundays or holidays for a group of 2 to 5 people for unlimited rides on all the Bus-Tram-Coach and TER Train lines within the EMS and in direction of Kehl): 6.8 €
I think the options above should be adequate for your trip in Strasbourg but if you need special connections to the airport or to other regions in Alsace, please click here for more information.
3. Strasbourg Cathedral
As commented by the UNESCO, “the cathedral, influenced by the Romanesque art of the East and the Gothic art of the kingdom of France, is also inspired by Prague, particularly for the construction of the spire. It is a model that acted as a vector of Gothic art to the east.” What’s more, once being the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874 (227 years), it was called by Victor Hugo as a “gigantic and delicate marvel” and by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God“. Undeniably as the top one landmark in Strasbourg, it can even be seen from the Vosges Mountains or the Black Forest on the other side of the Rhine.
Strasbourg Cathedral rests on the foundations of an old Carolingian basilica which was built in 1015 by Bishop Werner von Habsburg. The old basilica burned down in 1176 because at that time the naves were covered with a wooden framework. Nowadays only the foundations and a few stones can be seen in the crypt. After the disaster, Bishop Heinrich von Hasenburg decided to construct a new cathedral, to be more beautiful than that of Basel, which was just being finished. Nearly three centuries passed between the reconstruction of the choir in 1176 and the completion of the steeple in 1439. As I mentioned above, being 142 meters tall, it was the tallest building in the world between 1647 and 1874.
Around 1225, a team from Chartres revolutionized the course of construction and an anonymous project manager introduced to the local artisans the grandeur of Gothic art, which had been ignored. It was also him who left behind unparalleled masterpieces such as the Pillar of Angels inside the church and the statues of the Church and Synagogue flanking the south portal.
In the next sections, I’ll focus on introducing to you the exterior of the cathedral, including the façade, the portals and their ornaments, the interior of the cathedral including the stained glass windows, the Great Organ, the pulpit, the Pillar of Angels and the astronomical clock, as well as the platform where you can have a marvelous view over the entire city and see as far as the Vosges Mountains and the Black Forest. Now let’s first of all walk around the cathedral and remember to pay attention to its west façade and south and north portals.
3.1 Exterior of the cathedral
As you can see from some of the pictures above, built with sandstone from the Vosges Mountains, the cathedral is characterized by its pink hue. Nevertheless, depending on different times of the day, its color changes. For example, early in the morning, the sun shines on the south side of the cathedral and the west façade looks a bit dark and foggy. At noon or in the early afternoon, the sun is high above and shines brightly on the west façade which makes it look light pink. At sunset, probably the most beautiful time of the day, the sun is relatively low and it turns the cathedral light orange or even golden. If you are wondering why the pictures I attached above are of different colors, it’s because I passed by the cathedral quite some times during my visit and every time, I couldn’t help taking pictures and recording the beautiful moment reflected on it.
The west façade, which is also the main façade, is the most richly decorated and work on it began at the end of the 13th century. As you can see in the second gallery above, the tympana of the three portals are dedicated to the life and Passion of Christ as well as the Last Judgement. The famous group of statues flanking the right portal and showing the Tempter surrounded by the Wise and Foolish Virgins served as a model for the cathedrals of Freiburg and Basel (I’ll talk more about these statues in Chapter 4 because the original ones are preserved in Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame). Flanking the left portal is a sculptural group depicting Virtues with lances stabbing Vices. Above the three portals are three delicate double-gables and above the central one is a magnificent rose window, attributed to Erwin von Steinbach, who was in charge of the cathedral project from 1284 to 1318. Above the rose window is the Apostles’ Gallery which shows the twelve apostles in a disciplined line. On the two sides are two octagonal towers with the north one crowned with a steeple attributed to John Hültz. The two towers and the belfry comprise the platform which is at a height of 66 meters and provides a wonderful view over the city and its surroundings. An interesting fact is that the steeple, excluding its 10m-long spire’s point, is 132 meters tall, which means that the lower part and upper part (divided by the platform as the middle line) of the cathedral is of equal height. Rather difficult to tell, isn’t it?
