Choir stalls

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Choir stalls in Erfurt Cathedral

As stalls mono- or multi-row seat rows is referred to the longitudinal sides of the chancel of a church , preferably a Kloster- or Collegiate . Sometimes the choir stalls are richly decorated with carvings. Only a few churches still have completely preserved choir stalls from medieval times; they were often destroyed or fell into disrepair.

The stalls usually consist of tiered, wooden rows of seats and are closed with a back wall ( dorsal ). The choir stalls (popularly stalls , from the Latin stallae ) - often folding seats  - have armrests ( accoudoir ) and are sometimes separated from one another by walls.


Part of the choir stalls from 1288 in St. Alexandri, Einbeck

In the early Christian period up to the Middle Ages, the choir stalls were mostly the only seating in a monastery, collegiate or parish church. While the faithful attended the service standing or kneeling in the nave, the religious and priests , who met several times a day for common choir prayer , served choir stalls to sit, stand and kneel during the liturgy .

As early as the 4th century, solid stone seating was built into the chancel of the Roman basilicas when the choir was built. These benches were not yet decorated, it was not until the 6th century that marble benches were finished with simple dolphin volutes on the edge. Some of the rows of seats were arranged in steps, similar to an amphitheater, to accommodate a larger number of clergymen. The Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello has a six-row complex of this type from the 7th century.

These stone benches can still be found in the Romanesque and early Gothic times. At the same time, however, wooden benches appeared, some with individual stools, benches and even folding chairs. Wood had the advantage that the seated person was less affected by the cold, and space-saving folding chairs could also be made from it. At first, however, there were only quite bulky benches, as they have been preserved in Alpirsbach Abbey . In Ratzeburg , in the oldest German choir stalls, you can find plank seats, the shape of which reflects the transition from stone to wood as a material.

In an order rule of the Benedictines in Hirsau from the 11th century ( constitutiones Hirsaugensis ), misericords on folding chairs are mentioned, which allowed the standing person to support. The folding chairs, which were set up in a row, were bordered at the front by a desk that was later used to hold the chorale books . The seats were partially separated from each other by armrests, which also had hand knobs. This form of choir stalls was used until the Baroque period.

Table of the Riga driver stalls in the Nikolaikirche Stralsund

Around 1300 the wooden stalls were decorated with ornamental carvings. The oldest dated carving of this type in Germany dates from 1288 and is in the Church of St. Alexandri in Einbeck. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the chairs became more and more sumptuous furnishings of the churches, which were decorated in a similar way to the altars and pulpits. Most of the wood used was oak and walnut in the west , which placed great demands on the carvers. From the 16th century on, soft conifers were also used for the carvings. With the exception of banners, the furniture was not painted in color, only the chairs from the late 16th century are painted with colored coats of arms or tendrils or the ornamentation is highlighted in color.

If the number of chairs was initially based on the number of clerics, more seats than needed were later provided. At the beginning of the Renaissance, this also corresponded to the citizens' need for representation. There are 104 seats in Cologne Cathedral , 83 in Erfurt Cathedral and 56 in Magdeburg Cathedral .

In the 15th and 16th centuries, stalls were also built into the nave, although these were not intended for the clergy, but for the laity. These lay chairs were not part of the actual choir stalls, as they were only used as seating for the citizens. The chairs stood on the walls or were built on the pillars of the nave. In addition to stalls for the guilds and guilds , the councils in cities also had their own stalls. The lay chairs were decorated with typical guild representations. The Riga driver stalls in the Nikolaikirche in the Hanseatic city of Stralsund show scenes from the fur hunt and the trade in furs and honey and illustrate the self-image of the citizens. The council chairs in the Hanseatic cities also served the jurisdiction. Families also had their own chairs made. With the Fugger Chapel in the Church of St. Anna in Augsburg , Jakob Fugger had a burial chapel built between 1512 and 1519, the shape and design of which corresponded to the South German choir stalls. In the 18th century, these stalls were mostly box-shaped and could hardly be compared with the medieval choir stalls.

20th century choir stalls in a Benedictine abbey in New Jersey (USA)

Some choir stalls were destroyed by the decay of the wood, a great many were lost through wars, fires or in the course of the Reformation through "church breaking" or did not correspond to the conception of Protestant teaching and were removed.

In today's monastery churches, when installing new choir stalls, special ornaments are generally dispensed with.


