St Martin in Bonn

St Martin in Bonn –

Ernemann Sander tells the story of the saint in reliefs at the Bonn Minster 

This time of the year brings a lot of memories of my childhood.  11 November is St Martin’s Day and that’s a very important date in the area of the Rhineland where I grew up with lots of traditions associated with this day.  The story of St Martin is told in four bronze reliefs by Ernemann Sander, set into a wall next to Bonn Minster.

At primary school we would make lanterns to walk in the St Martin’s procession in the late afternoon, complete with someone dressed up as the saint riding at the front and re-enacting the famous episode of cutting a cloak in half.  The procession ended in a field where a large fire was lit.  Afterwards we would each get a Weckmann, a sweet bun in the shape of a person, and if we were lucky it even had a clay pipe.  As St Martin’s Day was close to my great-uncle’s birthday, my family would visit him the following weekend and enjoy the typical Martin’s Goose for lunch.

St Martin was born in approx. 316 in what now is Hungary, the son of a Roman officer.  According to Roman law, he had to join the army as well.  At one stage, he and his regiment were sent to Amiens in Gaul.  When they came to the city gate (probably not on horseback, that’s a later addition to the story), they met a shivering and half-naked beggar.  Martin was moved and divided his cloak into two parts, he gave one half to the beggar and kept the other half for himself.

After being baptised, in Worms on the Rhine, he refused to carry a sword and was eventually released from the Roman army.  He went to study with bishop Hilarius at Poitiers. He then became a hermit in Ligugé, where he is said to have founded an abbey. The site was excavated, confirming that a very early religious institution to cater for hermits had existed there once.

In 371 or 372, the people of Tours called him to be their bishop.  He founded another monastery there.  He died a natural death on 8 November 397 and was buried in Tours on 11 November, which is remembered as his feast day. He was the first non-martyr to be sainted by public acclamation. St Martin is revered all over Europe, especially in France, but also in the area around Cologne.  Leicester Cathedral, where Richard III was reburied earlier this year, is also dedicated to him.

The customs associated with St Martin, which I remember from my childhood in the Rhineland, have their roots in medieval traditions.  In the Middle Ages, St Martin’s Day was the end of the financial year, when the lease had to be paid and a popular form of payment was a goose. It also marked the beginning of the fasting period before Christmas (another holiday, when traditionally goose is served).  The buns were another type of food which would have been forbidden during te fasting period.  There is also another story about the geese.  Once Martin was hiding in a geese house, but the geese gave him away by making a terrible racket.  The Martin’s Fire was a celebration to bless the fields, but also – along with the children’s lanterns – to bring light into darkness.[i] I would like to congratulate the Bonn Minster on their support for refugees, which also found its way into this year’s lanterns.  You can download the instructions for this lantern here, the pictures on its four sides represent War, Fleeing, Arrival and Acceptance.

St Martin in Bonn

Bonn Minster from the East

St Martin is remembered at Bonn Minster, a former collegiate church. Next to it was a romanesque parish church dedicated to St Martin, an unusual round church.  It was built in 1140 replacing two earlier churches, one of them dating from the 5th century.  By the time of the Napoleonic occupation, St Martin’s was only rarely used and in bad shape.  The local authorities requested permission to demolish it from the French prefect, arguing that the church was obstructing the view towards the eastern end of the Minster.  However, the prefect denied permission because the church was a “cradle of religion and oldest building of the town” and instead donated 300 Francs for essential maintenance.  After he was transferred, part of the church mysteriously “collapsed” during the night before Good Friday 1812. Then it was finally knocked down and the stones sold to the highest bidder.[ii]  A drawing from 1810 gives an idea what the church would have looked like.[iii]  Only a 16th century wooden sculpture of St Martin on horseback remains, which now stands in the Minster.[iv] The outline of the church is preserved in the pavement outside, but this is easily missed.  The most visible memory of St Martin is a series of four reliefs by artist Ernemann Sander, which are regarded one of the most beautiful monuments in Bonn.

