These days, the treasure room of the Collegiate Church of St Servatius in Quedlinburg is kept dark, with low lights mainly reflecting off of the gold jewel encrusted books and containers. (It’s the kind of room where people whisper.) But it wasn’t so long ago when the rooms were empty, and the stolen treasure of Quedlinburg left a gaping hole.
Funny, when my guide first told me about the treasures, she told me that most people are “disappointed” when they see them. People expect crowns or rings… big diamonds and fabulous jewelry. The treasure of Quedlinburg isn’t about what Royalty wears…. it’s books, reliquaries, religious objects. What makes the treasure so valuable is not just the gold and gems, it’s the history! And this treasure is made ever so much more valuable because it was stolen, and years later, found again and returned home.
The saga of Quedlinburg’s Treasure has everything for that perfect Hollywood Action Thriller (maybe starring Matt Damon)- Art theft, gold, jewels, religion, sex, war, international intrigue, the Postal service, and a 50 year treasure hunt! So grab some popcorn, and settle in for the tale….
The Otto-Adelheid Evangelistar
Why did Quedlinburg have so much Treasure?
Heinrich 1 was named King of East Francia, and the Kingdom of Germany in 919. His second wife, Mathilda, gave him a son to carry on the dynasty, and also two daughters. To Henry and Mathilda, women were important as well as powerful. She established an Abbey at Quedlinburg, that basically ran the city for almost 1000 years. Although she later canonized, the abbey itself wasn’t a religious order. Unmarried women from upper class families were sent to Quedlinburg for an education, and to make them suitable for marriage. This sort of education doesn’t come cheap, and the Abbey, as well as the church, were given many gifts.
The Urn from Wedding of Canan
In a very short time, the Abbey became rich and powerful. The Abbess of the Quedlinburg was second in line to only the Pope himself.
Henry and Mathilda were both buried in the church.
Reliquary Box of Heinrich 1
How can books be treasure? What are reliquaries? How much is all this “stuff” worth?
Try over $200 MILLION.
The Samuhel Gospel dates back to the mid-9th century. The cover is made from gold and embedded with colorful semi-precious stones and Byzantine ivory carvings. The Evangelistar (a book of Gospels set up in a special order) to be used over the liturgical year is one of the first ever printed books. The gilded covers feature images of Jesus and the disciples.
Reliquaries are containers for keeping holy objects such as bones or bits of cloth. In the Middle Ages, splinters of the Holy Cross, cloth fragments from martyr’s clothing, and bones of saints were something tangible. Something people could hold on to and venerate. Because these objects were considered incredibly valuable, the containers they were stored in were crafted from gold or ivory, and covered in jewels. The largest of these was the Quedlinburg Casket, about the size of a large shoe box, which was covered in gold and jewels, as well as scenes from the Bible.
Small “personal” reliquaries
Altogether, there are over 600 objects, large and small... from a jeweled Ivory comb, to dozens of small reliquary boxes, gold crosses, an original knotted “Angel Carpet” from the 11th century, to my favorite… an Urn from the Wedding of Cana.
Seeing all of these objects in one place is AWESOME in the truest sense of the word. I was in Awe.
And yet, for over 50 years, some of the most important pieces, were thought to be lost forever. But all the time, they were in Texas.
Relequientafel- Panel Shaped Reliquary of the True Cross
The Quedlinburg Treasure Theft
During World War II Church officials commonly packed away treasures and religious artifacts from safe-keeping. In Quedlinburg this meant packing everything up in crates and storing it down a nearby mine shaft.
Flash to April 1945. The American Army has discovered the hiding place of the Quedlinburg treasure near Schloß Altenburg southwest of the city, and have dispatched a platoon of men to guard the entrance. U.S. Lieutenant Joe Tom Meador, studied art in college, and had a pretty good idea of the value of what they were hiding. So… for whatever reason… over a few days, he secreted a number of pieces (under his coat, apparently) , including the Samuhel Gospel, the Evangelistar, a jeweled Ivory Comb, and a number of jeweled reliquaries out of their storage place, and mailed them home to his mother in Whitewright,Texas. (It does give you faith in the wartime postal system that none of the items were lost!)
May 7, 1945, Germany signs an unconditional surrender.
By June, Church officials notice that some of the Quedlinburg treasures are missing. No one knows ANYTHING. The Monument Men (remember the movie) even get involved. By 1949, with Quedlinburg behind the East German border, the US Army drops the investigation.
Reliquary of St Catherine
Treasure Lost and Found
For years Church officials considered the Treasure lost. Joe Tom Mader went home from the war and went to work in his father’s Hardware store. Occasionally he would pull a piece out of the safe deposit box of the First National Bank (where he stored his stolen goods) to show them off. No one seemed to have any idea of what they were looking at. To them, it was just “shiny objects”. Rumor has it, he even showed off the Samuhel Gospel as a way to impress the men he wanted to bring home.
In 1980, Mader died. His estate was split between his brother and sister, who really had no idea what they were looking at (they even tried to sell some of the items in a GARAGE SALE!). By 1983, they had gotten an appraisal, and a lawyer, and quietly tried to sell the pieces to art dealers.
This is when Willie Korte, a German attorney specializing in recovering stolen art treasures got wind of the story. He enlists the help of William Honan, a New York Times reporter, to help track down the hoard. It took years, some serious investigation, threats from the IRS and battles with unscrupulous lawyers and greedy relatives to finally wrap up the mess. The family ended up receiving a “finder’s fee”, and the Treasure went home to Quedlinburg. Some pieces are still considered missing, and Jesus’s nose got a little squashed because Joe Tom wasn’t as careful with the Evangelistar as he could have been, but it could have been much worse.
Quedlinburg Treasures Today
The Quedlinburg Dom and the Domschatz (Treasury) are open every day but Monday. You can choose to walk through on your own or take a guided tour.
Check their Website for hours and more information–> Quedlinburg Domschatz
William Honan book Treasure Hunt: A New York Times Reporter Tracks the Quedlinburg Hoard is a fascinating detailed account of the search for, and eventual recovery of the Treasure.