Choir stalls in the Salem Minster

The stalls were in the part of the church reserved for religious or clergy, the choir. Larger churches usually had stalls on the north and south sides of the choir. In monastery churches with a large convent such as the Doberan Minster , part of the nave was also reserved for monks , so the stalls there extended into the nave. In Romanesque church buildings the choir stalls stand on the walls of the choir square, sometimes also on the choir barriers that close the choir to the transept. The choir square between the apse and transept, which has been common since the Ottonian period , provided enough space for the seating. In the Gothic churches, which have an ambulatory, the chairs are also placed against the choir screens. These often serve as the back wall of the stalls; Stone choir screens as the back wall were mostly painted in color or hung with tapestries, wooden back walls were also decorated towards the ambulatory.

In the larger churches there are also benches in the west along the rood screen. This horseshoe-shaped system separated the chancel even more from the nave and was mainly used in religious churches of the Cistercians and Benedictines , such as in Cluny and Hirsau .

The choir stalls were often planned during the construction. B. stone canopies created for it.


Misericords from the choir stalls around 1500 in the Quirinusmünster in Neuss

The choir stalls mostly consist of benches divided into individual seats. The subdivision is made by desk panels. The side ends were partially richly decorated outer cheeks. Folding seats were used to make it easier to switch between standing and sitting during the liturgy. To support the standing, console pieces, the so-called misericordia (Latin: misericordia "pity", "mercy"), were attached to the folding seats, which offered support to the standing person. The East and Central German chairs were provided with dorsal, often richly decorated wooden back walls. Canopies formed the top.

to form

Cheek between seats in the Marienkirche in Dortmund
Drawing of the end cheeks, Villard de Honnecourt
Cappenberg Castle , choir stalls, cross section

The French architect Villard de Honnecourt drew exact elevations of the usual wooden partition and outer walls of the choir stalls around 1240. He noted: "If you want to make a rich cheek cheek with good work, stick to it."

The intermediate cheeks, which divided the bench into individual seats, consisted of a larger lower rectangle, above which a wooden, low partition, in the shape of a quarter circle and ending in a hand knob, in which the folding board also ran, formed a smaller rectangle. The pommel initially represented a tuber of leaves, later figurative motifs were also used. There was often a thin column to the floor in front of the cheek board. The individual seats were provided with shoulder rings (accoudoirs) that run into the armrests. Choir stalls formed a specialty in the Cistercian monasteries, as there, according to the rules of the order, a cell shape was adhered to and the intermediate cheeks were made higher. Thus, each seat in these churches formed a separate, small cell for the respective canon.

In most versions, the intermediate cheeks only served the purpose of separating the seats and providing an armrest, while the outer cheeks were richly decorated and used as a decorative element. The rear bench seats were equipped with so-called high side panels, but the outer side panel of the first row was also provided with a decorated outer panel called a desk side panel.

For the early days in Germany, the rear outer cheeks differ in three forms, which were used in different landscapes, namely the Rhenish-French open cheek with a C- or E-shaped volute and the central and east German closed cheek with a high back wall, the dorsal . The Cistercian chairs had high intermediate cheeks and the usual exterior cheeks.

The three forms existed side by side, from the middle of the 14th century they merged and new forms emerged, which in turn were typical for certain landscapes. From the middle of the 15th century, special choir stalls were also built in southern Germany. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the chairs of the guilds or offices were added to the actual choir stalls , which served the laity and for the first time offered seating in the nave; these used forms of choir stalls with.

The forms typical for use in German-speaking countries are described below.

Rhenish volute cheek

The Rhenish volute cheek had predecessors in France and was later developed in parallel with them. De Honnecourt recorded two variants of this outer cheek, both showing the expression in the form of a Latin e . In Xanten Cathedral these sketches were made to the 1250th The Rhenish desk cheek was usually decorated with a lying volute on the cheek board. The need for further splendid decorations then gave rise to the variants, some of which still exist today. The E-volute was doubled, a small column was placed in front of the opening of the C-volute (e.g. in Naumburg Cathedral ), and lush foliage decorations were added. But figurative motifs were also added, as in the Cistercian Abbey of Altenberg . The fact that the Cistercian monasteries in the Rhineland are not inferior to the other churches in the decoration of the stalls, although there was a ban on sculptures and pictures from 1134, can still be seen in some cases today. Because of the prescribed cell shape of the seats, even when the Rhenish open cheek was used, there was always a dorsal, usually with a canopy, to which the cheeks were attached.

Inserted relief fields on the low end cheeks of the choir stalls in Cologne Cathedral represent another special form of the Rhenish cheek. The choir screens above the stalls are provided with a cycle of pictures. The stalls, created around 1320/30, also have a lot of foliage decorations with figures acting in them.

The Rhenish type of cheeks was used from around 1250 to around 1330. Only a few such cheeks are known outside of the Rhineland, among them a three-seat in the Cistercian Abbey Schulpforte and a bench with four seats in Naumburg Cathedral . In Naumburg Cathedral, the shape was used until the 16th century, as can be seen on the Renaissance style stalls in the east choir.

