Heidelberg Castle by Night

As the hour of ten draws near, we return through the vaulted passage from the Great Balcony and enter the grass-grown central courtyard. Outside the facades were grim and bleak and built to meet an enemy’s blows, but toward the courtyard the castle turned faces of ornament and beauty. One feels at once the force of the saying that this is not the ruin of a castle, but of an epoch. It slowly flowered through the five hundred ‘years that Heidelberg was the capital of the Palatinate, and all the development of those intervening times is expressed in its varying architecture. Pomp and circumstance are written big across it, for its masters and builders were counts and princes, kings and emperors. One feels the love and pride they took in these deserted palaces, now masterless. In the pale moonlight whole rows of effigies of the illustrious dead stand boldly forth in niches of the hollow, staring walls, and medallion heads peer curiously out of pediment recesses, and history and allegory find expression in lifelike statue and carven bust. Delicate arabesques and fanciful conceits wreathe themselves in, stones of portal and cornice, and the armorial chequers of Bavaria and the Lion of the Palatinate oppose the lordly Eagle of the Empire. Time has modulated the discordant keys of architecture of divergent periods into a common and mellow harmony, so that the first rude stones laid by old Rudolph seem a consistent part of an assemblage that includes that finest example of Renaissance architecture in all Germany – Otto-Heinrich’s wonderful ruddy palace set with its yellow statues. One thinks of Prague and the battle of the White Hill as he sees the ill-starred Frederick’s massive contribution, and wonders why this beautiful realm could not have enticed him from playing that tragic role of “Winter King.” Frederick’s palace looms impressively by night; in its varied architecture and majestic effigies of the House of Wittelsbach one feels the propriety of having here a comprehensive levy upon the building-knowledge of all previous time as an adequate and appropriate expression of the catholic culture of the lords of the Palatinate.

And, indeed, one reflects, there was need for both strength and beauty to a fortress that was to play so momentous a role in the fierce dissensions of its time. In that dungeon a pope once lay a prisoner; in this chamber Huss found refuge; in yonder chapel Luther has preached, and all the foremost spiritual lords of the hour. This courtyard has echoed with shouts for the Emperor Sigismund when he tarried here en route to play that perfidious part at the Council of Constance, and has rocked with wild applause as “Wicked Fritz,” returning in triumph from the battlefield of Seckenheim, marched in his captive princes. These staring walls have blazed with royal fetes-in the hush and desolation of tonight one feels a deep sadness in contrasting the ominous silence that pervades them now with the splendor and uproar that vitalized them when a princess was wedded in this crumbling chapel; when Emperor Maximilian came up from his coronation at Frankfort; when the foremost figure of his era, Emperor Charles V, and his sallow little son who was later Phillip II, feasted and reveled here for days at a time.

We look up at the Gothic balconies, and it seems as though we could almost see some early lord of this stronghold peering down through painted windows at the athletic sports of his hardy sons; and a certain unreality takes phantom form and substance, and the sentinel figures descend solemnly from their niches as a train of valorous knights and pages issues from OttoHeinrich’s broad portal with music and laughter; there is the scrape and tread of mailed feet and the shouts of a gallant company as fair-haired women in shimmering silks and high-peaked headdresses award prizes of the tourney to kneeling men in glittering armor; and the trumpets sound and the torches flare and the noble retinue sweeps into the great banquet hall, while the “merry councilor” who brings up the rear makes us a profound and mocking bow as the door is closed – and we are alone with the statues in the moonlight.

The empty, silent courtyard is spectral and sad; it is an hour for reverie, for apprehension. The pale silver of the moon whitens into phantom-life two sides and a corner; the rest is a deep, hushed shadow. A cushion of ivy stirs in the faint night air; a bat flashes over a shattered cornice; a stone detaches itself exhaustedly and falls with a tinkle of sand, waking a protest of little echoes.

One steals away silently, resigning ward of all this senile decay to faithful Perkeo, who, in wooden effigy, still companions his huge empty tuns in the darkness of the cellars – the little, red-haired, faithful jester who alone remains constant to his master, of all the army of attendants that thronged these palaces for half a thousand years.

We pass the old stone-canopied well whose columns once were Charlemagne’s, pass the ponderous clock tower and the moat bridge, and enter the fragrant gardens as the valley bells sound ten and the purple mists are rising from the Neckar.

It is impossible to escape a feeling of profound melancholy. Where now are the powerful princes whose rusted swords may not strike back were I to raise a hand of destruction against the halls they reared and loved and guarded with such might? “The fate of every man,” said the Koran, “have We bound about his neck.”

It is depressing to think that such glory, power, and beauty as once were here should have flourished so wonderfully and come to so little. Was all this magnificence created merely for destruction? Could nothing less suffice grim Time to build him an eyrie for bats and swallows? Was Von Matthisson right in the judgment he expressed in the sad and sympathetic “Elegie” he penned in these ruins, and must we conclude with him that temporal glory is but ashes and that the darkness of the grave adorns impartially the proud brow of the world ruler and the trembling head that shakes above the pilgrim’s staff?

“Hoheit, Ehre, Macht und Ruhm sind eitel! Eines weltgebieters stolze Scheitel Und ein zitternd Iiaup’t am Pilgerstab Deckt mit einer Dunkelheit das Grab! “