The parish church of St Mary is the best preserved of all medieval churches in Bergen. Both the building and the furnishings have survived to a large extent.
The church was built from soapstone (‘kleberstein’) between c. 1140 and c. 1200 as a three-aisled basilica with a narrower chancel and a west front with two towers. The nave vaults were built after a fire in 1198.
The church’s Romanesque style can best be appreciated in the ornate portal in the south wall of the nave which shows close affinities with contemporary church architecture in Denmark and Scania (especially Lund Cathedral).
The side-aisles are separated from the nave by impressive round-arched arcades with heavy square piers and double blind windows in the upper storey.
Both side aisles end in chapels at their east ends. After a fire in 1248 the chancel was extended towards the east in an early Gothic style akin to Early English. On this occasion, the two west towers were also heightened.
During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Hanseatic merchants from northern Germany and the Netherlands flocked to Bergen. Their activities in the stockfish trade centered on Bryggen, and they acquired the neighbouring St Mary’s church in 1408. From then on the church was popularly known as ‘the German church’ (‘Tyskekirken’).
The wealthy merchants adorned the church with many altars and epitaphs. The most important surviving medieval art work is the late Gothic triptych on the main altar which was probably made around 1500 in the northern German city of Lübeck. When opened, the altarpiece shows the Virgin and Child in the centre, surrounded by four saints (St Olaf, St Anthony, St Catherine, and St Dorothy) and the twelve apostles; the closed wings show two scenes from the childhood of Christ, the Mass of St Gregory and the vision of St Bridget.
Lutheran influences rapidly spread among the Hanseatic merchants in the early sixteenth century. Unlike in many other places this did not lead to Iconoclasm – to the destruction of images. On the contrary: after the Reformation, the wealth of art works only increased with the addition of epitaphs (some with family portraits and inscriptions in German), richly carved furnishings, votive ships, and more. In 1634 a series of life-sized apostle figures was installed along the upper walls of the chancel.
The exuberantly decorated pulpit in the nave is the finest Baroque art work in Norway. It was erected in 1676, possibly by a Dutch woodcarver who employed exotic materials like tortoise skin. Allegorical virtues are represented around the drum and the tester shows the firmament painted over a hanging golden globe which represents the earth.
St Mary’s officially remained ‘the German church’ until 1766, with church services held in German as late as 1906. On a new note the present organ from 2014-2015 was also built in Germany, by Weimbs Orgelbau in Hellenthal (Eifel).
Follow Øvregaten past the church’s chancel in southeastern direction until you reach Nikolaikirkeallmenningen (c. 200 m)