Exhibit Review, February 2007


Exhibition poster, (c) Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer


"Heinrich IV. -- Kaiser, Kämpfer, Gebannter -- Herrschergestalt zwischen Kaiserkrone und Büßergewand." Exhibit in the Historisches Museum der Pfalz, May 4, 2006 to October 15, 2006, extended until the end of 2007.

Reviewed for H-German by Susan R. Boettcher, Department of History, University of Texas at Austin


Virtuelle Schauerpuppe


Heinrich IV (1050-1106) is one of the most important European figures of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. After Charlemagne, he is the only Holy Roman Emperor of the pre-1500 era of which non-specialists are likely to have heard, and the story of his role in the so-called "investiture contest" with its climax at Canossa is one of the few incidents from European medieval history likely to be covered in any detail in semester-long western civilization or world history surveys. In the twelfth century and in the wake of the Cluniac reforms, the German kings became enmeshed in an attempt to maintain their customary right of lay investiture of bishops, a practice in place since the establishment of an imperial system of churches in the day of Otto the Great (912-73), against the growing power of the popes at Rome. Heinrich's involvement in this controversy and his attempt to depose Pope Gregory VII (c. 1020-85) offered fertile grounds for revolt to his fractious nobles when Gregory placed him under the ban in 1076.


The fact that Heinrich, via the performance of a pre-emptive penitential ritual in February 1077, could force Gregory to reinstate him in the fellowship of the church was, even as it reflected the interweaving of secular and religious power and ritual, also a symptom of the changing relationship of the church and state in Europe. What this change means is still up for debate: the nationalist historiography of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tended to see Heinrich's action as a short-term grab for power that allowed him to keep his seat on the throne but ultimately, in its subjugation of secular to ecclesiastical power, led to a power loss in the Reich that contributed to the corresponding gain in papal power from this point. Traditionally, this was one of the many points at which historians noted a "failure" of the German nation to cohere. Many textbooks today, however, emphasize a different point: by performing penitence, which had as its necessary consequence absolution and could not be refused, Heinrich forced Gregory to prioritize his ecclesiastical over his secular role -- a key turning point, one that in the context of similar controversies between the papacy and other European areas distinguishes the path of the relationship between religion and politics in the west from the rest of the world. At the same time, current research focuses on the development and legitimation of law and decision-making within the Reich, emphasizing a perspective from the German territories that undercuts the nationalizing, empire-centered judgments of the past.

Western approach to Speyer Cathedral

The year 2006 marked the 900th anniversary of Heinrich's death. An expert new biography written in an accessible style, one that traces the relevant issues responsibly for the educated general reader and refocuses attention on aspects of the story sometimes ignored, has just appeared. [1] 2006 was a good year for a Heinrich IV exhibit, then, and Speyer is an obvious location, since Heinrich was finally buried--after a series of disputes traced in the exhibit--in the cathedral, whose colossal renovation he initiated in 1080. Moreover, Speyer has its tourism act together: a bus picks tourists up at the train station and takes them directly to the historical city center; a cheap single ticket also covers the return trip; and the fare is well advertised. The city is located in the middle of a major German wine-producing region. There is also plenty to see on a day trip, and the cathedral alone makes the visit worthwhile for those who have not been there.


Some outside factors placed constraints on this exhibit from the outset. First, Speyer hosted a significant exhibit on the Salian emperors in 1991. [2] Second, the big exhibit this year surrounding the incident at Canossa and its background took place in Paderborn, where it centered on the imperial castle, the diocesan museum and the city gallery, in connection with the anniversary of Heinrich’s placement under papal interdict in 1076. [3] With the Holy Roman Empire exhibit in Magdeburg this fall, some of Speyer's most notable objects for display were apparently promised elsewhere. It appears that the exhibitors hoped to stage a focused exhibit connected with a scholarly symposium. [4] The Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer, an institution with a super-regional draw, is known for its excellent coverage of the Palatinate's Roman and medieval past and its well-integrated museum pedagogy, which is directed at involving children and adults equally in the appreciation of its exhibits. [5] It is therefore unfortunate to note that even with its very modest ambitions, this exhibit was often confusing and less than worthy of the museum's otherwise strong reputation.


The biggest problem with the exhibit (after the decision to post many of the captions in a shade of blue sometimes illegible in the darkened rooms necessary for object preservation) was its arrangement, and indeed, this issue confused me throughout the two hours I spent viewing its components. Admittedly, I hadn't read the publicity very carefully: press releases preceding the exhibit announced that the museum was focusing its exhibit on the "daring step" of reconstructing Heinrich's face. If this information had been more present in my mind, I would have been less confused by the objects that followed the customary opening panel explaining the social and political context of the eleventh century.