St Martin in Bonn

A drawing of St Martin’s Church (1810)

I have been interested in Ernemann Sander’s works for a long time, initially as a child because one of his daughters was in my year in primary school.  Later I got a small engraving by him at a local art exhibition, which now has pride of place on my wall. Sander was born in 1925 in Leipzig.  After WWII, he first continued his studies in Weimar and then worked in Jena.  However, he picked up problems with the East German government and escaped with his family to West Berlin. Eventually, they came to Bonn and settled in Königswinter-Oberdollendorf.[v]

His statues can be seen all over Germany and Europe, with many all over Bonn and Königswinter.  A “copy” of the pelican (next to the Rhine in Niederdollendorf) was given by the town to Cleethorpes, twinned with Königswinter. He is also famous for his paintings and drawings.

St Martin in Bonn

Pelican by Ernemann Sander, Niederdollendorf

The four St Martin reliefs were created between 1982 and 1983 and are mounted on a wall near where the church used to be.  The wall was built in 1961 from large stones, fragments of columns, capitols and architraves, which had been found during excavations in 1929 to 1930, dating from the Roman era.

Two of the four bronze reliefs show two scenes each, the other two only one scene each.

St Martin in Bonn

St Martin’s Relief 1 by Ernemann Sander

Relief 1: Top – Martin is being flogged by fanatical supporters of Arianism, a belief system to which his teacher, Hilarius, was vehemently opposed.

Bottom – He returns his sword to the Emperor, because as a Christian he is not allowed to kill. The Emperor gets angry and even the dog cowers at his feet.

St Martin in Bonn

St Martin’s Relief 2 by Ernemann Sander

Relief 2:  Martin divides his coat with his sword to give one half to the beggar.  Afterwards Jesus appears to him in a dream, dressed in the half of the coat he had given to the beggar.  The late bishop Klaus Hemmerle said:  “The most amazing part of the story of St Martin is that Christ in a sense features twice.  On the one hand,  Christ is the poor man to whom Martin gives his love.  On the other hand, Christ is also in Martin, who loves the same way as Christ loves us.

St Martin in Bonn

St Martin’s Relief 3 by Ernemann Sander

Relief 3:  Top – Martin is consecrated bishop in Tours.  Sander concentrated on what is important about this episode, a monk is being consecrated and given the crosier.

Bottom – Martin argues against heresies before the Roman emperor

St Martin in Bonn

St Martin’s Relief 4 by Ernemann Sander

Relief 4:  Children in a St Martin’s procession, the romanesque St Martin’s church is in the background[vi]

The reliefs are a beautiful reflection of the story of St Martin as well as Bonn’s history.  And for me they are always a reminder of my childhood and good times.


[i] Becker-Huberti, M., ‘St. Martin’, Hagen Hoffmann.  URL: [last accessed 9 Nov. 2015];

‘Saint Martin of Tours – Man of All Times’, Medieval Histories (11 Nov. 2014).  URL: [last accessed 10 Nov. 2015];

‘ Planungshilfen: Sankt Martin – Bischof von Tours, Geschichte, Glaube und Brauchtum’, Hauptabteilung Bildung Erzbistum Köln.  URL: [last accesed 9 Nov. 2015]

[ii] Knopp, G., ‘Martin & Martinskirche: Was hat das Bonner Münster mit dem Heiligen Martin zu tun?‘, Bonner Münster.  URL:  [last accessed 10 November 2015]

[iii] Clemen, P., Die Kunstdenkmäler der Rheinprovinz. Band 5: Stadt Bonn. Düsseldorf, 1905, p.426 (available at URL:

[iv] Bodemann, S., Das Bonner Münster – ein europäisches Monument. Promo Verlag, Freiburg, 2009, pp.50-51

[v] Oschmann, R., ‘Oberdollendorfer Künstler Ernemann Sander öffnet sein Atelier‘, General-Anzeiger online (19 March 2008).  URL: [last accessed 10 Nov. 2015]

[vi] ‘Scenes from the Life of Saint Martin’, Statues – Hither & Thither.  URL: [last accessed 9 Nov. 2015];

‘Martinstafeln am Münster’, Bonner Münster.  URL: [last accessed 10 Nov. 2015]

One thought on “St Martin in Bonn

  1. Pingback: The Book of Hours of Richard III | Dottie Tales

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