Having had a look at the west façade , let’s move to the south side of the church and take a look at the south Romanesque portal, the oldest of the cathedral. Unfortunately, when I was there, this portal was under construction so I can’t show you a nice photo. However, it is famous for the Church and Synagogue statues whose originals are preserved in Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame and I’ll show you some pictures of them when I introduce to you this museum in the next chapter. The tympanum of the left door is decorated with a magnificent “Death of the Virgin”, which is said to be admired by Eugène Delacroix, and the tympanum of the right door is decorated with “Coronation of the Virgin”. The north portal dates back to the end of the 15th century and is dedicated to St. Lawrence, whose martyrdom is depicted above the door.
3.2 Cathedral at night
Remember, the sun changes the color of the cathedral during the day and people make it glorious at night as well. Don’t forget to go to Place du Château after dinner because night and light add more holiness to the edifice. I was a bit surprised that even though I didn’t use the tripod for some of the pictures, the quality turned out to be quite good. This is because since October 2016, Strasbourg Cathedral has a new permanent lighting system. As I read from the information give by the tourism office, 500 spotlights have been discreetly positioned at the building, highlighting its exceptional architecture, the pink sandstone and the detailed features of its sculptures. The project’s designers, the L’Acte Lumiére company, conceptualized three different lighting phrases during the night, that is to say,
- from dusk to 22:00, a layered enhancement
- from 22:00 to 1:00, a view of the building as a whole that invites viewers to look upwards
- from 1:00 to sunrise, only the upper part is lit, which is like a lighthouse and can be seen across the city
Isn’t it amazing that the plan both gives visitors a unique experience and saves energy? I recommend you arriving at cathedral before 22:00 because that’s when the giant “rocket” “burns” into the sky.
3.3 Interior of the cathedral
Inside the cathedral, you should focus on the stained glass windows, the Great Organ, the pulpit and of course the astronomical clock and the Pillar of Angels. Now, I’ll introduce to you the highlights one by one.
3.3.1 Stained glass windows
In order to recognize the stained glass windows better, I’ll first of all give you some general tips.
- When you are inside the cathedral facing the high altar, your left is north and your right is south.
- There are stained glass windows in the central nave, in the side-aisle naves (lateral naves) and in various chapels so make sure you are looking at the right part.
- A transept (in a cross-shaped church) is either of the two parts forming the arms of the cross shape, projecting at right angles from the nave.
Of all the stained glass windows, I found the rose window the most amazing. It kept drawing my attention when I was walking inside the cathedral and I would say the best place to admire it is in front of the stairs leading up to the high altar. Being 13.9 meters in diameter, it is decorated with 32 ears of corn, symbolizing the wealth of the city in the Middle Ages. The central nave and two lateral naves are said to have been built in two stages between 1240 and 1275 and the oldest windows of them, which date from the beginning of the 13th century and depict the succession of the Germanic kings and emperors, are located in the north side aisle. In the 14th century, the Chapel of St. Catherine, with remarkable windows from the same century featuring Jesus Christ’s life, and the Chapel of St. Lawrence whose stained glass windows came from the former Dominican Church, were added. In the north transept, which is not accessible to the public but can be glimpsed through the fence, you can see a life-size group of sculptures “Christ on the Mount of Olives” and a baptismal font in late-Gothic style. It is also here that you will see the oldest windows in this cathedral, which originated from the primitive sanctuary and represent the two St. Johns and the Judgement of Solomon.
3.3.2 The Great Organ
Upon entering the cathedral you will certainly notice the Great Organ because it projects from the north side of the central nave. That’s also why it’s called a “Swallow’s Nest” construction. Besides the rich ornaments, the three automata at the bottom are indeed curious. They date from the 14th century and are in perfect working order. As I read from the Press Info Kit provided by the tourism office, the statues are designed with movable joints and endowed with speech, who ranted shamelessly at the officiating priest and were a well-appreciated attraction.