Closed cheeks

The closed cheeks developed in parallel with the open, but spatially limited to East and Central Germany. Chairs from the second half of the 13th century in the Loccum Abbey and in the Havelberg Cathedral end the row of seats in the form of high, closed boards. Up until the beginning of the 14th century, the closed “stalls” (from the Latin stallae , Low German “stolthe”) were only decorated with foliage, mainly on the outside of the cheeks. The desk cheeks are also usually provided with leaf ornaments. Figurative motifs are used a little later, sparse in the Doberan monastery church , lavish around 1330 in the Erfurt Cathedral .

Special forms

As a result of the merging of the Rhenish, open form and the East and Central German, closed form, numerous special forms were created. The Rhenish volute cheek was replaced by the window cheek, in which the upper part of the cheek board is opened into one or two arcade fields with flat, relief-like figures. Around 1360 this type was z. B. used in St. Marien in Salzwedel , many Westphalian and Lower Rhine chairs are still equipped with it until the late Gothic. The desk cheeks are usually crowned with free-sitting figures, as in St. Marien in Salzwedel around 1360 or in the Stendal Cathedral around 1430 .

Another special form can be found in the 14th century in churches in western Switzerland . There the dorsal was also decorated with jewelry, for example with apostles or prophets. The shape was also used in some neighboring places in Germany. A three seat in Naumburg Cathedral also has such jewelry, as does a bench in Merseburg Cathedral from the mid-15th century. The main stalls of the Merseburg Cathedral were provided in 1446 by the friar Caspar Schoeckholz with an illustrated book containing scenes from the Old and New Testament. In the same cathedral, five-seated stalls from the 16th century show figures of saints, donors and coats of arms in the dorsal.

Bust of Cicero on a chair in Ulm Minster

South German special forms

The choir stalls at St. Martin (Memmingen)

In the second half of the 15th century, in southern Germany, first around 1469 in the Ulm Minster , there were seating forms that used busts , some portraits, on the dorsal and canopy, even the desk cheeks were decorated with busts. This form lasted until the beginning of the Renaissance. The people represented by the busts were people from the Old or New Testament, ancient times or even contemporary citizens. Outside of southern Germany, the bust cheek was only used in Hallesches Dom . The choir stalls in St. Martin zu Memmingen and the choir stalls in Konstanz Minster are other outstanding works of the special South German form .


In Naumburg Cathedral choir stalls were added afterwards, increased as the need. These were designed in a contemporary style and not adapted to the existing ones. It was not until the Baroque that the new chairs were modeled on the old ones. Many decorations, such as misericordies or knobs, fell victim to the historicizing view of the 19th century.


The plastic jewelry on the medieval choir stalls initially consisted of simple ornaments . The most common motif is Gothic foliage, with vine leaves being used in particular . Geometric ornaments were added from the 14th century.

Figurative motifs can already be found around 1300 on some Rhenish chairs. In addition to small animals as accessories, the pelican was also used as a Christian symbolic animal. Scenic depictions of ecclesiastical and secular everyday life on the Rhenish stalls, such as the stalls in Cologne Cathedral from around 1320, are rather rare. The closed cheeks of East and Central Germany offered more space for representations than the open cheeks. Sometimes entire image programs were designed. The stalls of the Erfurt Cathedral from the first half of the 14th century show next to Saint Christopher the hanging Judas , but also the Fall of Man in a series of pictures with reference to viticulture. There is also a typical depiction of the persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages, in which a rider with his lance meets a man with a pointed Jewish hat riding on a sow . The most extensive sequence of scenes on choir stalls is provided by the nine remaining cheeks of the former choir stalls in Bremen Cathedral (around 1350–70): 31 fields show scenes from the Old and New Testament .

The founders of the church are depicted on many chairs, the clergy honored the secular rulers, who opened up lands and populations for the Christian churches through Christianization , centuries later. Emperor Heinrich II can be seen on chairs from the 14th century in Bamberg Cathedral and on chairs from the 15th and 16th centuries in Merseburg Cathedral .

Series of images from the Old and New Testaments often also show scenes that were otherwise rarely used in painting.


Baroque choir stalls by Ignaz Waibl in Buxheim Monastery

The client contracted a master craftsman and determined the thematic program, sometimes a desired form was also mentioned. The master provided a pictorial representation and a test piece, which was sometimes also the Levite seat . Then the entire work was produced, which could extend over a number of years for larger works.


The choir stalls were initially made of stone and were usually inserted into wall niches when the church was built. Stonemasons from the construction huts were commissioned with the design. Later, when more and more wood replaced stone, the chairs were initially made by these stonemasons and also by carpenters in the monastery workshops until well into the 14th century , before properly organized carpenters and sculptors specialized and thus increasingly finer works originated.

