The Alte Nikolaikirche is late Gothic and named after the patron saint of fishermen, who used to labour in the nearby Main River. The predecessor building was a chapel built during the 11th or 12th centuries. A steeple was added during the middle of the 13th century; the chancel and sanctuary were enlarged at the end of the century. Alte Nikolai acquired its present form in the 15th century. The congregational website offers a history of the church and its architecture in English. When the Reformation was introduced in Frankfurt in 1530, the church was closed and used as an archive and a warehouse. In 1721 it was rededicated as a place of worship after being renovated. During the war, the inner city area of Frankfurt was devastated by bombing. The Alte Nikolaikirche survived in relatively good shape, but the neighboring St Paul’s Church was destroyed and the homes of its worshippers were wiped out.
Because the St Paul’s congregation was much smaller after the war, the smaller Alte Niklolaikirche became their parish church in 1949. The larger St Paul’s Church was reconstructed and became a national monument and a venue for special events and civic functions. Because of its location in the heart of the city and its attractiveness as an ancient Gothic church, Alte Niklolaikirche is kept open daily for the many visitors who come from all parts of the world. A ‘city church’ ministry that is based at this church has offered a wide variety of events and worship experiences. Music plays a vital role in attracting attendance. There is a tradition of high quality organ and choral music, which includes the Heinrich-Schütz-Kantorei, a choir of about 50 singers who come from all parts of Frankfurt to sing at this church. The congregation has 1300 members, many of whom do not live nearby. One of these members, who lives in another city and comes by train to the services, said that being in this church is like being in ‘God’s living room.’ At the Vespers services, which occur during Advent on Saturdays and Sundays at 5.00pm, the church is usually full, sometimes with people standing in the aisles. Although it is against Advent tradition, for the sake of the visitors the church displays a manger. In December, trombone bands play Advent and Christmas music from the roof of the church; the sanctuary is a popular setting for concerts and informal Christmas singing.
All visitors to Frankfurt will inevitably see the Alte Nikolaikirche, because of its central location on the city hall plaza, adjacent to a large art gallery, the Historic Museum of Frankfurt and the recently reconstructed Old City of Frankfurt, which has become a tourist magnet. The oldest Christmas market in Germany, first documented in 1393, is presently adjacent to two sides of the church, allowing only a narrow access to the church doors. Because the Christmas market is often congested and noisy, the Alte Nikolaikirche offers a quiet place to sit down and rest.
A pastor, who has a specialized ministry involving museums and art, led the spoken part of the service and preached. A vocal ensemble of nine singers, which focuses on Renaissance music, provided the musical content of this service.
What was the name of the service?Musical Vespers: Christmas Choral Music of the Renaissance.
How full was the building?
Full – an estimated 150 people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, because I came in just before the welcomers had positioned themselves at the entrance door.
Was your pew comfortable?
The chair was fine.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a mumbling sound of quiet conversation. The sounds of the market outside could not yet be heard inside the church.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘I greet you very cordially to this Musical Vespers on the eve of the fourth Sunday of Advent.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. There was a sheet listing the order of the service and the music that was sung.
What musical instruments were played?
A small drum. The organ, built by the Oberlinger Brothers in 1992 but which remained silent for this service, is a so-called swallow’s nest organ, because of its placement on the side of a wall. A special feature of this organ is a mechanical bird that comes out from behind a clap door when a lever is pulled and makes the sound of a cuckoo or a nightingale; this bird appears at services that involve children.
Did anything distract you?
The Advent wreath looked gloomy because its candles were not lit. As the service progressed, the noise from the Christmas market increased and became audible inside the church. During the service, people entered late or left early, which is a side effect of the Christmas market, as it draws people into the church who are restless and not in a patient, listening mode. An elderly woman in the second row fell asleep and leaned precariously into the aisle, as though she would fall off her chair. She woke up and sat up straight, but then she fell asleep again and again leaned into the aisle. After she woke up for the second time she either remained alert or slept upright.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The Renaissance music gave this service an uplifting dignity. The congregation mostly listened, as there were no hymns. The only time that the congregation participated actively was at the Lord’s Prayer. The music was from composers such as German Renaissance composer Hans Hassler as well as the Franco-Flemish master Jacob Arcadelt – with Palestrina, Victoria, and Orlando Gibbons also in the mix.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The preacher had a clear, resonant voice; his message was solid and to the point. But he did not look at the congregation – his eyes were always directed upward to the corners of the high ceiling.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
A print depicting the Annunciation by the Dutch Renaissance painter and manuscript illustrator Gerard David had been distributed among the worshippers. The preacher pointed out and interpreted features of this painting, such as the Bible lying at the feet of Mary with its pages being blown upward by wind, indicating symbolically the presence of the Holy Spirit, also displayed in the painting as a lighted dove. God’s Spirit is also present for us as a light in the darkness, especially in winter when we celebrate Christmas.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Renaissance music was therapeutic and uplifting. The high point of the service for me was the singing of selections from the volume of anonymous Spanish Renaissance music, Cancionero De Upsala, which were accompanied by a small drum and were pulsating, dynamic and vibrant.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Infiltrating the worship was the noise of young men outside the church talking loudly and yowling, presumably under the influence of Glühwein (mulled wine).
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Afterwards many people were standing around looking lost.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — This church is a gem.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The contrast between the restless, claustrophobically over-congested Christmas market and the beautiful sanctuary of Alte Nikolai, which was an oasis of peace, rest and sanity.