The exhumation of 1894

The statue made by Seffner


Most Bach admirers know that Sebastian Bach was not originally buried in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. The real story has not received much attention, however. In the following, a summary of the known facts is given. Special acknowledgements go to Teri Noel Towe, for making corrections and additions to the text.


The Leipziger Johanneskirche before 1894


In 1894, it was decided that the Johanniskirche should be rebuilt and enlarged. To the right is a photograph of the Leipziger Johanneskirche before the enlargement, following plans of architect H. Licht.


The Rector of the Church, G. Tranzschel, forcefully argued and succesfully urged that the church authorities take advantage of what might well prove to be the last opportunity to look for the mortal remains of Johann Sebastian Bach.

There were, however, virtually no clues left to identify the burial place of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Philipp Spitta had written twenty years earlier that Bach's remains had been disturbed during previous work on the church and the church yard.

Nevertheless, Dr. Tranzschel and the historian and archivist Dr. Wustmann set out to collect every scrap of evidence which could help in identifying the place of burial. Together, they collected what few facts there were:

Excavation began on Oct 19, 1894, and the workmen dug up to 2 1/2 meters deep. But, at first, only scattered remains of several different skeletons were found. The exhumations were monitored and supervised by Dr. Tranzschel, Dr. Jungmann (the then Rector of the Thomasschule), Wilhelm His (Professor of Anatomy at the University of Leipzig) and several others.

The coffins initially found were mostly made of pine. From that point onward, the workmen took particular care to look for any signs that an oak coffin was about to be unearthed.

A couple of days later, on October 22 1894, an oak coffin was found. Tranzschel and His were summoned. His determined that the remains were those of a young woman. However, underneath her casket, another oak coffin was located, one which contained the remains of an older man. These, it was decided, were most likely the mortal remains of Johann Sebastian Bach.


Bach's skull, found in 1894


The bones were transferred to a laboratory for scientific examination. The skeleton measured 166.8 cm. The cranial cavity was measured by Professor E. Schmidt and found to have a volume of 1479,5 cc, the average in Germany being 1478 cc. Only 8 teeth were found, supposedly the others were lost during the exhumation.


Bach's skeleton, found in 1894


Dr. E. Vogel, librarian of the Peters firm, provided a workplace for the Leipzig sculptor Carl Seffner. Here Seffner was able to sculpt a model of the face of Johann Sebastian Bach around a cast of the skull. He further used the information provided by the then known portraits and by the anatomical characteristics of the skull from the skeleton that had been exhumed.
Below is a drawing of the model which he made. The real model can be seen nowadys in a Leipzig exposition.


Model of Bach's head, formed around a cast of the skull


A committee whose members were His, Tranzschel, Seffner, Vogel (from Edition Peters), Wustmann, and Jungmann, reported on March 8, 1895 to the council of Leipzig that there was a high degree of probability that the remains exhumed on October 22, 1894, were the remains of Johann Sebastian Bach, because of
(1) the location in which the remains were found,
(2) the remains having been interred in an oak coffin, and
(3) the distinctive physiognomic characteristics of the skull.
The degree to which the portrait bust that Seffner (who was a member of the committtee) had sculpted over a cast of the skull resembled the then known existing portraits was believed by the committee to be the evidence that made it almost a certainty that the skull exhumed on October 22, 1894, was indeed the skull of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The results of the investigations were officially published by Wilhelm His in 1895 in a separate paper (HIS 1895). Parts of that report were re-published around 1910 by a Dutch author (HARTOG 1910). Terry discusses the exhumation briefly but eloquently, but he ventures no opinion of his own regarding the accuracy of the conclusions that the exhumed remains are Bach's (TERRY 1933: 279 - 280).

What indeed seem to be Bach's remains were reinterred within the rebuilt and enlarged Johanneskirche. After the destruction of the Johanneskirche during World War II but before the subsequent demolition of the calcined ruins by the Communist City Council, Bach's remains were moved yet again; they were reburied in the crypt beneath the choir of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.


The simple stone which is carrying the name Johann Sebastian Bach always bears some fresh flowers.


Bach's last resting place in the Thomaskirche



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