Brass of the Month

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March 2017 -   Duchess Katharina of Saxony, 1561, Freiberg Cathedral, Germany


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 This month’s brass commemorates Duchess Katharina of Saxony, born Duchess of Mecklenburg in 1487, who died on 6th June 1561 in Torgau (HKC2). She became Duchess of Saxony by virtue of her marriage to Duke Heinrich der Fromme (Henry the Pious) in 1512. She was the mother-in-law to Anna Princess of Denmark and Electress of Saxony by virtue of her marriage to her son Elector August. Anna’s brass featured in Brass of the Month for December 2015.

The brass lies on the floor of the choir of Freiberg Cathedral in what is the ducal mausoleum of the Albertine line of the Wettin dynasty, at its eastern end adjacent to the north wall and in the opposite corner to her husband’s brass. It comprises two conjoined plates of equal size with overall dimensions of 2.54 m. x 1.44m. It is a product of the Hilliger workshop when this was still based in Freiberg before elocating to Dresden, and is specifically the work of Wolf Hilliger the Elder (1511-1576). Wolf ‘s work included at least 8 brasses in the Cathedral and possible as many as 13, all of them brasses to infants, apart from that commemorating Duchess Sidonia, one of Katharina’s daughters, who married Erich II, Duke of Braunschweig-Kalenberg.

 Unlike the brass to Anna this one does not have a date of engraving on it, nor the Hilliger workshop insignia HR, and with no indication of the artist responsible for it. By contrast it is known that her husband’s brass is a direct copy of a portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1537, and is the best known brass emanating from the Hilliger atelier. Both Cranachs and Zacharias Wehme were court painters to the Albertines but none of their recognised portraits of Katharina seems to have influenced the design of the brass. Yet it clearly has considerable artistic input although it is not a portrait.

 The composition is typically Hilliger, with the central figure of Katharina standing within a recessed arch and turning to her right. She is dressed in widow’s weeds Saxony- style with her hair contained within a bonnet and a wimple covering chin and mouth with trailing double scarf- like ends extending over the front of her mantle almost down to the ground. The mantle is worn like a cloak with a high neck collar, open at the front with a tightly pleated skirt beneath, an undergarment’s cuffs just showing at the wrists. There are two winged Putti at her feet. The ornate border incorporates 8 shields interspersed with foliage and various birds. The arms of Saxony are prominently displayed in the border above her head, flanked by two amphibious creatures with human upper bodies.

 The rest of the shields comprise;

1. Top. Dexter - Rostock; Sinister - Mecklenburg

2. Bottom. Central - Eagle of Thuringen; Dexter- Stargard; Sinister -     Werle (Bull with a nose ring).

3. Dexter Side Central - Thuringen.

4. Sinister Side Central - Meissen.

The inscription beneath the figure comprises 7 lines of raised lettering with a background of Niello, the lettering in Renaissance Capitalis. It reads;



This translates as;

“In the year 1561 on the 6th June the most noble / and highborn princess and lady, Lady Katharina / by birth Duchess of Mecklenburg, Duchess of Sax / ony, Landgravine of Thuringen, Margravine of Meissen, / spouse of Duke Henry of Saxony of praised / and worshipful memory, deceased peacefully in the Lord / on whose soul God may grant his mercy, and lies here buried”

 There is a lifesize bronze statue of Katharina above the brass on the north wall of the choir, one of five sculpted by Carlo Di Cesare.

Katharina was the daughter of Duke Magnus II of Mecklenburg and Sofie of Pommern–Stettin. She married Heinrich der Fromme on 6th July 1512 in Freiberg. Her brother in law was Duke Georg der Bärtige (George the Bearded) d.1539 who was a devout Catholic. Georg was trained in theology and was a highly educated man compared with other princes of his day, and Heinrich was fearful of him. During

Georg’s lifetime, Katharina and Heinrich lived in Freudenstein castle1 in Freiberg and were in receipt of an annuity from him which also included the districts of Freiberg and Wolkenstein. Her nephew with whom she had a close relationship was Johann Friedrich Elector of Saxony d. 1554.