Immediately at entry, one was confronted with a number of objects relating to the burial culture of the Salians: a huge sarcophagus dominated the space and made it difficult to move through the area. The exhibit makers seem to have underestimated completely the number of visitors they would have when they planned their exhibit design. It was so crowded during my visit that I had to wait several minutes in almost every case to get a look at the next object. This was not entirely negative, because while I was waiting to see some of the documents displayed around the sarcophagus, three different confused visitors asked me for help in orienting themselves to the exhibit -- so I was forced to mobilize the scraps of medieval history still in my brain. At this point, I still thought the exhibit was about Heinrich's life and achievements, and it might have been helpful if the exhibitors had emphasized a bit more his remarkable qualities -- the personal intelligence and political acumen that paved the way to an extreme step that would not have occurred to many of his contemporaries, even had they possessed the physical fortitude to cross the Alps in the winter and stand barefoot for three days in the snow. For instance, all of the Urkunden exhibited display Heinrich's distinctive monogram; it would have been nice if the exhibitors had also let the audience know that Heinrich's biographers recorded that he was actually also capable, somewhat unusually at the time for a secular ruler, of reading and understanding all of his own state correspondence himself .


The second space began to introduce the visitor to some of the events of Henry's youth (he ascended the throne at age six under the regency of his mother, a situation that enhanced the growing factionalism within the realm, and was kidnapped as a twelve-year-old before attaining majority at fourteen) and the basis of his disputes both within the Reich and outside of it, including the Saxon War. Many of these are recorded primarily in manuscripts or chronicles, and there was no room in this space to exhibit books. The Paderborn exhibit catalog suggests that many of the relevant manuscripts were exhibited there. Since most visitors don't have the skills to decipher medieval manuscripts or the patience to read them when they are displayed, this lack of space apparently led the exhibition-planners to make what could have been a smart decision -- to present the reports of the chronicles in a multi-media format that involved a recording of the relevant mention in the text and slides, either from illuminated portions of the chronicles or from later depictions of the event. A number of anecdotes were presented this way throughout. Unfortunately, because the space was too small to allow for loudspeakers, instead listening booths were interspersed throughout the exhibit. On the one hand, the maxim that an exhibit that is partially hidden draws the viewer was certainly at work here -- the lines for the booths were longer than for the open displays. On the other, their narrow entries increased the crowdedness of the exhibit. This problem could easily have been addressed with larger pictures of the relevant manuscripts and handheld audioguides--a solution that more Burial hood of Heinrich IV, 1106/1111. (c) Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer, Foto: Peter Haag-Kirchnerand more exhibits in Germany are now using to good result.


In the next section of the exhibit, the viewer is finally introduced to the moments of the investiture controversy that led Heinrich on his now-legendary trip to Canossa, including an interesting physical construction (an elevated platform meant to mimic the ascent to the fortress, the pope’s throne and a kneeler) intended to mimic the tension between throne and altar. The space was cramped and only two or three people could fit into it at one time; here the crowds reached a climax. The next portion of the exhibit deals with Heinrich problems after he left Canossa with Gregory's incomplete capitulation, particularly Gregory's decision to lift the excommunication without explicitly retracting his statement deposing Heinrich, a step that legitimated ongoing political rivalries in the Reich to the detriment of the empire, and was to exclude Heinrich initially from the royal burial appropriate to his estate in his own "imperial cathedral." At this point, the first confusion arises in the path that visitors are to follow. They may either go into a large room with benches where a film that discusses Heinrich's significance is playing, or they can turn in the other direction, toward the room that deals with the wake of the investiture controversy and Heinrich's ongoing problems at home. This room focuses on Heinrich’s problems with Rudolf von Rheinfelden, who had been elected king in his absence and eventually enjoyed Gregory's support (Heinrich was excommunicated a total of four times by different popes and died under interdict) and those with his son, the later Heinrich V, who despite forcing his father to relinquish the empire nonetheless pushed for posthumous lifting of the ban so Heinrich could be buried in Speyer Cathedral. A few more items from Heinrich's grave are exhibited, most notably a restored burial hood from his grave, a true wonder of modern textile restoration techniques that deserves more attention and comment than this exhibit gives it.


