Hospital of the Holy Spirit in Lübeck

Seven Lord’s Prayers for the pious sponsors

The poor, old and sick – in the Middle Ages, there were many needy people in the Hanseatic city, so-called “people of lesser luck” who were dependent on help and alms from well-heeled Lübeck citizens. The misery was omni-present and there were also many rich, pious merchants and councillors who willingly helped to alleviate the suffering of the needy. The help was not entirely selfless as the donors were hoping for a place in paradise due to their generosity. The best example of this type of medieval welfare is the Hospital of the Holy Spirit, completed in 1286, which is one of the oldest social institutions still in existence in the world. With its three-gabled representative frontage and four slender spires, magnificent church hall and the long house in which the beds of the needy were lined up in rows, the hospital is one of the most important architectural monuments in Gothic red-brick style. It owned many estates in and around Lübeck, and the income from these estates was sufficient to look after the poor and the sick.

When is the Hospital of the Holy Spirit open for visitors?

If you are exploring the Old Town, you should definitely plan a visit to the Hospital of the Holy Spirit at Koberg. You will be impressed by the murals in the church hall which are significant in terms of art history. Guests are heartily welcome in the daytime from Tuesday to Sunday! The world of those people living in the cubbyholes in the long house is really brought home to us. These tiny cubbyholes, referred to as Kabäuschen, replaced the free-standing rows of beds from 1820 onwards, offering six square metres of privacy. One of the cubbyholes is still furnished today as it was in the late 1970s. You can see this small room when you visit the Hospital. The idyllic green oasis "Bürgergärten" is located behind the historical building.

Jana Nitsch

One of the faces of the Christmas city of the North.

>Read her story

An oasis of greenery where you can walk all the way to the garden of the Behnhaus Museum. In the period leading up to Christmas, the Hospital of the Holy Spirit opens its doors for 10 days for one the most popular craft markets unmatched anywhere in the world.


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Art treasures in the Hospital of the Holy Spirit

The medieval murals in the church hall are particularly worth seeing. Incidentally, the founder’s deed does not exist on paper. The faces of the benefactors are to be found on the North wall of the church hall. Their prominent positioning directly beside the figure of the returning Christ is explained by the Latin inscription in the book that the judge of worlds is holding in his hand: Quot uni ex minimis meis feci(s)tis michi fecitstis - whatsoever you do to the least of your brothers and sisters, you do unto me. The direct relationship between good deeds and their ties with Christ himself is plain here: the charitable work served the founders’ own salvation. A further art treasure is the multi-coloured rood screen with 23 tablets depicting an Elisabeth cycle which was created in 1440 and combined structural elements from several different centuries.

Life as in a monastery

When moving into the Hospital of the Holy Spirit in the Middle Ages, residents undertook to live a life of poverty, obedience and chastity and promised to pray for the pious founders seven times a day. In return they received a roof over their heads, food and, from the 17th century onwards, a hot bath eight times a year. The cubbyholes in the long house, preserved to this day, have acquired worldwide fame; they were occupied by elderly citizens right up until 1970. They were reluctant to move out when the care home for the elderly which still exists today in parts of the hospital was converted. Until the cubbyholes were installed in 1820, men and women were strictly separated, sleeping in two rows of beds. Thanks to the open connection to the church hall, the poor and sick did not miss a single mass and even those confined to their beds took part in the service, at least acoustically. Up to eight litres of weak beer, brewed in the vaulted cellar of the hospital, were issued every day for sustenance. This was too much of a good thing for many of the residents and they secretly sold the surplus brew in the market for a few pennies. Maybe it was better that way!

What happens in the Hospital of the Holy Spirit at Advent?

In the period leading up to Christmas, the Hospital of the Holy Spirit opens its doors for its extremely popular craft market which is known far beyond the borders of Lübeck. It is one of the most beautiful, atmospheric markets in the “Christmas City of the North”. Around 150 hand-picked artists from Germany, Scandinavia, the Baltics and many other European countries show the diversity of old and new craft techniques in the medieval church hall decorated for the festive season and the cubbyholes of the long house, and offer their handcrafted art for sale. There are tasty, home-made waffles, Rotspon mulled wine (made from French red wine from Bordeaux) and festive trumpets sound from the rood screen. The long house and the vaulted cellar are only freely accessible once a year during the craft market. Above the doors of the cubbyholes where people used to live, you can still find some of the names of the residents. Incidentally, the cubbyholes had no roof or ceiling. Night watchmen patrolled on elevated boardwalks, checking regularly to see if those asleep were still alive.