3.3.3 The pulpit
The pulpit in the nave is created by Hans Hammer and is a superb example of the flamboyant Gothic style. Try to find a small dog, which is said to have belonged to Geiler de Kaysersberg, a 15th-century preacher. Another saying about the identity of the dog is that it belonged to Hans Hammer himself and accompanied him while he was working on the pulpit. In order to thank the company of his loyal friend, Hans Hammer carved this little statue in memory of it. Rumor has it that if you touch the head of this little dog, you wish will be granted.
3.3.4 The Astronomical Clock and the Pillar of Angels
In the south transept, you will see the astronomical clock and the Pillar of Angels, which are called wonders of the cathedral. In my opinion, the best way to understand and appreciate them is to watch the movie shown every day at noon except Sundays and public holidays. During my first visit to the cathedral, I noticed that at around 11:30, the staff began to invite the people out. At the beginning I thought probably the Mass was gonna take place but later I realized that they were emptying the cathedral for a movie about the astronomical clock at noon and for the “Procession of the 12 Apostles” at 12:30. The ticket for this “event” costs 2 euros (1.5 euros fo reduced ticket) and is included in the Strasbourg Pass. Is it worth it? I would say yes because first of all, the nearly-half-hour movies explains the mechanism of the clock in detail and only after learning about the complexity of it will you be amazed at the ingenuity and genius of its creator. Secondly, the ticket gives you privileged access to the cathedral because at that time only people attending the movie will be allowed in. Trust me, there are many less people than normal times and you can take this opportunity to shoot some amazing photos. Please note, the movie starts at 12:00 in the south transept and you are advised to enter the cathedral through the door close to the south portal (NOT through the portals on the west façade) 15 minutes in advance.
220.127.116.11 The Astronomical Clock
Unfortunately I’m unable to give you a complete picture of the clock because it was under construction during my visit. I’ll try to give you a rather detailed introduction so that you know what to expect when you travel to Strasbourg and I hope by that time the restoration work will have been finished.
The 18-metre astronomical clock is one of the largest in the world but is not the first clock in the cathedral. Its first forerunner was the so-called Dreikönigsuhr (“three-king clock”) of 1352-1354, located on the wall opposite to where today’s clock is. As you can see from the first picture in this section, a blue glass round is placed there symbolizing it. Starting in 1547 a new clock was being built by Christian Herlin together with others, but the construction was interrupted when the cathedral was handed over to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1571, the construction was resumed by Conrad Dasypodius and the Habrecht brothers (Swiss clockmakers). Functioned until the late-18th century, it can be seen today in the Strasbourg Museum of Decorative Arts. The clock that we see now was made between 1838 and 1843 by Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué in Dasypodius’ clock case, combining Renaissance decoration with completely new mechanics. Schwilgué made a number of preliminary studies years before, such as a design of the computus mechanism (Easter computation) in 1816, and built a prototype in 1821. Similar to what I heard while visiting the astronomical clock in the city hall in Prague, it is said that the eyes of Schwilgué were gouged out to prevent him from making a second clock as such.
As I learnt from one article in Wikipedia, the astronomical part of the clock is unusually accurate. For example, it indicates leap years, equinoxes, and more astronomical data, thus making it more of a complicated calculating machine than a clock. What’s more, it was even able to determine the computus (date of Easter in the Christian calendar) at a time when computers did not yet exist. What we normally see nowadays is just the exterior of the clock including the paintings, sculpted figures etc., but in the movie that I mentioned above, we can see the mechanism behind the surface which enables the clock to indicate not only the official time but also the solar time, the day of the week (each represented by a god of mythology), the month, the year, the sign of the zodiac, the phase of the moon and the position of several planets.
Not interested in mechanics or astronomy? Then let’s take a look at the performance of the clock’s automata. The animated characters launch into movement at different hours of the day but all of them are put into operation at 12:30. From bottom to top, you should first see two angels flanking a clock, one of which sounds the bell while the other one turns over an hourglass. Then, a little higher, you should see different characters representing different stages of life (a child, an adolescent, an adult and an old man) pass every quarter of an hour in front of Death. On another level are the Apostles who march in front of Christ precisely at 12:30 and the procession is punctuated by the cock on top beating its wings and crowing. Unfortunately I didn’t see the procession of the Apostles because of the restoration but I did see the movements of the angels and of the characters representing different stages of life. I also heard the cock crowing and to be honest, its voice was a rather funny.