And then, practically at the end, the viewer reaches what is apparently supposed to be the center of 3 photographic views of Heinrich IV's skull, 1900. (c) Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer, Foto: Jakob Schröckthe exhibit: the reconstruction of Heinrich's face based on photographs of his skull taken when his grave was excavated in 1900.[2] During my visit, this was the part of the exhibit where the fewest visitors stood, perhaps because the sudden apparent expanse of space drew people towards the door and out of the exhibit, or perhaps because it was so poorly explained. Up until this point, the visitor may believe that the exhibit is about Heinrich IV's life achievements and personal significance, with a great deal of emphasis on his burial. Here, the allocation of space suggests that the exhibit centers on the question of the reconstruction of Heinrich's appearance, but it is still not clear why it is being posed. On the right-hand wall leading to the computer reconstruction, we see a series of small-format reproductions of important depictions of Heinrich through the centuries -- the actual artworks in questions were in Paderborn--almost entirely without comment beyond their captions. If the visitor wants questions answered about the contextual and historical significance of these portraits (hint: it almost always has to do with the status of the German national project), he or she will Reconstruction of Heinrich IV's head, 1900 (c) Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer, Foto: Peter Haag-Kirchnerhave to consult the catalog for the discussion, which also explains in detail the modern technologies, many of them related to forensic medicine, employed in the reconstruction. A brief glance at the reconstruction attempted after the 1900 excavation should win us for the new reconstruction, for like it, the pictures of the skull and everything else in this room is just a bit gruesome. The catalog suggests that this reconstruction is a serious anthropological and archaeological project that depicts Heinrich as he was with ninety percent accuracy, but the remarks of the FAZ reviewer bring us marginally closer to a realistic assessment of the results: "[the result] is scientifically questionable. But if a few more visitors let themselves be drawn by the emperor's head to Speyer and thus simultaneously learn something other about the Middle Ages than that they were dark, the ends justify the means."[6]


Perhaps. But Heinrich's story, particularly as it is told here, is not one that really demonstrates this point, with its unexpected deaths, violent conflicts and (from our perspective) impenetrable disputes. The fact that Heinrich's skeleton suggests that he was taller than average, adequately nourished and never severely ill seemed more important to the exhibitors than his atypical level of literacy - -is this a symptom that our own health-conscious age is modifying the definition of "dark"? I find that the display of exquisite single objects strengthens rather than diminishes my own tendencies to think of the Middle Ages as "dark," because I've read too many social histories of the period that point to the truly exceptional character of jewel-encrusted rings and diadems. Heinrich's pearl ring is impressive, but no amount of historical revisionism is going to convince the modern museum visitor that it was a standard element of period apparel. If the exhibit had told us a bit more about the reconstruction methods, we might have been able to interpret it as an advertisement for the growing role that archaeology plays in medieval and early modern historiography these days.Ring belong to Heinrich IV, end of 11th century. Gold, sapphire, pearls. (c)Domschatzkammer im Historischen Museum der Pfalz, Foto: Peter Haag-Kirchner





In the end, I found myself concluding that the apparent original idea for the exhibit, the encounter with representations of Heinrich IV and his real countenances, had to be pepped up with a short consideration of his historical significance so that this exhibit would be worthwhile for school classes. Most significantly, in its constant hesitation between the two themes -- the king’s visage and his context -- the exhibit fails to answer or even really address questions that dog the visitor through the visit: What about the burial culture of the Salians -- other than the fact that it is astounding that even fragments of it have survived -- is significant and worthy of presentation in an exhibit? Why should we construct the face of someone who has been dead for 900 years?


The museum’s publicity suggests that the reconstruction is worthwhile because we don't have any contemporary images of Heinrich -- that we should do it because we can. But what is this face, liberated from a grave almost a millennium old, supposed to tell the viewer? (Unfortunately the museum did not make images of the new reconstruction available to the press, probably in hopes of drawing more visitors). Somewhat disturbingly, the juxtaposition of the reconstruction with historical images and conceptions of Heinrich provoked questions for me about the visualization of the German national project certainly not intended by the exhibit planners. In comparison to the images of the nineteenth century, Heinrich now appears as a stinknormal, middle-aged man with a somewhat prominent, fleshy nose and an oval face ending in a square jaw, a little bit like the way German television these days visualizes a factory worker or an artisan. The implication is that of pointing a finger at all of the heroic representations that made him a tragic-heroic figure: here's an emperor that looks just like your neighbor next door: a soccer-fan, to be sure, but not someone who is going to initiate a national project. See how ridiculous the nineteenth-century was? There is a curious double level to that perception, though, because Heinrich was far from harmless, as all of his contemporaries realized. I can't believe that Heinrich's image as a nationalist symbol is present enough in the collective memory of (Federal) Germans these days to need defusing, but this reconstruction, plausible as it may be, reads oddly as another sort of legitimation, of what sort I am not sure. If we wish to eliminate these manipulations, we should leave the face in the grave rather than replacing it with our own images, which now, like the early-twentieth-century bust, have attained an additional "scientific" legitimacy. Without an interpretive framework, the reconstruction is at best a curiosity; as soon as I started considering the possible interpretive frameworks, I found myself a bit uneasy. I don't necessarily like exhibits that trumpet their pedagogical messages too explicitly, but I wish I had been able to intuit what was in the minds of the planners here -- though given the disorganization of the remainder of the exhibit, one fears that not much other than curiosity was at work. [7] External view of Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer, Foto: Susan R. Boettcher


