The Gothic sandstone building sits above the rooftops of the Old City, and the silhouette of its spire, over 100 metres high, is a key feature of Bern’s distinctive skyline. The monument represents grand architecture and diverse culture and is part of Bern’s moved history.
Switzerland’s largest late medieval church
In the Middle Ages, there was a very strong connection between politics and the church: religious events were an important part of everyday life. Those who were entitled to vote would attend political gatherings in churches.
In the 15th century, Bern was the largest city state north of the Alps – it had a lot of influence and became an important political power. Soon, the people wanted an adequate church, and it’s not surprising that the city of Bern commissioned the Minster. The build began in 1421.
The location already had some religious history: 200 years earlier, a small chapel had stood in the same spot. Over time, it had been replaced by a newer, larger church, the “Leutkirche”. For the Minster, the third church in that location, they left the old church and built the Minster around it.
The Bern Minster is the highest church tower in Switzerland.
During the first phase, Matthäus Ensinger, a foreman from Ulm, was in charge of the project. The construction took over 150 years, and generations of foremen, sculptors and stonemasons worked on the important monument. It was hard work and there were strict rules: the main goal of late Gothic architecture was to have a building of predetermined dimension and with as much light as possible. The craftsmen achieved an impressive space by connecting the entire inside space, using a special building technique and carefully proportioning the windows.
In the 16th century, the third stage of the build came to an end. The spire was only 50 metres high, so the Minster looked quite different among the houses of the Old City. Construction had to stop because the ground was not stable and there were some financial problems. Later on, the impressive spire was built in the Gothic style and reached its final height. Switzerland’s largest late medieval church was completed in 1893. It was made almost completely out of Bernese sandstone, with the exception of the top part of the spire. For the last part of construction, sandstone from Lower Saxony was sometimes used, as it is very resilient.
Be it the artistic stained-glass windows, the carefully crafted choir vault with the stone figurines, the invaluable set of bells (including the largest bell in all of Switzerland) or the incredible work of the stonemasons: in Bern’s Minster, there are countless masterpieces such as sculptures, frescoes and stained glass.
There are many interesting details that can be discovered when visiting the Minster: when climbing the steps of the spire, the sculptures of the eight foremen who helped build the church wait on the first gallery. If you look closely, you’ll see the plaque on the railing with the words “machs na” (“reproduce it”) – we’re not sure if it’s a message for other foremen or the citizens of Bern. There’s also a Bernese coat of arms amidst all the other small details in the choir vault.
The most famous feature of the Bernese Minster is the exceptional main portal. Erhart Küng, a sculptor and foreman from Westphalia, made the sandstone masterpiece that depicts the Last Judgement. There are 294 sculptures: prophets, angels with trumpets, Jesus Christ as Judge of the Nations, Lady Justice (added after the Reformation), martyrs and damned souls showed the believers what the day of the Last Judgement would look like.
Reformation in Bern
The driving force behind the Bernese Reformation – when Christians were divided into Catholics and Protestants – were friends of Huldrych Zwingli. 450 delegates had a 20-day meeting and decided on 7 February 1528 to reform Bern. The change in religious confession meant that there were some big changes: catholic mass was abolished, churches were used for storage and monasteries were no longer used.
The Bernese government ordered the removal of altars, statues, paintings and frescoes in all of the city’s churches. Even the two swallow’s nest organs – according to Zwingli, “the devil’s bagpipes” that distracted believers from prayer – had to be removed during the Reformation “clean-up”. The closed-off openings still reveal where they used to stand.
Today, there are seven organs in the Bernese Minster: there’s the impressive, large Minster Organ from 1729, a swallow’s nest organ in the sanctuary, an organ in the Gerber chapel, two so-called research organs and two mobile positive organs.
If you want to know more about the medieval church and the hidden history of the Minster, you can join a tour. Participants can get up close to the large church bells and have the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful night-time view over the rooftops of Bern, UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visiting Bern’s Minster
You can visit the Minster to enjoy the unique ambiance inside the building, listen to the sound of the organs, attend a protestant service, look at the medieval architecture or enjoy the view from the platform at the top of the spire – the church and the spire of the Minster are open daily, year-round. Make sure you check the official opening hours.
Opening Hour Church and Spire
Monday–Friday Church Tower Winter 22 Oct. 18 – 29 Mar. 19 12:00 p.m.–4:00 p.m. 12 p.m.–3:30 p.m.* Summer 01 Apr. 19 – 18 Oct. 19 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. 10:00 a.m.–4:30 p.m.* Saturday Church Tower Winter 27 Oct.18 – 30 Mar.19 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.* 10:00 a.m.–4:30 p.m.* Summer 07 Apr.19 – 19 Oct.19 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.* 10:00 a.m.–4:30 p.m.* Sunday Church Tower Winter 28 Oct.18 – 31 Mar.19 11:30 a.m.–4:00 p.m. 11:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.* Summer 07 Apr.19 – 20 Oct.19 11:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m. 11:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.*
* last ascent
The Minster Terrace
The Minster terrace, with its large chestnut trees and wonderful view of the Aare river and the Matte neighbourhood, invites visitors to sit down and relax. In the summer, old and young meet under the shady trees, on rainy or cold days, the mountain panorama is best enjoyed from inside the pavilion of the café Einstein au Jardin.
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