The couple had 6 children with 3 sons one of whom, Severinus, died young, Elector Moritz d. 1553 and Elector August d. 1586. The 3 daughters included Sibylla who married Franz 1 Duke of Saxony- Lauenberg d. 1581, Aemilia who married Margrave Georg of Brandenburg-Ansbach d. 1543, and Sidonia referred to in paragraph 2 above.

Katharina was the architect behind the introduction of Protestantism in Albertine Saxony. She was politically astute, strong willed and a considerable influence on her relatively weak husband. He was gradually but inevitably ushered towards Protestantism in spite of his dominant brother Georg’s Catholicism. Katharina had advised her nephew Johann Friedrich in 1525 of her beliefs and from thereon she

espoused Lutheranism. Up until 1536 Heinrich had supressed the Reformation for fear of his brother, but after a period of continuing pressure on him, Katharina managed to persuade her husband to hear Luther preach in Wittenberg and Torgau. As a result Heinrich allowed Protestant services in his churches. Katharina appointed Jakob Schenk as a suitable preacher through her nephew Johann Friedrich, and with Luther’s approval. Initially Schenk preached in the castle chapel only, although the public were admitted there. On New Year’s Day 1537 Schenk was allowed to dispense the Eucharist in the Lutheran manner. Mindful of Georg’s fierce opposition to this development, she persuaded her husband to seek admission to the Schmalkaldischen Bund – the federation of Protestant princes. A visitation was requested from Johann Friedrich, whose visitators included the Mayor of Freiberg. The date for the inauguration of the Reformation in Freiberg was set for 27th May 1537, and the visitation enforced by the ducal house in the face of the conservative Freiberg clergy

 Georg’s reaction was to disregard his father’s will and seek to disinherit Heinrich and bequeath the Duchy of Saxony to Ferdinand, brother of Charles V. This was all to no avail since Georg died in 1539. Heinrich and Katharina eventually moved out of Freudenstein castle to Dresden.

Schenk fell out with Luther because of his aggressive personality and his adverse impact on the success of the Reformation in Freiberg, and was removed from his post and sent to Weimar as ducal court preacher under Luther’s supervision. Order was consequently restored in Freiberg. Protestantism was rolled out across all of Albertine Saxony in Leipzig during Whitsun 1539. Luther encouraged Katharina to appoint more clergy and step up the visitations across the duchy.

Heinrich died in 1541 with Katharina outliving him by 20 years. She travelled extensively, and also acted as peacemaker when trouble broke out in her children’s families. This was notable during the breakdown of Sidonia’s marriage to Erich II of Braunschweig- Kalenberg. There were religious differences with Sidonia a Lutheran, Erich a Catholic, the marriage was childless, and there were financial problems with the wealth coming from Sidonia’s side of the marriage. Erich took a mistress and Sidonia lived almost under house arrest. In an attempt to be rid of her Erich had Sidonia placed on trial for witchcraft based on trumped up charges with evidence  obtained from other so – called witches under torture. There was also a claim,

following his illness, that she was trying to poison him. She was eventually acquitted in 1574,following a trial at Halberstadt presided over by Duke Julius of Braunschweig–Wolfenbüttel and Duke Wilhelm of Braunschweig–Lüneburg.

When Katharina died in 1561 she left a large library of Reformatory writing. Shortly before her death in 1560 she also published a book on etiquette for ladies.

 © Kevin Herring. Article & Photos

 Acknowledgement. My thanks to our Member Reinhard Lamp for help with the German sources and for the translation of the foot inscription.


1. Hans- Gerd Dormagen “Die Grablege der albertinischen Wettiner im Dom zu Freiberg” in Mitteilungen des Freiberger Altertumsvereins 99. Heft 2007 pp.54-55.

2. Elisabeth Werl “Katharina, Herzogin zu Sachsen,geborene Herzogin zu Mecklenburg”. In Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB) 11, 1977 Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, pp. 325-326.





1 Freudenstein Castle now contains the world famous Terra Mineralis Museum with a standing exhibition of minerals

from the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) region around Freiberg and across the world. It also houses the Bergarchiv.