18.104.22.168 The Pillar of Angels
Besides the astronomical clock, another highlight in the south transept is undoubtedly the Pillar of Angels, a masterpiece of Gothic art and a prodigy of vertical construction of its day. As I mentioned previously, it was created by the Chartres masters who introduced the grandeur of Gothic art to the local artisans and revolutionized the construction of the cathedral. The pillar, depicting the Last Judgement, presents 12 magnificent sculptures including Jesus, who is enthroned at the top, the Angels of Judgement, who sound the trumpets, and the Four Evangelists, who are symbolized by a winged man or angel, a winged lion, a winged ox or bull and an eagle under them respectively. A few traces of color can still be seen on certain parts of the sculptures but in general, the pillar just appears pale brown.
There are some legends about this pillar and one of them is related to the statue of a man resting his elbows on a balustrade to the left of the astronomical clock. Can you find him? It is said that he was a rival architect to the one who had built the Pillar of Angels. Being confident that one single pillar could never support such a large vault, he has been there since the completion of the pillar, waiting to see the whole thing crashing down.
3.3.5 Chapel of St. Andrew and the Front Gallery
Behind the south transept is the Chapel of St. Andrew, the oldest in the cathedral, which dates back to the end of the 12th century. Behind it is a private gallery which, as you can see from the pictures above, exhibits various models, books, sculptures, silver and gold objects and vestments. I’m not sure whether or not the gallery is open to the pubic because the astronomical clock is under restoration and the “Procession of the Apostles” is cancelled, but if you are interested, you can ask the tourism office located right next to the cathedral. Now, make sure you’ve got enough energy because we are going to leave the inside of the cathedral and climb more than 300 steps to reach the definite top one viewpoint in the city of Strasbourg, the cathedral platform.
3.5 Cathedral platform
- from 1st April to 30th September: 9:30 – 20:00
- from 1st October to 31st March: 10:00 – 18:00
- last entry half an hour before the closing time
- closed on 1st January, 1st May and 25th December
- full price: 5 euros
- reduced price: 3.5 euros
- free admission on the first Sunday of every month
- free admission with Strasbourg Pass
Please note, the entrance is located on the south side of the cathedral and very close to the west façade. The viewing platform is 66 meters above the ground and can be accessed by climbing 332 steps (another source says 329 steps). For me personally it wasn’t that difficult but to be honest, if you are afraid of height, it could be a challenge. This is because as you can see in the first two pictures in the gallery above, the windows of the tower are very long and you can see the ground all the time. A bit thrilling isn’t it? Once you are on the platform, the view is absolutely fabulous because the height, 66 meters, is neither too much nor too little. You are “lifted” above the city, but not too high to see all the buildings, in particular the dormer windows on several levels on the roofs, clearly and in detail. From here, you can easily spot the Church of Saint-Pierre-le-Vieux, the Protestant Church of Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune, Palais du Rhin, the Reformed Church of Saint Paul, the National University Library, the European Parliament, the European Court of Human Rights and many many more. In general, the entire city including the Grande-Île, the Neustadt (German Imperial Quarter) and the European Quarter is right beneath your eyes. On a sunny clear day, you can even take a glimpse of the nearby mountains such as the Vosges and the Black Forest.
One little thing I didn’t like much about the platform is that the view towards the near north is blocked by the spire and the view towards the near south is blocked by a small flat house and some fences. It means that you can’t really see Palais Rohan or Museum Œuvre Notre-Dame from the top. However, do you remember I mentioned that on your way up and down, the windows of the towers are quite long? On one hand, they make the ascent and descent a bit more exciting but on the other hand, they provide a unique opportunity to see the buildings nearby, as you can see in the pictures above. I won’t say that in this case, the journey is more important than the destination, but I surely would like to remind you of paying attention to your surroundings while you go up in the south tower and go down in the north tower.
