Our starting point was the picturesque town of Neuzelle. To get there from Berlin Friedrichstraße Bahnhof involved a one hour forty minute journey on two red RE trains, changing at Frankfurt Oder.
The town of Neuzelle is unique in this part of Northern Germany for being an island of Roman Catholicism in an area of Lutherian Protestantism after the Reformation. Kloster Neuzelle was a Cistercian abbey, first established under the patronage of Henry the Illustrious (Heinrich III der Erlachte), Margrave of Meissen, who had it built in memory of his wife Agnes. What you see today though is a rebuilding of the abbey in the 1650's after it was devastated during the Thirty Years War. It was then more associated with Prague and Bohemia, the rest of Brandenburg having converted to Protestantism, and the Italian architects and artists brought in to do the work reconstructed it in the Southern German baroque style.
From the outside the abbey church looks innocuous enough. It's architecture looks Alpine, and it is set in a recently re-landscaped garden reminiscent of the blueprint of baroque, the Palace of Versailles (compare with the gardens at Schloss Charlottenburg and Sans Soucci in Berlin and Postdam, also re-styled to their baroque original layout).
The interior though is late baroque, or baroque on acid, also known as rococo. It is the flamboyance and orchestrated spectacle of baroque taken to its ultimate conclusion. It is no wonder that after this excessive zenith, architectural taste swung back to its beginnings with the simplicity of neoclassicism.
There isn't anywhere you can look without your eyes being distracted with detail upon detail, carved in wood and stone, and all brightly painted or gilded. Candy-twist pillars lead your eye up to successive levels, where cherubs fly above you to ceiling paintings high above depicting biblical scenes.
The baroque style came about as a reaction against the relative austerity of protestant tastes. Instead of Lutheran inner-meditation and personal spirituality demanding minimal distraction from external stimuli, Roman Catholicism countered with spectacle, displays of wealth, mythic tales, and sheer shock and awe at the majesty of the Catholic heavenly hierarchy. In effect it was an exercise in getting bums on seats in a time when German states were falling like dominoes away from control by the Holy Roman Empire.
The baroque style consists of tall, narrow, brightly lit spaces contrasted with the play of dark shadows. Everywhere there seems to be movement, in the same way that baroque music, played on enormous and intricate pipe organs, is designed to fill these same spaces with ascending, intricate chord progressions. Kloster Neuzelle is a perfect exemplar of this style, and it is a good thing that though now secularised, this building has been preserved by State Brandenburg to remind us of this period piece.
To modern aesthetics, it all now seems a bit hysterical and totally OTT. Never mind the dusting and re-gilding that must need to go into maintaining it. It brings me to mind of 18th century opera, the soaring music very clever and intricate and festooned with twiddly bits, and the emotions all grand and full-on and very chiaroscuro.
If I was brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition, I imagine I would fair feel like swooning at the imagery and associations, from the hundreds of statues of saints, the religious icons, the stations of the cross, and the holy reliquaries and shrines. As it is, half an hour in the church was enough to sate my senses, and I was glad to get back out into the real world. The late baroque period of Germany was an interesting and sensually exciting time, but I wouldn't want to live there.