If you ever find yourself in Münster, Germany, be sure to visit the Gothic Church of St. Lambert on the main market square. Three metal cages hanging off the church spire serve as a 16th-century reminder of religious intolerance and extremism.
This was the time of the Protestant Reformation —initiated by Martin Luther in 1517—which sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church through theological reinterpretation. Although abstract-sounding to many today, this was a revolutionary challenge to Church authority, and it ultimately reshaped Europe’s religious and political landscape.
Despite being within the domain of Catholic Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck, the city of Münster became a hot spot for such debates and a crucible of Protestant religious fervor in the 1530s. Thanks partly to the financial support of a merchant by the name of Bernard Knipperdolling, Bernard Rothmann became a leader of religious reform in the city.
It was in this environment that the Anabaptists—a sect which promoted the idea of adult baptism and social equality, and was a target for Catholic persecution—took root in the city. These included the Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias, who arrived in early 1534 and set about re-baptizing Münster citizens.
Left: Modern-day image of Münster’s St. Lambert’s Church with its famed hanging cages. (rogiro / CC BY-NC 2.0 ) Right: Pamphlet depicting the torture and execution of the leaders of the Anabaptist rebellion. (Wolfgang Sauber / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
A bizarre character—or false prophet—Matthias believed that the Apocalypse was near and that Jesus Christ would appear on Earth on April 5, 1534. Rather than embrace the tolerant atmosphere, he set about creating his so-called New Jerusalem in Münster, declaring war on Waldeck and demanding the execution or expelling of unrepentant Lutherans and Catholics. In response, Waldeck put together an army and laid siege to Münster from February 1534.
When the Apocalypse didn’t materialize, Matthias changed tack and conveniently had a vision that he would break the siege by riding out of the city. Instead, he was killed, his head displayed on a pike and his genitals nailed to the city door. The Catholics weren’t messing around.
Next, a tailor-turned-prophet named Jan van Leiden took over, claiming to be the new ‘King David’ of the siege-affected city. In June 1535, Catholic forces entered Münster, killing hundreds of Anabaptists. They singled out three men for punishment as a deterrent; Jan van Leiden, Bernard Knipperdolling and the Anabaptist preacher Bernhard Krechting.
In January 1536, they were publically tortured in Münster’s public square. Attached by a spiked collar, they were torn to pieces with white-hot pliers for 60 minutes before having their tongues pulled out. Their mutilated bodies were then caged and suspended from St. Lambert’s Church steeple for 50 years as a grim reminder of the Catholic Church’s power.
The Münster cages remain as a haunting testament to this day.
Top image: Left; Representational image of the torture endured by Anabaptists whose bodies were displayed in Münster’s famed metal cages. Right; The three cages hanging from Münster Gothic Church of St. Lambert. Source: Left; Dawn / Adobe Stock, Right; Rüdiger Wölk, Münster/ CC BY-SA 2.5
By Cecilia Bogaard on