The Altar Boy

At the end of August I made a visit to the Pfalz region of Germany with friends. We went to visit friends of my friends (if you follow). The couple I’ll call Josef and Beate showed us around the historic city of Speyer. The Speyer Cathedral is the most important Romanesque church on the planet.

A bold boast, but true. For starters, it contains the world’s largest Romanesque crypt. The crypt has been described as ‘the most sublime monument on German ground.” [1] Speyer is the last resting place of both kings and emperors. The Pope had to crown a king (always men, natch) for him to be officially titled Holy Roman Emperor. Depending on political conditions, the Pope might – or might not – name the ruler “Imperator Romanum”.

Rudolph von Habsburg, a lugubrious chap in an unusually true-to-life depiction for the Middle Ages. He died in 1291.

The oldest grave belongs to Emperor Conrad II, who died in 1039. Take that date in for a moment. This church was consecrated almost a millenium ago. And it’s built on the site of an older church, founded hundreds of years earlier. Speyer is the heart of ancient Germany.

Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl came from the Pfalz and is memorialized with a plaque in front of the cathedral. Kohl was notorious for bringing dignitaries to admire the cathedral and then making them eat Saumagen for lunch. [2]

“In appreciation of the merits of Bundeskanzler Dr. Helmut Kohl.” Plaque placed in thanks for the way he pointed to the Cathedral as example of the Christian roots of a united Europe. No mention of the Saumagen though

Speyer’s Cathedral was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1981. Yes, the breathtaking and harmonious proportions make this a site and sight to see. But what really blew my mind was the story of Josef, which he told me as he showed me around the cathedral and the crypt.

He spent much of his childhood in a boys’ home run by nuns, just around the corner from the church. The sisters had plans for him to become a priest. Each Sunday he served as altar boy, taking part in the church services. [3] Then he met Beate, the woman who has been his wife for 52 years, and that took care of that.

As we stood at the high altar Josef talked about the years after his mother died and he came to live as part of the religious community. I looked out over the vast interior of the Cathedral and almost felt dizzy. Yikes. This wasn’t some great monument for him. He wasn’t describing a thousand of years of history; he’s literally at home here. This grand space helped formed him as a human being. Josef, his story, and the soaring church are beautiful.

NOTES: [1] – German poet Reinhold Schneider. [2] Saumagen is the German version of Scottish haggis. Instead of suet and sausage in a sheep’s intestine, the Pfalz version uses pig’s stomach. I’ve tried it, and it’s not bad. Tasty, even. [3] Josef is 74 years old, so the services would have been conducted in Latin.

Speyer Cathedral’s Dimensions [Source: Wikipedia]

  • Total length: 134 meters/ 440 feet (from the steps at the entrance to the exterior wall of the east apse)
  • External width of the nave (with aisles): 37.62 meters/ 123 feet (from exterior wall to exterior wall)
  • Internal width of the nave: 14 meters/ 46 feet
  • Height of the nave at the vertex of the vaults: 33 meters/ 108 feet
  • Height of the eastern spires: 71.20 meters/ 233 feet
  • Height of the western spires: 65.60 meters/ 215 feet
  • Crypt Length: east-west 35 meters/ 114 feet; north-south 46 meters/ 150 feet; Height: between 6.2 meters and 6.5 meters/ 20 feet and 21 feet

© Text and Photos Jadi Campbell 2018. Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.

10 thoughts on “The Altar Boy”

  1. Like others, I particularly liked your perspective of the church as home to Josef…something quite different from the astonishing architecture! Thanks for explaining the saumagen – I was going to ask.

  2. Jadi, this was a fun piece to see and read. It reminded me a bit of visiting Weiskirche, an example of the baroque/rocco effect on the church. Also it reminded me that the Holy Roman Empire was neithor Holy or Roman.

    1. Yes! It completely shifted the experience for me! I was seeing it as a World Heritage monument, and suddenly it was a intimate space filled with personal knowledge. And the other thing (which I didn’t go into in this post): Josef and Beate are beautiful, caring people. I can’t help believing that their long connection to the Speyer Dom helps explain why they’re such lovely human beings.

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