Monday, October 21, 2013

Wuerttemberg Memorial Chapel: Tribute To A Young Queen

Perched atop a vineyard-covered hill, the lonely Wuerttemberg Memorial Chapel enjoys a magnificent view of the Stuttgart area’s wine country. Although it sits in reverent silence, the chapel proclaims the timeless love of King Wilhelm I for his deceased bride, Katharina. The two now share this secluded resting place, together for eternity.

In 1819, Wilhelm and the people of Wuerttemberg lost their beloved queen at the tender age of 31. This queen had given much of her own money to further the social development of the area, including a girls’ school, hospitals, and an institution for charity – even during the extremely difficult years of famine. The enormous Wuerttemberg Hill, home to the family’s old 11th century fortress, had been a favorite place of Katharina’s. Shortly after her death, Wilhelm had the ancient fortress leveled so he could build something truly symbolic of his devotion for her. Italian architect Giovanni Salucci had been employed as the court architect and was soon put to work designing an appropriate new haunt for young queen. 

The result of Salucci’s work was a neo-classic rotunda with an airy, arching dome inspired by Rome’s Pantheon. Towering Corinthian columns, stucco rosettes, and marble statues all of the palest hues reflect peace and rest as the dome’s incoming sunlight is subdued to a gentle glow. Warmly detailed cast iron accents the coolness of the circular room and is used for the doors, window frames, and a ventilated portion of the floor directly under the soaring dome. Since Katharina was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, Wilhelm made sure that this aspect of his wife’s existence was also remembered with fitting icons and services. Even to this day, Orthodox worship is conducted in the chapel once a year on Whit Monday. Katharina quietly sleeps below in the chapel’s dark crypt, surrounded by a massive white sarcophagus, where she patiently waited for Wilhelm to join her 45 years later. Their daughter, Marie, lies nearby and remains the only other soul in the tomb. Although the crypt is simple and unadorned in décor, the cast iron floor above allows light to pour in and paint decorative patterns on the cold stones that support the chapel’s foundation. Since this iron floor/ceiling lies right under the dome, the royal couple enjoys an everlasting view of the heavens. 

In addition to being a monument of love and Italian architecture, the chapel is something of an acoustical phenomenon. Sounds originating in the crypt reverberate off the hard stone walls as well as travel up through the cast iron floor to bounce around the spacious dome. Secondary echoes from the crypt also travel skyward to create deafening slap-echoes which live several seconds before dissipating. This amazing sound effect brings an unusual energy and life to a place enveloped in death and remembrance. 

On its isolated peak on Wuerttemberg Hill, the memorial chapel leaves the visitor with a profound sense of marital love.  Visible from even miles away, the structure immortalizes one man’s devotion to his wife. Romantic, too in the sense that the pair have this secluded spot to themselves forever.


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