The little unassuming white Cross of Atonement or Cross of Reconciliation outside the Marienskirche in Berlin has a long and surprising story to tell.

In the early 1300s, the Ascanian ruler of Brandenburg died without an hier. The Holy Roman Emperor appointed a Wittelsbach ruler who the Berliners supported. The Pope, however, was in favour of appointing another Ascanian ruler.

Nicolaus of Bernau was serving at the Marienskirche in those days. Historians believe that he angered the Berliners by pointing out that they were going against their Pope. There are several different accounts of what happened. Most accounts agree that Nicolaus was dragged out into the streets, beaten violently and then burned. Several accounts provide gory details of how the fire had to be rekindled because the first fire didn’t successfully burn his remains to ash.

The Church ordered an investigation into the murder and a ban on Berlin followed in 1325. All churches except for the mendicant orders were closed down. This might not sound too bad for us today, but imagine a religious population of the middle ages that was worried about not making it to heaven. There were also very real economic consequences because no one wanted to trade with a city that had been abandoned by God’s representatives on earth.

After suffering for 10 years, a group of Berliners went to the Bishop to ask for forgiveness. The Bishop generously forgave them for the price of a huge personal gift in silver, a stone cross of atonement at the site of the murder and a new altar in the Marienskirche.

However, Nicolaus came from an influential family who probably tried to prevent the official ban from being lifted, because the ban remained in place for another 10 years and was finally lifted only in 1345.

The white cross which was placed at the site of the murder was moved to the entrance of the Marienskirche in the 18th century.