Hopfen und Malz, Gott erhalt´s! (Hops and malt, may God preserve them)

The brewing of beer enjoyed a long tradition in medieval Lübeck and it was a lucrative trade. Especially as there was no pure, healthy drinking water that could be safely drunk. At times there were over 180 brewhouses in the town, most of them located where they could connect to the Wakenitz water supply. In fact, the brewhouses with their high water requirements were the reason for the early waterworks constructed at the Hüxter Gate in 1294 and the Castle Gate in 1302. Beer was also called “liquid bread” as it served as a substantial source of nourishment and was drunk by young and old at any time of day – it was even allowed during periods of fasting. There was town beer, stopbier and export beer with higher alcohol content that was supplied in the Baltic region but also to England, Holland and Flanders and even as far as the East Indies in early modern times. “Brauberger zu Lübeck” in Alfstraße is Lübeck’s only brewery today. Its concept is to brew “zwickelbier” as it was made in the Middle Ages.

As clear as a bell

The melodious carillon bells in the bell tower of the Hospital of the Holy Spirit can be heard five minutes before each full hour and they are equally popular with residents and guests of the city. The 18 bronze bells play minuets by Haydn or Bach and well-known folk songs such as “Die Gedanken sind frei” (Thoughts are free). The pieces are played by a trained carilloneur who plays the bells tuned in a minor pentatonic and has to allow for the delay between striking the bell and the sound of the note. That takes a special talent!

Listen to it!


Lübeck, the city of foundations

Lübeck was and is a town of civic duty and benefactors who care for their home town and the people who live there. They fight for causes and take responsibility, many during their lifetime and some beyond the grave. Today, there are more than 100 foundations in Lübeck dedicated to social and cultural projects. The tradition of foundations stretches back into the Middle Ages as a pious deed – “pia causa” – was intended to make God merciful and secure the donor a place in paradise.

Not only the Hospital of the Holy Spirit but also the Old Town’s sponsored courtyards are testimony today to the solicitude of Lübeck’s citizens who wanted to ensure that the widows and orphans of seafarers and merchants were cared for.  The most famous residential trust is Füchtingshof – founded by Councillor Johann Füchting who determined in 1636 that one third of his legacy was to be used “for the benefit and in the best interests of the poor”. But it was not only benefactors from high circles who took care of the needy; fraternities of tradesmen and seafarers also looked after their brothers and their families who had fallen on hard times. For example, the Seafarer's Guild in Lübeck which was founded in 1401 as the St. Nicholas Fraternity “to help and comfort the living and the dead and all those who seek their honest living in seafaring”.

Over time, besides welfare, there was an increasing trend also towards the sponsorship of art, culture, education and the upkeep of monuments through foundations, donations and wills. It was towards the end of the eighteenth century when doctors, pastors, lawyers and teachers from Lübeck, driven by their interest in exchanging knowledge and literature, began to meet privately. In 1789, they founded the “Gesellschaft zur Beförderung Gemeinnütziger Tätigkeit” (Society for the Promotion of Charitable Work) – the GEMEINNÜTZIGE (CHARITABLE), for short. To this day, it fights for cultural and social purposes and under its umbrella, it sponsors 19 institutions, 38 subsidiaries and 33 foundations – from FamilienBildungsStätte (Family Education Centre), the Overbeck Society to the Musikschule (Music School) and Knabenkantorei (Boys’ Choir).

Max Schön

Interview with the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Possehl Foundation.

> Read the interview here

The Lübeck entrepreneur Emil Possehl decreed as follows in his will in 1919. “My greatest wish is that the fruits of my life’s work should be used for the benefit of my beloved home town, the Free and Hanseatic City of Lübeck.” In accordance with this wish of its benefactor, the Possehl Foundation has been promoting “all things good and beautiful” in the Hanseatic City of Lübeck for over 100 years. The long list of sponsored projects has helped to shape the development of the town on a lasting basis, made many impossible things possible and brought happiness to many people. The Gemeinnützige Sparkassenstiftung (Charitable Savings Bank Foundation) has also been an important player since 2004 and an active sponsor of social commitment in Lübeck. Not just the large foundations but also the many small legacies of Lübeck citizens working behind the scenes today represent a major treasure, and social and cultural life of Lübeck is unimaginable without them.

The Gemeinnützige Sparkassenstiftung (Charitable Savings Bank Foundation) has also been an important player since 2004 and a sponsor of social commitment in Lübeck. Not just the large foundations but also the many small legacies of Lübeck citizens working behind the scenes today represent a major treasure, and social and cultural life of Lübeck is unimaginable without them.

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