The Hanseatic City of Lübeck grew exceedingly wealthy through trade. Strong walls and massive fortifications were supposed to protect this wealth against external threats. The city was surrounded entirely by a town wall with only three gates admitting entry:
Of these city gates in Lübeck's fortifications, only the Burgtor and the Holstentor have been preserved until today.
Why is the Holstentor called Holstentor?
The gate called Holstentor leads to Holstein, where the Saxon tribe of the Holcetae originally settled. Under Count Adolf II of Schauenburg, they had colonised the Slavic region Wagria and founded Lübeck in the first half of the 12th century.
The Holstentor was built in the years 1464 to 1478 by the city master builder Hinrich Helmstede after Dutch models. From the very beginning, it served both to defend the city and represent its status. The twin-towered construction of two bulky round towers with slate-covered conical roofs is linked by a central intermediate wing, through which the round-arched gateway leads into the city.
The Holstentor in the past
This altarpiece, which is today kept at St. Anne's Museum, was created by Erhart Altdorfer for the Magdalene altar of the castle monastery Burgkloster around 1520. The painting shows what the gate originally looked like with gold spheres adorning the small towers and spires.
The field side
To the outside, the Holstentor presents itself as defiant and prepared for defence. The monumental impression is most notably created by the two imposing towers, which jut out by three and a half metres from the central structure. In anticipation of battle situations, the field side is built with hardly any windows. The 3.5 metre thick walls on this side are only interspersed with embrasures and very few, small windows.
The city side
The walls on the city side measure less than one metre and are considerably thinner than toward the field, and the entire structure is more artistically styled than on the field side with its military purposes.
The facade facing the city is by far more sophisticatedly designed and has a more friendly appearance than the defence side. The two towers and the central structure appear as one uniform construction, making for a representative front toward the city.
The south tower shows how the master builder accomplished the optical feat of bridging the three-storey field side and the four-storey city side: Here, the wall projection from the field side runs vertically upward by half a storey and from there on continues as the border between the second and the third storey on the city side.
A leaning tower?
The considerable inclination and sag of the Holstentor's south tower is clear to see. This is caused by insufficient foundation during the construction period in the 15th century. As the gate was built on marshy subsoil, close-set piles were driven into the ground onto which two layers of beams were laid, forming a so-called raft foundation. However, only the towers where built on top of this construction, while the heavy middle wing is unsupported. The towers therefore sank unevenly into the ground, tilting toward each other as a result of the immense pressure from the massive middle section.
These movements were not stopped until the restoration of 1933/34.
CONCORDIA DOMI FORIS PAX
The gate's duty is proclaimed in golden letters above the passageway on the field side: Harmony within, peace without.
This Latin phrase from 1871 is a shortened form of the text previously inscribed on the (not preserved) foregate: Concordia domi et foris pax sane res est omnium pulcherrima (Harmony within and peace without are indeed the greatest good of all).
1477 S.P.Q.L. 1871
The inscription above the archway on the city side is adorned with the red and white Imperial Eagle and the double-headed eagle of Lübeck's coat of arms.
The year 1477 indicates the date of completion of the Holstentor (which was actually 1478).
The year 1871 signifies both the completion of the restoration works and the founding of the German Empire, thus upgrading the building to a German national monument.
The inscription is a variation of the Roman acronym S.P.Q.R. for SENATUS POPULUSQUE ROMANUS, which translates to "The Senate and the People of Rome". Here it reads S.P.Q.L. for SENATUS POPULUSQUE LUBICENSIS, that is, "The Senate and the People of Lübeck".
Demolish the Holstentor?
The Holstentor escaped demolition by a hair's breadth.
By the mid 19th century, the old gate was a sad, dilapidated sight. For ten long years, from 1853 to 1863, Lübeck's city parliament discussed tearing down the building altogether. By a slim majority of one vote – the result was 42:41– the assembly finally decided on 15 June 1863 to preserve the gate. Restoration works started in that very year.
The field in front of the Holstentor had not always been a green park lawn, but rather occupied by a sophisticated fortification system. The city model exhibited at the Museum Holstentor illustrates the entire defensive structures in the area of the gate very well: The medieval Holstentor is shown followed by the Renaissance Gate, also called Foregate, which was flanked by ramparts. Next came a bridge dam and a drawbridge.
Located between the old Holstentor rampart and the new rampart was a field with ponds – the remnants of the former moat – and gardens.
In terms of defence, the medieval fortifications were already considered inadequate in the 16th century, which is why the Holstentor was additionally fortified by a bastion built in front of it.
The Renaissance Gate, also known as Crooked Gate, was inserted into the wall of the new bastion in 1585.
The two gate constructions were connected by a defensive Zwinger wall. The Foregate was located only some 15 metres away and almost entirely obstructed the view of the Holstentor gate.
More about the Foregate
The general public awareness for the Holstentor was based on its image printed on the 50 DM bills. The Bundesbank launched a contest to design the 1961 banknote series, which remained in circulation until 1990. Ten graphic designers with previous experience in designing banknotes and stamps submitted their drafts for the motif on the back of the DM bills. The then Federal President Theodor Heuss participated in selecting the design by the Swiss illustrator Hermann Eidenbenz.
The decision of the Bundesbank to print Lübeck's Holstentor on the back of the German 50 mark bills underscored the pride of the citizens. The two leaning towers, however, which have always been inclined, were straightened out for the picture.
The Holstentor gate has been depicted on stamps and medals. This medal was manufactured in 1977 on the occasion of the 500-year anniversary of the Holstentor.
In the Biedermeier period, when people withdrew into the cosy privacy of their homes, collecting cups, vases, and flower pots were decorated with the image of the Holstentor.
Precious goblets manufactured to honour burghers of Lübeck displayed the Holstentor, like this anniversary trophy of 1897 from the Lübeck company Buck & Willmann.
The Holstentor featured prominently with famous artists, such as Andy Warhol, Carl Julius Milde, and Edvard Munch.
Edvard Munch repeatedly spent time in Lübeck. His etching from 1904 is considered one of the most significant 20th century depictions of the Holstentor.
Over the centuries, the Holstentor has become the epitome of the Hanseatic idea, the Hanseatic League, and the Hanse City, of trade, power, and wealth. The building held important symbolic weight from the very beginning when it was erected in the 15th century and intended to fulfil far more than purely military protection purposes. Even then it was already planned both as representative building and as monument.
All illustrations: © Museum für Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte der Hansestadt Lübeck