Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany would seem the very antithesis of the sacred. Oversized skyscrapers dominate the town as nowhere else in Europe. Thanks to the area bombing of the Second World War and the activities of postwar speculators, there is precious little evidence of the past. A crowd of every language, race and nationality swarms on the mall-like main shopping street. At night, however, the high-rise financial district lies deserted just like most US downtowns. What would otherwise be a pleasant, medium-sized European commercial city seems crushed under the weight of an impersonal modernity.
Yet, slightly off the beaten track and on either side of the Main River are astonishing Catholic churches, isolated witnesses to a more glorious past. For it was in Frankfurt that the German kings and the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were elected. After 1560, they were crowned here as well. Indeed, Frankfurt owes its very origin to its status as a possession of the Carolingian Emperors and before that, perhaps, of the Merovingians as well.
St Leonhard is remarkably well preserved, having survived World War II with very little damage. Emperor Frederick II founded this church in 1219, in connection with his vow to go on Crusade – a commitment that soon brought him much grief from the papacy.
Inside, enclosed by later late medieval construction, are two Romanesque portals dating to the era of its foundation. One, of 1220, shows St. James and two pilgrims – this church also served as a departure point for pilgrims to Santiago. Indeed, this church has it its patron the patron saint of one of the main French stations of the pilgrimage route to Santiago: St.Leonard-de-Noblat.
The other portal of 1230 depicts various saints – including St. George, associated with the Crusades. St. George kneels, clad in the armor of a Crusader.
One is overcome by awe when contemplating these ancient ,hidden images while reflecting on the traffic, skyscrapers and global capitalism so near at hand. For when these portals were carved, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Clare, St. Elizabeth, St. Dominic and so may others walked the earth, the Cathedral of Chartres was rising, Christian knights were battling the infidel in Spain, in Prussia and in the Holy Land. Now all is quiet here – one can count the number of visitors, whether tourists or faithful, on one hand.
Later, between 1400 and 1520, St. Leonhard was mostly rebuilt and greatly expanded in an elaborate late gothic style. By then, Frankfurt was a large, prosperous city.
On windows and on carved stones the donors left their mark – like Dr. Stork (Storch) and his wife Mrs. Frog (Froschin). Much lovely glass, stone and metalwork survives from that era.
The original altars and statuary, however, were mostly lost in the Protestant reformation, the adaptation of the church to baroque tastes and subsequent damage by the French armies after 1792. As part of a little known yet remarkable 19th century restoration initiative, Fr. Ernst Franz Muenzenberger, the rector of the church of St Bartholomew, furnished this and other Frankfurt churches with magnificent altars, some newly carved or painted, some purchased and some a mixture of old and new elements. Much of the present appearance of St. Leonhard is due to him.
It is in this magnificent setting that the Frankfurt Traditional mass community celebrates what is called here variously the “Tridentine” or the “classical Roman” liturgy. Traditional Mass Community
Can we forget to mention that Martin Mosebach, who has done more than anyone else has in recent years to promote the restoration of the Traditional liturgy in Germany and the world, hails from Frankfurt?
St. Bartholomew, the “Cathedral” of Frankfurt (it has never been the seat of a bishop) is a much older foundation and a more splendid church. Like St. Leonhard’s and several other major Frankfurt churches, St. Bartholomew’s was eventually preserved for Catholic worship through the influence of the Holy Roman Emperors and of the nearby Prince-bishops of Mainz. Sadly, in contrast to St. Leonhard, St. Bartholomew’s suffered great damage by fire in 1867 and by bombing in 1944. Much of the original atmosphere has been irreparably lost. Piped-in music and horrendous modern art does not help.
Yet many original sculptures, tombstones, paintings as well as Fr. E.F. Muenzenberger’s magnificent altars do survive. Some 19th century frescoes in the style of the Nazarenes tell of the great days of the empire.
To the side of the sanctuary is the very chapel where the Holy Roman Emperors were elected. Later, after the Protestant Reformation and until 1792, the Emperors were crowned in St. Bartholomew’s as well. The very tower of this church features a “cap” reminiscent of the crown of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Cathedral museum preserves an amazing number of original vestments and precious liturgical artwork of St. Bartholomew, St Leonhard, and other Frankfurt churches. There is a chasuble worked in needlepoint by a princess – the wife of a prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire.
Two great candlesticks from St. Leonhard dating to 1480 acquired four smaller companions in the 16th century. For it was then that the “Tridentine” liturgy was adopted which prescribed six candles for solemn masses.
A magnificent 18th century monstrance was curiously altered in the 19th century – a crown was substituted for the original Trinitarian eye of God, which was now felt to be “Masonic.”
Yes, it is a shock to turn from these wonders from the past and confront once again the “modern world” so stridently in evidence in Frankfurt. The Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades and even Christianity itself seem to belong to a dead age. Yet the “new beginning” after Summorum Pontificum of the Traditional Mass in St. Leonhard’s shows that it is far too early to declare absolute victory for modernity. To quote a much later historical figure but in the spirit of the 13th century Crusaders: we have not yet begun to fight….