Located on a high promontory overlooking the Rhine River, St. Apollinaris Church has been a pilgrimage destination for many centuries. In the Roman era there was a temple to Jupiter located here, followed by a Christian church from at least the ninth century.
According to legend, in 1164 the Archbishop of Cologne was sailing on the Rhine with relics from the Three Magi and St. Apollinaris (a second-century Roman bishop who was one of the earliest Christian martyrs). The boat’s rudder stopped working as it passed Remagen and would only become functional again when the relics of St. Apollinaris were carried up to Martin’s Mount, as the promontory was then called.
In 1383 Duke Wilhelm I stole the relics and brought them to Dusseldorf, but he missed getting the skull because it had been hidden in Landskron Castle. In 1793 the skull was taken to Siegburg to protect it from the French, and in 1812 it was reunited with the remaining relics in Dusseldorf. After considerable negotiation, in 1857 the skull was brought back to St. Apollinaris Church, where it remains to this day.
The present neo-Gothic church was constructed in 1839-43 by the same architect who designed the Cologne Cathedral. It’s considered one of the premiere 19th-century churches in the Rhineland region and is particularly known for its exquisite frescoes. The paintings were created by four artists who were part of the Nazarene tradition, an early-19th-century school of painting, influenced by both Romanticism and medieval styles, that sought to use art for religious ends. Ernst Deger, Andreas and Karl Müller, and Franz Ittenbach worked summers in the church over a ten-year period, creating 69 pictures with nearly 600 figures. The murals depict the life of Jesus, Mary and St. Apollinaris. Particularly fine is the fresco in the apse depicting Jesus as Judge of the World and another that shows a tender rendering of the birth of Mary.
The major reason for the church’s status as a pilgrimage destination is its skull of St. Apollinaris. The relic is kept in a crypt in a massive stone sarcophagus, except for twice a year when it is removed and used to bless pilgrims. The main pilgrimage occurs during a 14-day period in July, with a smaller pilgrimage season in January. The church attracts many who are seeking healing of head-related ailments.
From 1857-2007 a community of Franciscan monks was in residence here. In 2007 the Bishop of Trier handed the monastery over to the care of the Holland-based Community of the Crucified and Resurrected Love. Visitors can come for retreats in the community’s 15-room guesthouse.
If you visit St. Apollinaris Church, make sure you see the terrace that extends behind the church. It offers a splendid view of the Rhine River valley, including the seven hills that are featured in the epic poem Nibelungenlied.
For more on St. Apollinaris Church see Pilgrimage Sites on the Rhine River.