Having said so much about the cathedral, do you think it’s enough or do you wanna know more? If you wanna know more, I recommend you visiting the Museum Œuvre Notre-Dame because it is closely related to the cathedral’s construction history and preservation. In the next chapter, I’ll give you a brief introduction to it while focusing on the former meeting hall of the masons and stonecutters as well as the famous sculptural groups such as the “Church and Synagogue” and the “Wise and Foolish Virgins”. The museum is only two minutes away by foot from the cathedral.
4. Museum Œuvre Notre-Dame
For information about the opening hours and ticket prices of this museum please click here.
The Œuvre Notre-Dame Museum was created between 1931 and 1939 by Hans Haug, director of the Strasbourg Museums, and presents a view of the evolution of art in Strasbourg and the Upper Rhine region between the 11th and 17th centuries. It is situated within Gothic, Renaissance and 17th-century buildings and mostly importantly, the core of them is the Foundation of Notre-Dame. Since the 13th century, this institution has been responsible for the administration of the construction of the cathedral.
Based on my experience, the museum is well-oriented even though it occupies four sections and 39 rooms. Remember to follow the signposts all the time. I suggest you get an info brochure from the ticket desk and if you are particularly interested, you can also rent an audio guide free of charge. The floor plan in the info brochure is very useful because it not only shows you the visiting route but also tells you the theme of each of the rooms and the must-see masterpieces within. In this chapter, I’ll write four sections in accordance with the four sections of the museum and at the beginning of each section, I’ll show you some pictures and give you a brief introduction to the rooms. If there are some rooms or works that interested and impressed me a lot, I’ll give you a detailed explanation. Now, let’s start from the ground floor and I’ll show you the originals of the most famous statues of the cathedral.
4.1 Section 1
This section is made up of rooms 1 – 13 and is dedicated to the period of time from Romanesque to Gothic. It features (in room 2) Romanesque sculpture in Alsace, (3) Gothic and Romanesque stained glass windows, (4) the main courtyard, (5) former meeting hall of the masons and stonecutters, (5) 15th- and 16th-century sculptures from the cathedral, (6-7) Gothic sculpture from the cathedral, (9) the Medieval garden (which is closed during the winter time), (10-11) 14th-century sculpture and (12) blacksmith’s galleries and jewish epitaphs. Now I’ll focusing on introducing to you room 5 and room 6.
4.1.1 Room 5
This large square room decorated with frescoes and ornamental woodwork is located on the ground floor of the west wing of the Cathedral Fabric building. It was most likely the meeting room of the cathedral stonemason’s guild, which was active in the Middle Ages. However, due to the lack of any kind of heating system, this room was presumably only used in the summer. It was only in 1931, when the museum was founded, that this room got its official name as the “Lodge Room”.
The Cathedral Fabric Fund is a foundation that dates from the Middle Ages and was responsible for the construction of the Cathedral of Strasbourg. It was created to supervise the work on site, to administer donations and bequests intended for the building as well as the upkeep of it. Since the 14th century, it had incorporated all the stonemasons working on the cathedral site, who later founded an independent guild from the one which was made up of the other stonemasons employed by the city. In fact, so important was the Strasbourg Lodge that in 1456 it became the supreme lodge of all stonemasons’ guilds of the Holy Roman Empire. Having Survived the French Revolution, it has been supervising the maintenance of the cathedral ever since.
Please note, though the room was the meeting place of the cathedral stonemason’s guild in the Middle Ages, its current architectural features and decorations date from the late 16th century. The ceiling is supported by two Corinthian columns and the mural paintings are attributed to Wendel Dietterlin, a German painter who moved to Strasbourg, became a citizen and decorated many buildings in the city including the new cathedral clock and the Town Hall. Unfortunately, due to air pollution and some other factors, some of the Renaissance murals are faint or damaged. Can you still spot the masks in profile, winged angel heads, local and exotic animals such as parrots, monkeys, squirrels, fruits, flowers, or a stork’s nest with three chicks balanced on a man’s head? It could be more difficult than you expect.
