The historians were right

23.05.2011

Archaeologists discover the foundations of the first Hildesheim chapel

Hildesheim (bph) It is more than a legend: In the year 815, on the site of the present-day cathedral crypt, Emperor Louis the Pious really did build a chapel. Lead by the diocese curator Professor Karl Bernhard Kruse, archaeologists have discovered the foundations of the first church to be built on the Hildesheim cathedral hill. They also found the remains of a pit where they suspect the great cathedral bell, “Canta Bona”, was cast in 1765.

Diözesankonservator Prof. Dr. Karl Bernhard Kruse vor den Fundamenten der Kapelle Ludwigs des Frommen

Diocese curator Professor Karl Bernhard
Kruse in front of the foundations of Louis
the Pious’ chapel and the grave of Bishop
Adelog (Bishop from 1171–1190);
Photo: bph

In his work Fundatio, published in 1075, Bernhard of Constance described the foundation of the diocese of Hildesheim. During a hunting trip in 815, Emperor Louis the Pious lost his personal reliquary; it was eventually found caught in a rosebush. The Emperor took this to be a sign from heaven and ordered that a chapel be built on the site and it is here that the diocese of Hildesheim originates. Many architectural historians have been looking for this chapel; however, until now there have never been any significant discoveries which mean that many different reconstructions exist.

The foundation story is true, at least where the chapel is concerned. Kruse and his team have actually discovered the foundations of the first Hildesheim church. They create a large hall approximately six metres by six metres followed by a semicircular apse. The foundations of this small church are unusually strong, made out of large broken sandstones with clay mortar in the core of the wall. A filled cavity in the east apse shows the location of the very first altar which was built over to create the foundations for a later altar. This means that the archaeological discoveries correspond to the description found in Fundatio.

When Bishop Altfrid built his new cathedral over Louis the Pious’ chapel he cleared away the old walls but left the foundations in place. Around the internal crypt he built an ambulatory crypt with a large, round central apse chapel and connected the two with an access gallery. As he wanted to vault these crypts, he had to design buttressing for the piers and pillars of the groin vault which has since been excavated. Below the present-day crossing there were no crypts; these were first installed by Hezilo in around 1060 after the fire in 1046. This shows that in the mid 19th century the Hildesheim cathedral had three crypts with four vaulted columns. “This is unique for a 19th century building”, says Kruse, excitedly.

No less impressive are the excavations in the playground of the Bischöfliche Gymnasium Josephinum next to the cathedral. Here, five metres below the ground, the remains of Bishop Bodehard’s 11th century monastery have been discovered. Most exciting about this find is the furnace and casting pit for a very large bell dating from the early modern period or the baroque era. There are written records which say that the “Canta Bona”, the cathedral’s large bell, was founded in the present-day cathedral yard. Excavation leader Dr. Helmut Brandorff therefore suspects that the bronze casting pit is the birthplace of this enormous bell. That wouldn’t be unusual, says Bradorff, in early days bells were founded right next to the church as they would have been too heavy to transport over long distances. It is therefore likely that the bell casting pit was only used for a few months.

In the enormous casting pit archaeologists also found layers of clay from the bell mould and bronze residue as well as some ceramic from the time of the casting; there was also a relatively high amount of broken brick from the time of Bishop Bernward (around 1000 AD). This originates from the broken layers of Bishop Godehard’s monastery which stood on the site between 1027 and 1046. In addition to this the excavations also uncovered a 9th – 10th cemetery.

 Diocese curator Professor Karl Bernhard Kruse will present these findings at a lecture on Sunday 29th May at 7:00 pm in St. Michael’s church in Hildesheim. The lecture is entitled Der Altfrid-Dom – Bischof Bernwards Vorbild für St. Michael? (The Altfrid cathedral – Bishop Bernward’s inspiration for St. Michael’s?). Entrance is free, although donations for the two World Heritage churches will be greatly appreciated. The excavations can be viewed on Sunday 5th June when Kruse will give guided tours of the excavation site in celebration of UNESCO World Heritage Day.

The diocese of Hildesheim has made a film of the excavation work which provides a good first impression of the discoveries.

The excavations in the cathedral crypt and in the cathedral yard are being carried out as part of the renovation work of the Hildesheim cathedral. By 2015, the diocese’s 1200th anniversary, the cathedral is to be renovated at a total cost of €30 million. In addition to this the cathedral museum, housed in the deconsecrated St. Antonious church, will be re-built. The cathedral is due to be reopened in August 2014.

The video of the excavations in the cathedral crypt.