Marienkirche meaning St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck is Germany’s third largest church and part of the city’s illustrious history as a former member of the Hanseatic League. Taking some 100 years to complete and consecrated in 1350, Marienkirche may not be Lübeck’s oldest church (instead the cathedral), but it is the biggest.
Marienkirche is also renowned for its gothic architecture, upon which many other churches in the region have been modelled. Like much of Lübeck’s medieval centre, Marienkirche suffered great damage during World War Two but was later restored.
When Henry the Lion moved the Bishopric of Oldenburg to Lübeck and established a cathedral order, a wooden church was built shortly after in 1163. This earlier church was soon replaced by a brick Romanesque building but by the early 13th century, the church no longer represented the affluence and prestige of the city’s bourgeoisie. The town council had good relations with Lübeck’s bishop, and together they devised a church that would be built close to the town hall and market.
Therefore, a 3-aisled basilica was designed based on French Gothic cathedrals built of natural stone. Until 1250 when Marienkirche began construction, there was not a brick church so high with a vaulted ceiling – the great height was only made possible by the buttresses on either side. The Marienkirche was a symbol of the Hanseatic traders’ desire for freedom, as they had been since 1226 subordinate to the emperor.
When the RAF bombed Lübeck on Palm Sunday 1942, the church was almost completely devastated by fire. The famous Danse Macabre organ was destroyed, likely played by Bach, along with several Bernt Notke pieces and the Trinity altarpiece by Jacob von Ultrecht. For the rest of the war, Marienkirche was protected by a makeshift roof until proper reconstruction could begin in 1947.
The old wooden roofing was replaced with lightweight concrete and copper, matching the original design and concrete preventing another fire. In the 1950s, the interior was redesigned and witnessed an art fraud scandal when the original frescos were ‘supplemented’ by fake ones by the hired artist Lothar Malskat. When he admitted to the fakes, he and the man who hired him, Dietrich Fey, were given prison sentences.
Today, the Marienkirche continues to tower over Lübeck and dominates the city’s impressive skyline with its twin copper spires. For 2€ you can spend an hour wandering around the cathedral and reading the panels that document the restoration effort after World War Two.
Inside, you can see the cathedral’s history: bells that fell during the RAF air raid have been left in pieces on the floor. Other highlights include paintings by Günter Grass, an author, sculptor and painter. There is also a small devil figure sitting on the steps to welcome you.
Getting to Marienkirche
Located in Lübeck’s historic old centre, the Marienkirche is easily found when walking around the city. The nearest bus stop is Lübeck Schusselbuden on bus routes 4, 10, 11, 21, 30, 31, 32, 39, and 40, just around the corner from Marienkirche. There is also car parking across the road.