4.1.2 Room 6
22.214.171.124 The Church and the Synagogue
As I mentioned above, the south portal of the cathedral was under restoration during my visit so I wasn’t able to see it. However, the originals of the most famous statues flanking the two sides are preserved in Museum Œuvre Notre-Dame and I guarantee you they are worth admiring. There’s no precise information about the creator of these statues but he is commonly referred to as the “Master of the Church and the Synagogue”, who came from Chartres and together with his assistants, left behind unparalleled masterpieces including the Pillar of Angels. In order to understand the significance of these two statues, we should explore them in terms of their artistic value as well as the meaning that they symbolize.
The Church and the Synagogue, what does it mean? As I read from the info boards on site, the Church and the Synagogue each personifies a covenant binding God to his people, that is to say, the New Covenant of the Christian Gospel and the Old Covenant of the Jewish Torah. The Vanquished Synagogue and the Church Triumphant have been traditional Christian symbols since the Carolingian period but they didn’t appear as monumental statues on the portals of the French cathedrals until 1210. On the left (as you can see from the pictures above), the Church Triumphant wears a crown, holds in her hands a chalice and a banner surmounted by the Cross and gazes confidently at the Synagogue. On the right, the blind-folded Vanquished Synagogue holds a broken lance and turns away her head, expressing her inability to recognize Jesus as the awaited Messiah. If you take a close look, she appears to let fall the Tables of the Law, symbolizing the replacing of the Old Testament.
From the artistic point of view, these two sculptures mark the appearance of Gothic style in the cathedral and are among the most famous masterpieces of medieval western art. As written on the info board on site, this style, which shows the influence of the cathedrals in Chartres and Sens, is characterized by the “elegance of the attitudes and gestures, the fine-drawn forms and the classical beauty of the faces”. In my opinion, an impressive sculpture is one that naturally evokes the inner feelings of its viewers. Take a close look at the face of the “Synagogue Vanquished” (as you can see in the third picture above). Can you feel her emotions and understand what she’s trying to “say” even though she can’t say a single word? The delicacy of the flowing drapery, under which we sense the bodies, the majestic poses and the refined profiles remind us of the classical antiquity, which regained popularity in the early 13th century.
126.96.36.199 The Tempter, Wise and Foolish Virgins
These seven sculptures, originally placed on the right portal of the cathedral’s west façade, were moved here in this museum for preservation reason. They depict a parable from St. Matthew’s Gospel, in which the wise virgins are welcomed by the bridegroom while the foolish virgins are disowned. The parable has a clear eschatological theme, that is to say, “be prepared for the Day of Judgment“.
According to World English Bible, Matthew 25:1-13,
Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. Those who were foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, “Behold! The bridegroom is coming! Come out to meet him!” Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise answered, saying, “What if there isn’t enough for us and you? You go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.” While they went away to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins also came, saying, “Lord, Lord, open to us.” But he answered, “Most certainly I tell you, I don’t know you.” Watch therefore, for you don’t know the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.
I’m not familiar with stories in the Bible but based on what I read from the parable above, there seems to be no Tempter. Nevertheless, in this group of sculptures, a tempter is said to seduce the foolish virgins. The Wise Virgins seem peaceful, each carrying their lamp upright so as not to spill the oil while the Foolish Virgins upturn theirs showing that they are empty. The Tempter is depicted in the guise of a handsome young man, whose back is swarming with toads, lizards and snakes. Can you notice these creatures before being reminded of? Are you the “Wise Virgin” or the “Foolish Virgin”? To be honest, I was the latter because I didn’t notice them until I read about them on the info board. Here the Tempter is tempting the Virgins with an apple, long considered the symbol of temptation and the Fall of Man.
One of the legends, which “explains” the wind blowing around the cathedral, is related to the Tempter, who is said to be passing by, riding the wind while noticing the statue of him. Very flattered and curious, the Devil decided to enter and see whether there were other sculptures representing him in the interior. Taken captive inside the holy place, he could not come back out. The wind always awaits him in the square and still howls today.
