Cologne Cathedral – Six Centuries of Monumental Accomplishment

The stonemasons and craftsmen, who during the Middle Ages began building the great Cathedral of Cologne, probably had no idea that it would take more 600 years to complete one of the most magnificent churches in the world.

Before work could begin, the old house of prayer that was on that site had to be dismantled, and it was in and of itself one of the most important places of worship in Europe due to presence of the bones of the Three Magi.

The foundation stone for the new church was consecrated in 1248, and more than 500 craftsmen began work on the cathedral – work that would not be completed until 1880. Today, there are still 60 craftsmen and scientists in the cathedral workshop, continuing repairs to the wounds of World War II, and removing new damages due to weather and environmental conditions.

Each day, more than 10,000 people visit Cologne Cathedral, and on Monday. July 15th, 2019, we were a small part of that daily swarm of humanity.

As I recounted in the previous blog detailing our day in Cologne, you can’t go anywhere in the city without seeing the Cologne Cathedral. If you were to look up the word “omnipresent” in the dictionary (if they still have those things), there would probably be a picture of Cologne Cathedral right there.

I included a number of pictures of it in that previous blog, but I saved the one below for this post – its the entrance to the church, and let me start our visit there.

Perhaps the first thing one needs to help understand the magnitude of this place is some numbers, like 468 feet wide, 511 feet high, and 65,000 square feet of floor space. This is a big place!

At any one time, it can accommodate 20,000 people, so 10,000 visitors a day is a piece of cake, and when you first walk into the cathedral, it is the height that strikes you with awe. If you think it looks big on the outside, it is absolutely cavernous on the inside. The nave, seen in the pictures below is 141 feet high and it is surrounded by seven little chapels.

There are so many important historic artifacts and precious relics in the Cologne Cathedral, it is hard to know where to begin, so I will start with perhaps the most famous, and go from there.

The Shrine of the Three Kings was already attracting pilgrims at a rate of two visitors for every local citizen as far back as the early 1200’s, making for an extremely profitable tourist trade for the city. It was this volume of interest that necessitated the building of a new church on such a grand scale.

The relics of the Three Magi had been brought to Cologne in 1164 by the holy Roman Emporer Barbarossa, and the shrine that was built to house them is considered the most significant and largest piece of goldwork of the entire Middle Ages. You’ll see what I mean from the postcard picture below.

A total of 74 persons are represented around the outside of the “box” in pure gold, with the featured element consisting of the Three Kings paying homage to the Mother of God and the divine infant.

This remarkable piece of work took more than thirty years to complete and includes elements that were made in workshops in Belgium and Holland before being transported to Cologne for final assembly.

What to talk about next? The 14,500 square feet of windows? The ten-foot tall sculpture of St. Christopher? Hmm. Maybe I’ll talk about the multiplicity of altars, starting with the Altar of the Patron Saints of Cologne – probably my favorite.

This triptych (such a cool word) was painted sometime around 1442 for Cologne’s city council chapel. It was hidden from French revolutionary troops in 1794. Following the de-consecration of the chapel in 1810, the altar-piece was transferred to the cathedral where today, it is the dominant feature of the Lady Chapel and decorates the altar there. Mass is said in the Lady Chapel every day, so this altar-piece is in daily liturgical use. They close the wings of the altar-piece during Advent and Lent.

Let’s move on to the The Altar of the Way of the Cross, and although it was customary from the eighteenth century onwards to depict Christ’s Passion in fourteen stations of the cross and to use these stations as devotional pictures in the body of the church, Cologne Cathedral did not have a “Way of the Cross” until the nineteenth century.

Artist Wilhelm Mengelberg was commissioned to create thirteen Neo-Gothic stations for the cathedral, and it took him from 1893 until 1898 to do so. The twelve painted sandstone stations were inserted in the medieval altar niches in outside walls on the nave. The thirteenth and fourteenth stations both feature groups of three-dimensional sculpted figures. The fourteenth station (pictured below) is an a Late Gothic representation of Christ being laid in the tomb. All but one station, the ninth, survived the bombings of World War II, and it was recreated and reinstalled in 1981.

Earlier, I mentioned the sculpture of St. Christopher, and it has an interesting history as far as its’ location within the church is concerned. Traditionally, representations of St. Christopher were situated at the entrances to churches, city gates, and castles, as in the Middle Ages it was believed that if one looked on a representation of St Christopher, one would not die suddenly without absolution that day.

But, in Cologne Cathedral, the statue of St. Christopher is located in an aisle just to the right of the nave, and nowhere near an entrance. There is a perfectly logical explanation though, as it is situated at what was supposed to be the main entrance of the incomplete cathedral in the Middle Ages where people coming to mass would have passed it.

Beyond the story of architectural significance, I just really liked the statue.