The wooden stalls were completed by an entrepreneur, who in turn placed orders with various masters. In the Middle Ages, when the guilds performed strictly separated tasks, both carpenters and carpenters worked on one chair. On the chairs, however, there is mostly nothing to indicate this, only the contracted entrepreneur is shown both in documents and by markings directly in the chairs. Since the late 15th century, signatures were added to the works that made the entrepreneur recognizable. On a door in the Konstanzer Münster z. B. the name Simon Heider mentioned ( Simon Heider artifex me fecit ). However, documents show that he had commissioned the sculptor Heinrich Yselin , his son-in-law, for sculptural works such as the choir stalls in Weingarten Abbey .

Images of the artisans who made the chairs are rare. They are initially available as jewelry on the misericords, as in England and France. German chairs already show pictures of craftsmen on their cheeks. A desk cheek from Pöhlde , created in 1284, shows a religious at a workbench carving on one cheek. The inscription on the dorsal of the main stalls in Merseburg Cathedral names the Dominican Caspar Schoeckholz. Craftsmen of the guilds can be found as portrayals on German chairs from the 16th century, for example in the Baden-Baden hospital church. A bust of the former choir stalls of the Weingarten monastery church shows a master craftsman with a circle and mallet . Around 1508, the master Hans Ostwalt presented himself in the stalls of the Stendal Marienkirche at the feet of Anna , next to him chisels and compasses. In the middle of the 15th century, inscriptions became common, naming the master and his place of origin, rarely also the donor. Jörg Syrlin the Elder Ä. signed all works made after 1470/80.


The main client for the choir stalls was the clergy. Citizens often donated for the churches, but did so for the purpose of altars and other furnishings in the church. The choir stalls were not visible from the nave and therefore did not represent a representative form of the foundation for the citizens. Only with the renaissance, when the rood screen and choir walls were replaced by choir grids, was the view of the stalls free and citizens also appeared as donors of the Chairs up.

Pictorial representations of donors are rare, documents hardly survived. Only coats of arms indicate the donors, even the busts of the southern German stalls do not allow any reference to specific persons due to the lack of explanatory inscriptions.

See also


  • Ulrike Bergmann: The choir stalls of Cologne Cathedral . 2 volumes. Neusser Druckerei und Verlag, Neuss 1987, ISBN 3-88094-600-0 .
  • Rudolf Busch: German choir stalls in six centuries. 500 choir stalls . A. Lax, Hildesheim 1928.
  • Karl Johannes Heyer: The baroque choir stalls in Silesia . Weidlich, Frankfurt / M. 1977, ISBN 3-8035-8609-7 .
  • Alfred Löhr: The choir stalls in the cathedral in Bremen . In: Low German contributions to art history . tape 13 , 1974, p. 123-180 .
  • Walter Loose: The Choir Stalls of the Middle Ages . Carl Winter, Heidelberg 1931 (Heidelberger Kunstgeschichtliche Abhandlungen, Vol. 11).
  • Karl Bernhard Ritter: Choir stalls . In: Kurt Galling (Ed.): Religion in Past and Present (RGG). Concise dictionary for theology and religious studies . 3. Edition. tape 1 : A-C. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 1957, p. 1678 f .
  • Hannelore Sachs: Medieval choir stalls from Erfurt to Stralsund . Lambert Schneider, Hamburg 1964.
  • Martin Urban : Choir stalls , in: Reallexikon zur Deutschen Kunstgeschichte , Vol. 3, Stuttgart 1953, Sp. 514-538
  • Sybe Wartena: The South German choir stalls from the Renaissance to Classicism . Dissertation, LMU Munich 2008 ( full text )
  • Dethard v. Winterfeld : choir stalls . In: Hans Dieter Betz (Hrsg.): Religion in Past and Present (RGG). Concise dictionary for theology and religious studies . 4th edition. tape 2 : C-E. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 1999, ISBN 3-16-146942-9 , pp. 175 f .
  • Gerd Dethlefs (Ed.): The Cappenberger Chorgestühl 1509–1520 , Verlag für Regionalgeschichte, Bielefeld 2009, ISBN 978-3-89534-873-0 .

Web links

Commons : Choir Stalls  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. H.-S. Strelow: In the footsteps of the Guelphs in southern Lower Saxony, p. 4 ( Memento from March 4, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF; 1.4 MB)
  2. ^ Hannelore Sachs: Medieval choir stalls from Erfurt to Stralsund . P. 13
  3. ^ Hannelore Sachs: Medieval choir stalls from Erfurt to Stralsund . P. 22