After visiting the ground floor and on your way to the upper floors, you should see a Digital Room, in which you can discover different stages of the cathedral’s construction. Do you remember when I was introducing to you the cathedral platform, I said theoretically the spire could be climbed? It is certainly too dangerous to climb to the very top in reality but here in this room, with the help of the virtual-reality glasses, you can complete your experience of visiting the cathedral. The staff on site seemed very enthusiastic about this technology and insisted I should try it. I assure you the experience is interesting and unique but if you are wearing your own glasses, it’s not very comfortable. All in all, this room surely adds a modern touch to this museum.
4.2 Section 2
This section is made up of rooms 14 – 18 and is dedicated to art objects. It features (in rooms 15 and 16) art objects, medals and ivories, (17) metalwork from Strasbourg between the 14th and 17th centuries and (18) German metalwork and pewter.
4.3 Section 3
This section is made up of rooms 19 – 27 and is dedicated to the end of the Middle Ages. It features (in room 20) stained glass windows from the 14th and 15th centuries, (22-24) sculpture and painting from Alsace between 1430 and 1470, (25) works by Nicolas Gerhaert of Leyden and Conrad Witz and so on. Some of the masterpieces include the “Bust of a Leaning Man” by Nicolas Gerhaert of Leyden, and “St. Mary Magdalene and St. Catherine” by Conrad Witz.
If you want to take a detour to the third floor, you can learn about how architectural drawing were made. I’m not 100% sure whether this is a permanent exhibition or not so if you are interested, you can ask the staff at the ticket desk for up-dated information.
4.4 Section 4
This section is made up of rooms 28 – 39 and is dedicated to the time period between the Renaissance and the end of the 17th century. It features (in rooms 28 and 29) painting and sculpture at the beginning of the 16th century, (30) works by Hans Baldung Grien, (31) the former meeting room for the administrators of the Œuvre Notre-Dame, (32) the treasurer’s cabinet, (33-36) 16th- and 17th-century Alsatian art and furniture, (35) glass collection from antiquity to the 19th century, (36) works by Sebastian Stoskopff, a master of still life paintings and (38-39) 17th-centruy furniture. Some of the masterpieces include “The Great Vanitas” by Sebastian Stoskopff and “Virgin with Trellis” by Hans Baldung Grien.
Above is “The Great Vanitas” by Sebastian Stoskopff and I found it rather curious and inspiring. Vanitas is a particular genre of still-life painting and a symbolic work of art showing the futility of pleasure and the certainty of death, often contrasting symbols of wealth and symbols of ephemerality and death. Very popular during the 16th and 17th centuries, it typically features inanimate objects, each with its own symbolic meaning. Based on the information written on the info board on site, I will read “The Great Vanitas” together with you.
- hourglass: time passing
- mirror: does it open to nothingness?
- goblets: material wealth
- helmet and gauntlets: power and courage
- celestial earth: the sky transcends all limits
- compass: the measure of time
- lute: art
- books: vanity or the need to know?
- wooden box: a representation of the coffin
- etchings of Zani by Jacques Callot: the human comedy
- eau de vie: immortality?
- skull: Fools! Avoid vanity!
- poem: the key to the painting
For me personally, the meaning of some of the objects such as the hourglass, the goblets and the water of life (eau de vie) is rather obvious and easy to understand but of some others such as the mirror, the lute, the etchings and the poem is a bit too abstract. I guess depending on different life experiences of different people, the interpretations are also different. What’s your own version then?
Here comes the end of my first post about Strasbourg and I hope I have given you enough information about the cathedral as well as Museum Œuvre Notre-Dame. As I emphasized a lot of times above, the cathedral is absolutely the top one attraction and landmark in the city and you should never miss it. I just hope that during your visit, the restoration work of the astronomical clock and the south portal will have been finished so that you can enjoy the “complete pictures” of them. In the next post, I’ll focus on Strasbourg’s role as the European capital and introduce to you the European Parliament as well as some other international organizations such as the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and so on. If you are interested in politics, the European Quarter of the city is another must-see.