Secondary residence of the landgraves of Hessen-Kassel, four-wing Renaissance palace with stair towers in the corners of the courtyard and richly ornamented sandstone portals. The interior is impressive because of the original layout, the various halls and the palace chapel with outstanding paintings and stuccoes
Situated on the sunny side of the Thuringian Forest the small half-timbered town of Schmalkalden, first documented in 874, is being visited by nature-lovers and people interested in history and the arts. The foundation of the Schmalkalden Alliance (one of the founders being Landgrave Philipp of Hessen, the most distinctive and energetic political precursor of the Reformation) and Martin Luther’s Schmalkalden articles call to mind the time of the Reformation when this town and the medieval castle still towering above were in the centre of European politics. From 1360 to 1583 Schmalkalden was a condominium of both the landgraviate of Hessen-Kassel and the county (later to become principality) of Henneberg.
When Count Georg Ernst von Henneberg died childless in 1583 his estates fell to Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hessen-Kassel, a man appreciative of the arts and with a knowledge of architecture. This widely travelled ruler with experience in drawing building plans gave instructions to replace the existing but decaying castle in Schmalkalden by a secondary residence named after himself – Wilhelmsburg Palace. This palace symbolising the new power structure was enlarged by Wilhelm’s son, Moritz the Scholar, until the 1620s; he also completed the interior decoration, laid out pleasure gardens and terraces and had further buildings erected in the palace grounds.
During a tour of the Wilhelmsburg, which is mostly being used for museum purposes and also for concerts, readings and special exhibitions, the following deserve particular attention: the halls and former residential rooms, the gentlemen’s kitchen, and especially the impressive and tall palace chapel. It was for the first time that in this palace chapel the architecture reflected the Protestant creed: altar, pulpit and organ were arranged in one vertical axis. To attend the service the Hessian landgrave sat opposite on the grand gallery. The Renaissance organ which was heard for the first time on 23 May 1590 is the oldest in Thuringia and moreover one of the oldest wooden organs in Europe still in use. Concerts held every year between May and September give this interior space an exceptional sound. The banqueting hall, also called the giant’s hall, is characterised by the large coffered ceiling, consisting of ninety pictures on canvas.
Although smaller, the more intimate dining hall, for some time also used as a throne room, is no less impressive. The interior furnishings of this room referring to its original function date back to different periods. The splendid gentlemen’s kitchen on the ground floor, today appearing like a display kitchen, is dominated by a hearth open on four sides with a canopy-like chimney above the fireplace. The palace gardens which have only survived in fragments with a partly preserved cascade is one of the few remaining Renaissance parks in Thuringia.
The permanent exhibition in the museum of Wilhelmsburg Palace takes visitors on a journey not only to the age of Reformation, Martin Luther and the Schmalkalden Alliance, but also to the court of the Hessian landgraves. In one of the vaulted rooms of the palace there is also an 1:1 copy of a room which can be found in the cellar of the “Hessenhof” on Neumarkt in the town centre.
In that building dating from the high Middle Ages – once administrative seat of the Hessian landgraves – 22 high Romanesque wall paintings of large figures by an unknown artist were discovered at the end of the 19th century. They illustrate the Iwein legend written by the medieval poet Hartmann von Aue. In order to protect this exceptional work of art without having to withhold it from the public, this copy was made.