St Catherine’s Church in Nuremberg was dedicated in 1297 and formed part of a Dominican convent. It became a centre for illuminating manuscripts and weaving tapestry. After the Reformation, the church was put to profane uses and between 1620 and 1778 it was the home of the Mastersingers of Nuremberg.
St Catherine – martyred in the early 4th century at the hands of the pagan emperor Maxentius – was the patron saint of the convent where a shrine housed a relic that pilgrims came to see. It was kept in the eastern choir of the monastery church. Large portions of the original shrine (dating to the end of the 15th century) have been preserved in a dismantled state. St Catherine’s Church was destroyed in 1945 and never rebuilt.
Albrecht Dürer painted a triptych for St Catherine’s now known as the Paumgartner altar (today in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich). It was commissioned by the brothers Stephan and Lukas Paumgartner, probably after Stephan’s safe return from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1498. The main panel depicts the Nativity set in an architectural ruin. The left wing shows St. George with a fearsome dragon and the right wing St. Eustace, both saints dressed as knights holding banners. A 17th century manuscript records that the two saints were given the features of the Paumgartner brothers (Stephan on the left and Lukas on the right). This is the earliest occasion on which an artist is known to have used the facial features of a donor in depicting a saint.
Richard Wagner, who visited Nuremberg several times and must have known the church, interrupted composing Tristan und Isolde to knock off his opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg). First performed in Munich in 1868, the story takes place during the middle of the 16th century. At the time, Nuremberg was an Imperial Free City, and one of the centres of the Renaissance in Northern Europe. The opera revolves around the real-life guild of Mastersingers, an association of amateur poets and musicians, mostly from the middle class and often master craftsmen in their chosen professions.
In his autobiography, My Life, Wagner describes an incident at an inn in Nuremberg when a master carpenter named Lauermann who fancied himself as a singer was mocked by the locals: “A little thick-set man, no longer young, of comical appearance and gifted only with the roughest dialect, was pointed out to me in one of the inns visited by our friends as one of those oddities who involuntarily contributed most to the amusement of the local wags. Lauermann, it seems, imagined himself an excellent singer, and as a result of this presumption, evinced interest only in those in whom he thought he recognized a like talent.”
One of the main characters in the opera, the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, is based on a real-life person. Hans Sachs (1494–1576) was the most famous of the historical Mastersingers who met at Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas, when special festivals and singing competitions were held. At the competitions judges (markers) were appointed to criticize the singers and note offences against stylistic rules. Prizes were awarded to the best and those who sang wrongly were fined.
In Nuremberg, the special festivals were open to anyone even if they did not belong to the guild. When that happened the choice of subject was unregulated. Afterwards came the main competition when only those who belonged to the guild were allowed to sing and only on scriptural subjects. Four judges sat behind a curtain: one supervised if the song was according to the text of the Bible, which lay open before him; another if the prosody was correct; a third criticized the rhymes and a fourth the tunes. Every fault was marked, and whoever had the fewest marks received the prize.
In Wagner’s opera it is Walther von Stolzing, a young knight who has fallen in love with Eva, daughter of the goldsmith and mastersinger Veit Pogner, who wins the competition – after four and a half hours of what Mark Twain labelled “music that is better than it sounds”. Wagner-lovers disagree.