In 1165 Leipzig was granted a town charter and the right to hold markets. Subsequently the citizens decided to build a church dedicated to St. Nicolas, the patron saint of merchants and travellers.
Even today, it is possible to discern the original Romanesque design of the building in the western façade with its round arches and matching towers. In 1525 the transformation of the Romanesque basilica into a late-Gothic hall church was completed. The so-called Luther pulpit in the Gothic style, dated 1521, has been relocated to the northern chapel. Reformation was introduced in Leizpig in 1539/40 with the first official Protestant church service, held by Pastor Johannes Pfeffinger at St. Nikolai.
From 1723 to 1750 Johann Sebastian Bach was responsible for a varied sacred music life complementing services at St. Nikolai and St. Thomae. His installation ceremony as Director musicae took place at St. Nikolai on May 30, 1723. He was responsible for both churches equally. The Bach stele near the entrance erected in 1998 commemorates the composer’s tenure here.
Yet things had not got off to an auspicious beginning. Before Bach was elected, one of the City Councillors said: “Since none of the best can be had, there is no choice but to approach one of the middle candidates and see whether Bach from Köthen could be persuaded to come to Leipzig.” He was persuaded, and took up his position in Leipzig at the “City and Parish Church of St. Nikolai” on May 30, 1723, the first Sunday after Trinity, with a cantata performed during a service.
Many of Bach’s works were created, arranged and given world, first and new performances in this city.
Suffice it to mention:
In 1723 the motet Jesu, meine Freude and the Magnificat
In 1724 St. John’s Passion
In 1733 the High Mass in B-minor
In 1734/35 all the cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio
Furthermore, there are the motets and the plethora of church cantatas which were performed during services at the two main churches of St. Nikolai and St. Thomae.
Under the aegis of the City Building Director Johann Friedrich Carl Dauthe, the interior of the church was decorated in the classicistic style between 1784 to 1797. As part of this fundamental redesign, paintings by Adam Friedrich Oeser (1717-1799), the first director of Leipzig’s “Academy of Drawing, Painting and Architecture”, were installed in the chancel and the vestibules.
The organ, built by the master organ builder Friedrich Ladegast from Weißenfels, was consecrated in 1862 and restored and expanded in 2004 by the organ building firm of Eule from Bautzen. With its 6,804 pipes, 103 registers and five manuals, it is the largest church organ in Saxony.
During restoration works at the church, the artist Felix Pfeifer from Leipzig created four alabaster reliefs depicting the Passion of Christ in the chancel in 1905.
The “Open Church” movement began in 1980 with the Decade of Peace and the Peace Prayers held every week on Mondays at 5 pm from 1982 onwards. In the autumn of 1989 the Nikolaikirche became the centre of the non-violent Monday Demonstrations, which were instrumental in the collapse of the GDR state, enabling Germany’s unification without war or victory.
The tree of Easter lights Gesprengte Fessel (Easter 1995) in the church’s central aisle commemorates the events of 1989. Another symbol of peace and understanding is the Cross of Nails from Coventry, on loan to the congregation since 1996.
Comprehensive restoration works carried out in three periods between 1968 and 2004 allow the interior of the church to shine again today in its early classicistic design. With its seating capacity of over 1,400, St. Nikolai is one of the largest churches in Saxony.
Today the church is filled with life in many different ways.
Services are held here regularly, and they are still full of music. Various choirs form part of the congregation of St. Nikolai. The church is open daily to visitors from all over the world. Guided tours of the church and the organ as well as excursions up the towers are offered. The open meeting “Nikolaitreff” is open to anyone wishing to meet other interested parties. In addition, the church regularly offers devotions dedicated to subjects of our times.