I saw both of the other special exhibits at Speyer: "Geraubt und im Rhein Versunken. Der Barbarenschatz" and "Pracht und Prunk der Großkönige. Das persische Weltreich." Both had archaeology at the center of their concerns. "Treasure of the Barbarians" offered not only more than enough space for its displays, but an introductory film and a number of museum-pedagogical offerings that made the intriguing displays more than a bunch of old stuff raised from the riverbed of the Rhine; the "Persian World Empire" exhibit included a room-sized computer animation that simulated a walk through the entry to the palace of Persepolis. In comparison with both of these efforts, "Heinrich IV. Kaiser, Kämpfer, Gebannter" seemed perfunctory. In general, however, the German audience seems less bothered by the problems manifested in this exhibit than I was. According to the museum website, 100,000 visitors have already seen it, and the heavy interest has caused the museum to extend the exhibit from its original endpoint of October 15, 2006, through the entire year of 2007. [8] Perhaps the attraction is some sort of universal human impulse: a life-size puppet of Martin Luther with his death mask attached in the place of his face and exhibited in the Marienbibliothek was also a major attraction for nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century visitors to Halle, before (interestingly) it disappeared during the National Socialist period. The question is whether scholars really need to satisfy this sort of prurience.



[1]. Gerd Althoff, Heinrich IV (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2006). Another lively rendering of the period focused on the incident at Canossa is Stefan Weinfurter, Canossa. Die Entzauberung der Welt ( Munich: C.H. Beck, 2006). Althoff's major scholarly contribution is his decision to take the complaints of Heinrich's subjects about his tyranny seriously, particularly the charges of sexual misconduct. Heinrich was accused of homosexual acts; of raping one of his sisters and helping one of his vassals to rape another sister; of urging a friend to rape his first wife, whom by all accounts he despised (they had been betrothed as children); and of suggesting to his son by his first wife that he rape his second wife (who also grew to despise him). Most contemporary sources refuse details on these incidents, suggesting that they do not need to be discussed because everyone is already aware of them -- unfortunately, the opposite situation is true today, and their status as rumors has caused most modern historians to write them off as false, which is no exception in the most recent English biography of Heinrich IV by Ian Robinson (1999). Unfortunately, it would be impossible for such recent works as those of Althoff and Weinfurter to have influenced the form of this particular exhibit. It would be wonderful if either or both of these works were translated into English; Weinfurter would be especially well suited to student use.

[2]. Recorded in Stefan Weinfurter, ed., Die Salier und das Reich, 3 vols. (Sigmaringen: Thorbecke, 1991).

[3]. " Canossa 1077--Erschütterung der Welt. Geschichte, Kunst und Kultur am Aufgang der Romanik," July 21 to November 5, 2006, website still available at http://www.canossa2006.de/ . According to a press release of November 11, 2006, this exhibit drew 185,000 visitors: http://www.canossa2006.de/index.php?a=37 .

[4]. See a summary of the conference papers, published in HSK, at http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/tagungsberichte/id=1125 and a commentary that describes the event as "brilliant" by Oliver Jungen: "Nach Canossa gehen wir nicht mehr. Eine Tagung zu den späten Saliern in Speyer verneigt sich vor dem Europa des Papstes ," Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Nr. 108 (May 10, 2006): p. N3.

[5]. Home page at http://museum.speyer.de/de/histmus/ .

[6]. Tilmann Lahme, "Heinrich IV. Mit Haut und Haar," Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Nr. 106 (May 8, 2006): p. 46.

[7]. It's frustrating that the catalog, which calls itself a "Begleitbuch," does not include an accurate listing of the items and texts presented in the exhibit. At least two items pictured in it--the burial crown and inscription for Empress Gisela (Heinrich's grandmother) -- were on display at the Magdeburg exhibit, and given the lack of space, it is unclear where they could be displayed in this museum now that Magdeburg has closed. The burial cross of Heinrich IV, also included in the exhibit book, was, at least according to the Paderborn catalog, displayed there. Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer, ed., Heinrich IV. Kaiser, Kämpfer, Gebannter (Speyer: Historisches Musem der Pfalz Speyer, 2006).

[8]. http://museum.speyer.de/de/histmus/ausstellungen/aktuell/Heinrich%20IV.%20/ .