The Historisches Museum Basel houses a treasury of world renown. Once a church, now a museum, it is located directly opposite the Barfüsser tram stop.
Step into that unassuming building (ignore the drab area on the left passing for a coffee shop) and you experience a quiet uncluttered calm that belies the importance of the treasury discreetly exhibited within. Churches have been endowed with jewel-encrusted, gold and silver objects since the late 8th century. Jewels can be readily sold; gold and silver are easily reworked into coin or ingots to pay for wars, so many medieval treasuries have disappeared. So few medieval treasuries exist in Europe today that scholars can only learn about what once was through written inventories.
The Basel Cathedral Treasury was assembled over five centuries from 1019 to 1529 when the Protestant Reformation became established in Basel. It is rare because it has survived almost intact, nine hundred years. Over half of the original pieces are in the Historisches Museum. Five years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, assembled almost the complete treasury for a major exhibition. It borrowed missing pieces from museums in Amsterdam, Berlin, London, New York, Paris, St. Petersburg, Vienna and Zurich.
When the earthquake of 1356 toppled portions of the cathedral’s towers into the Rhine below, its treasury remained snug and undamaged within. It has outlived two eras destructive to Catholic religious objects and icons, the Protestant Reformation and iconoclasm, but not the division of Basel into Basel City and Basel Land. One item that fell victim to this division was the gilded silver Reliquary Bust of Saint Ursula (1300–1320). Basel Land being the poorer of the two regions sold part of its treasury. A hundred years later, the bust, purchased with donations from the people of Basel, was recovered from the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
Its history began a half-century before its creation. In 1254, the Cologne Cathedral gave the Basel Cathedral a skull and two arm bones, among other relics of several thousand martyred virgins, or so the story goes.
There is no dearth of Ursula legends, all of Monty Pythonesque proportions. Details and dates vary. Essentially, Ursula was doomed to marry a heathen. She managed to postpone her wedding for three years, to make a pilgrimage to Rome to devote (albeit temporarily) her virginity to Christ. The delay would give her fiancé sufficient time to convert to Christianity, be baptized and become a devout practising Christian.
Ursula set sail from Britain with eleven thousand maidens in tow. Blown to the mouth of the Rhine, she and the damsels sailed up the river to Cologne where an angel foretold Ursula’s demise as a martyr. Unfazed, Ursula continued up the Rhine to Basel where she and all 11,000 chaste companions disembarked to continue their journey through the Alps to Rome, on foot. Along the way, Ursula managed to convert these ingénues to Christianity.
In Rome, Ursula met a certain Pope Cyriacus who was supposed to accompany her safely home but backed out. In the meantime, word reached the ruling Huns in Cologne that Ursula and her troop would be passing through. Only interested in women for pleasure according to one Ursuline Internet site, they eagerly awaited Ursula’s arrival.
Writers are always cautioned not to use hackneyed phrases like the one I am about to use but I can think of none more apt. Perhaps the expression ‘a fate worse than death’ originated with Ursula’s narrative because in Cologne, the maidens exchanged their heads for their maidenheads.
Surveying thousands of beheaded corpses, Ursula was comforted and entreated by the Top Hun to take his bloodied hand in marriage. Alas, already betrothed to a Christian, Ursula could not be tempted by the heathen Hun’s proposal and also perished. To add insult to ignominy, forty years ago, Pope Paul VI struck Ursula from the saints’ registry.
Centuries later, unsullied by time and travel, the Reliquary bust of Saint Ursula smirks serenely in the Historisches Museum Basel.
If your German isn’t up to scratch and you are unable to decipher the explanations beside each treasury exhibit, there’s an excellent film on the ground floor you can watch in English or French.
Another section of the museum houses bits of a mural rescued from the interior of the Prediger Church’s cemetery wall. These fragments of the Totentanz (Dance of Death) are all that remain of a two-metre high, sixty-metre long mural, warning the populace of Basel (still smarting from the earthquake and the Black Death) to live a virtuous if not exemplary life because Death could strike before its victim received last rites.
Once a popular theme in Europe, many a Totentanz was lost when Europe was bombed in World War II. Basel’s centuries old wall fell before the war; victim to urban expansion, it came crashing down in 1805. There’s no record of its commission but it is thought that the Totentanz was painted around 1430. The mural, protected from the elements by a cantilevered roof, depicted several levels of medieval society from a duke and his duchess, to a count, a knight and so on down to a crippled beggar. Each one, caught unawares, was made to dance with a skeleton—death. The message was clear; irrespective of one’s social standing, whether powerful or rich, death claims us all and in death we are all equal. The wall no longer stands but its message still does.
Also on display are some of Basel’s guild treasures, tapestries, ecclesiastical art and furniture. Not to be missed are the treasures hidden beneath the former church.
Kinderleben in Basel displays objects illustrating how (mostly privileged) children lived in Basel between the 18th and 20th century. There is also a coin section, several exquisite rooms from ancient demolished houses in Basel, some weaponry and much more.
If I were to identify a single negative point about the museum, it is that almost all the explanations are in German. Granted, Basel is a predominantly German speaking city and we all need to make an effort to learn the language, but at the same time, like it or not, it’s an international city. The museum would attract more visitors from the city and the region if the directors were to make information more accessible by having it in French and English; nevertheless, it’s well worth a visit.
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC