Butzbach Princely Crypt
The crypt of Landgrave Philip III of Hesse-Butzbach and his two wives is the most artistically significant monument in St Mark’s Church in Butzbach. It captivates with the quality of its stucco reliefs and occupies a special position in the ranks of Hessian rulers’ burial monuments.
Hesse-Butzbach was a small landgraviate of short duration. Landgrave Philip III resided here from 1609, presiding over the Butzbach branch of the House of Hesse-Darmstadt, which was extinguished by his death in 1643. Before taking up his reign, Philip had enjoyed a thorough education as a tutor and had undertaken extensive educational journeys to France, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain.
As a highly learned sovereign with an extensive knowledge of languages and an increased interest in literature, art and science, he was in contact in particular with the leading astronomers of his time, such as Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei.
In addition to a palace with a pleasure garden, he also had the burial place for himself and his wife Anna Margaret of Diepholz built in Butzbach in 1620-22. It is located in the southern choir of St Mark's Church and consists of the underground tomb, which is looked after by the State Castles and Gardens, and the epitaph with canopy and mural visible to the congregation. Burial vaults of this kind corresponded to the increasing need for representation of the Lutheran nobility.
Only four people are buried in the crypt: Philip III of Hesse-Butzbach (1581-1643), his first wife Anna Margaret of Diepholz (1581-1629), his second wife Christina Sophia of East Frisia (1609-1658) and his great-grandnephew Henry of Hesse-Darmstadt (1674-1741), the last princely occupant of Butzbach Castle.
Figurative Stucco Reliefs by a Frankfurt Artist
The crypt has a square floor plan, is accessed from the west by a stone staircase and is lit from the east by two shafts. The arch and vault fields are decorated with figurative stucco reliefs created by Christian Steffan from Frankfurt am Main. They combine biblical motifs with phrases from the Apostles’ Creed.
The east wall shows the Crucified and the landgrave kneeling in front of it with his two wives as well as the three family coats of arms with the initials and the year of the completion of the tomb, 1622. The lateral arch fields have the forgiveness of sins through the death of Christ on the cross as well as the resurrection as their theme.
“And an Eternal Life”
The ceiling panels show the Ascension of the Prophet Elijah, the Transfiguration of the Lord, the Ascension of Christ and the New Jerusalem. In the apex of the cross vault is the Hebrew name of God YHWH, surrounded by the closing words of the creed “and an eternal life” and a wreath of flames with angels.
Today it is assumed that this salvation-historical picture programme was thought up by the Landgrave himself. Philip, who had made his own translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew, had the necessary knowledge of the Bible and the language and was considered very devout.
The artistic models for the reliefs come, as the stylistic comparison suggests, from the Frankfurt painter Philipp von Uffenbach, whom the Landgrave had entrusted with the painting of the ceiling of the ceremonial hall in his palace in 1618.
With the Hope of Salvation
Since the burial chamber was so small and difficult to access, its decoration probably actually served less representative purposes, but was rather an expression of Philip’s personal hope for salvation. In the numerous motifs and quotations, the belief in the resurrection is virtually invoked.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that Philip’s second wife, Christina Sophia of East Frisia, had the crypt updated after the death of her husband. On the mural behind the epitaph, which shows Philip and his first wife kneeling before the crucifix, Christina had herself subsequently inserted as a standing figure. The same pictorial theme is found on the east wall of the crypt. Since it does not come up to the quality of the other relief pictures, she probably had it, together with the coats of arms, added later by another artist.