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Saxony’s Backroads Lead to Dresden’s Wealth and Art

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Article and photos by Julie Maris/Semel

Twenty-five miles from Dresden, the Saxon-Bohemian Silver Mines Route meanders through the Erzgebirge, the Ore Mountains. Unique landscapes of peaks and valleys from silver mining in the early Middle Ages around 1100, since filled in with trees and ponds, and the cultural heritage below and above ground, are the foundations for potential World Heritage status in 2016.

A view of Dresden’s Royal Palace museums’ mottled red-clay tiles roofs from Frauenkirche’s dome
A view of Dresden’s Royal Palace museums’ mottled red-clay tiles roofs from Frauenkirche’s dome

Dresden’s Green Vault treasures of silver and precious stones resulted from the Saxon rulers’ wealth and influences. The patrons of art and music, the Elector of Saxony, the Wettin Dynasty, and August the Strong who reigned from 1694, built castles and fortresses that now house works of art of their artisans and artists found in the Residenz Palace and the Zwinger. Friedrich August II, the son of August the Strong, established Dresden as a cultural center.

Glück Auf, good luck or “return home safely,” the traditional miners’ greeting and the expression “everything comes from the mine” are still heard along the 170-mile silver route from Zwickau to Ostrov in the Czech Republic, with more than thirty mines, hammer mills, smelters, trails, and villages. Metallurgy and mining are preserved in today’s customs, folk art, and living traditions that include miners’ bands dressed in festive mountain kittels and parades.

A statue of Catherine of Mecklenburg in prayer in the Freiberg Cathedral of St. Mary
A statue of Catherine of Mecklenburg in prayer in the Freiberg Cathedral of St. Mary

Medieval towns celebrate their culture in its museums and churches. Freiberg, the early dynastic and state capital and mint, and the Cathedral of St. Mary built in 1190, exemplify the mining wealth. The church, known for the free-standing tulip pulpit, the miners’ pulpit, and the Romanesque sandstone Golden Portal, houses one of the most important Gottfried Silbermann organs built in the early 1700s and still used for weekly concerts and services.

In the Cathedral’s funeral chapel of the Saxon rulers of the Albertine branch, cherubs hold original Renaissance musical instruments on the painted and sculpted ceiling that depicts Christ with the Archangel Michael. Below, brass grave slabs surround the sculpture of Catherine of Mecklenburg, the mother of August of Saxony.

Freiberg with eight hundred years of mining, that included tin and cobalt, shares its history with TU Bergakademie, the world’s first mining university established in 1765. Freudenstein Castle built for the Wettin Dynasty was reconstructed for university use and to house the Saxon Archives of Mining. In 2008, Terra Mineralia, an exhibition on permanent loan to the university, opened in the castle with over 3,500 minerals and gems. Dr. Erika Pohl-Ströher’s collection, obtained over sixty years, is arranged geographically, and the remarkable trove also serves as a mineralogical research center.

Woodcarving developed in the 16th c. to supplement miners’ incomes and utilized their skills: mining motifs and Erzgebirge folk art are synonymous. Families placed light angel and light miner candle holders in windows to illuminate the way for miners who never saw the sun. Found today in houses throughout the region, a candle arch represents mine tunnel entrances and pyramids symbolize shaft towers.

Günter Reichel’s lathed angel head, an 1830s technique from Seiffen, Saxony’s toy-making center
Günter Reichel’s lathed angel head, an 1830s technique from Seiffen, Saxony’s toy-making center

In Annaberg-Buchholz, the Factory of Dreams collection of more than fifteen-hundred wooden toys and wood craft includes doll houses, nutcrackers, lathed objects from Seiffen, the Erzgebirge Christmas culture, and carvings from Bohemia. Folk art tradition continues with the recent completion of thirty-two, four-foot, carved miner Nativity figures, the “Annaberger Krippenweg” in the Miners’ Church of St. Marien, built with mining union funds.

The Church of St. Anne’s, Saxony’s largest Late Gothic hall church’s, vaulted soaring space is the not the only reason to visit this landmark ­­–– but also, to view the Mountain Altar, a four-panel painting of medieval miners, attributed to Hans Hesse, and the intact interiors filled with artistic works that include the baptismal font.

To understand the mining cultural landscape and the silver-based economy, experience the darkness on the tram in the Markus Röhling Stolln Mine near Annaberg-Bucholz where fifteen tons of silver were extracted. The nearby Frohnauer Hammer, the first German technical monument, operated as a grain mill in the 15th c. before its conversion to a hammer mill that forged iron. Since becoming a museum in1910, the machinery and hammers still function.

The Fichtelberg Steam Railway coal-fired locomotive whistles along at 16 miles per hour.
The Fichtelberg Steam Railway coal-fired locomotive whistles along at 16 miles per hour.

After the depths of the Stolln Mine adit, the five-mile underground horizontal passage, climb onto the narrow-gauge Fichtelberg Steam Railway that chugs to Oberwiesenthal, near Saxony’s highest peak with views of Bohemia and the historic Ore Mountains for a panorama of centuries of silver mining and history.

For more information:

Saxony Tourism

Saxon-Bohemian Silver Mines Route

Erzgebirge Tourism

Annaberg-Buchholz Tourism

Freiberg Tourism

Dresden Tourism

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Julie Maris/Semel, with camera in hand at age seven, discovered travel photography as a teenager. Following her passions, she worked with Bill Maris, a well-known architectural photographer, and subsequently for editorial clients, that include Traditional Home magazine and Design New England, producing stories about gardens, architecture, and travel. Her sense of adventure turned to the Antarctic, the Arctic, Asia, and Africa while working for Quark Expeditions, TCS Expeditions, and national tourist boards. Her photographs, Images of India, were exhibited at the New India House sponsored by the Consulate General of India. See more photos at http://www.juliemarissemel.com
Julie Maris/Semel, with camera in hand at age seven, discovered travel photography as a teenager. Following her passions, she worked with Bill Maris, a well-known architectural photographer, and subsequently for editorial clients, that include Traditional Home magazine and Design New England, producing stories about gardens, architecture, and travel. Her sense of adventure turned to the Antarctic, the Arctic, Asia, and Africa while working for Quark Expeditions, TCS Expeditions, and national tourist boards. Her photographs, Images of India, were exhibited at the New India House sponsored by the Consulate General of India. See more photos at http://www.juliemarissemel.com
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2 Comments

  1. May 10, 2016 at 11:39 am — Reply

    Hi Julie,
    I wonder if you remember the Saxon emigration to Transylvania I told you about? I found your article fascinating. While the monarchs were building their castles in 11th & 12th centuries, farmers and crafts people were starving which is why they responded to the Hungarian kings to settle the area around the Black Sea and Carpathian mountains. I wrote about it recently on my blog if you’re interested.
    Glad to see you are still busy with travel and photography.
    Sieglinde

  2. Eileen Mattei
    June 30, 2016 at 10:20 am — Reply

    Thanks for the heads-up on yet another fascinating region to visit!

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