The next item of interest for me was The Gero Crux, a six-foot tall oak cross donated to the old cathedral around 970 by Archbishop Gero. It originally stood at the grave of the Archbishop, but in the new cathedral, it was hung in the Chapel of St. Stephen in the year 1270. and later moved to the Chapel of the Cross in 1350, where it remains to this day.

What makes it so unique is its surprising realism for the period in which it was created. It has remarkable detail, especially the sinewy muscles that are clearly visible, and it shows Jesus Christ dead on the cross for the first time. It is also the oldest large preserved crucifix north of the Alps.

The Gero Crux is one of two major representations in the cathedral said to have miraculous powers, the other being the Milan Madonna in the Lady Chapel.

This high Gothic carving of the Milan Madonna was made in the cathedral workshop sometime around 1280/90 as a replacement for the original, which was lost in the fire that destroyed the old cathedral. This is the oldest representation of the Madonna in the cathedral and it was restored sometime around 1900; the colouring, sceptre and crown date from that period.

Time to talk about the windows, and oh my goodness there a lot of them, and they are magnificent. How about we start with the choir, one of the oldest parts of the church with its 1300 windows.

Or maybe one of the stained glass windows such as the one telling the story of the Birth of Christ. Sorry my photo was a bit crooked, but I just loved the vibrancy of the colours in this window.

The Birth of Christ Window was donated to the cathedral in 1842 by King Ludwig I and if I understand the layout, their are four prophets across the bottom of the window. The main section in the middle depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Magi, while the top layer shows the Annunciation. I’m not at an expert at this stuff but I think I have it figured out.

This next one was a little easier for me to describe because I actually remembered to take a picture of the explanation on the wall plaque. Oh, and it didn’t have a name. It was simply described as a 2007 replacement for a window that was destroyed in the Second World War.

The artist created a simplified design that filled every space in the window with coloured squares. It took five years to complete and consists of 72 different colours in random patterns.

One of the optional excursions for the afternoon involved a tour to the top of the Cathedral. Unfortunately I have suffered perforated eardrums (from flying) over the years, and as such my balance is not great, plus I’m not super comfortable with heights, so this tour was not in the cards for me. I do know from those that went that it was a spectacular tour and from some of the pictures I saw, the views were breath-taking……and a little scary too.

Among the postcards I purchased at the Cathedral gift shop, was one that showed the Bell of St. Peter, a 24-ton bell that is the largest swinging bell in the world.

It is more commonly know by locals as “Dicker Pitter” (“Fat Peter”), and the clapper itself weighs more than 1500 pounds.

It has been ringing out on special occasions since 1923, and perhaps most famously it rang to declare the end of the Second World War in 1945. In piece time, it rang in the reunification of Germany in 1990, and when it does ring, it last for ten minutes before giving way to the other eleven bells in the church. On an annual basis it rings approximately twenty times for important dates on the religious calendar, celebrations, and holidays.

From the upper-most regions of the church tower, I bring you back to the ground flour, and to the choir stalls which date to around 1310. I absolutely loved this area of the church and I only wish I could have heard a choir filling it with song.

With no less than 104 seats, the medieval choir stalls in the inner choir of Cologne Cathedral are some of the largest of their kind still in existence. The choir stalls were not only used by the 24 members of the cathedral chapter and their 27 representatives, but also by spiritual and secular visitors to the cathedral chapter. Special seats were reserved for the Pope and the German Emperor. Above the choir benches are large screens covered with a series of paintings. These are the oldest examples of the Cologne School of painting, created between 1332 to 1340.

As we wanted to move on and do some sight-seeing in the surrounding area, that was the end of our visit to the cathedral. I should however note that there is a Treasure Chamber in the Cologne Cathedral, a historic vaulted chamber in fact, dating to the 13th century, and it is home to the robes and insignias of seven centuries of archbishops. There are also medieval sculptures, and a vast array of precious objects including the remains of a 12th century archbishop who was murdered (Engelbert I), the cross of St. Peter dating from the 4th century, and some early examples of Christian art that are over 1000 years old.

To give you an idea of how beautiful some of these treasures are, here is a postcard showing the Shrine of Englebert, the 12th century archbishop who was murdered. Englebert is seen lying down on the lid of the shrine, with two angels offering him a wreath and a martyr’s palm.

I also purchased a postcard showing a transparent receptacle (a monstrance) in which three links of St. Peter’s chains are housed. The full chains are held in a church near the Colosseum in Rome, but the three links in the Cologne Cathedral’s treasury were a gift to Archbishop Bruno (953-965), and are considered the second most valuable relic in the church after the Shrine of the Three Kings.

The last picture I want to share with you was actually taken outside the Cathedral. It shows an exact replicate of the spire that is on top of the cathedral, in both detail, and in size. You can see how big the spire is relative to the people on the ground in front of it.

Now, look at the picture of the cathedral below, and the areas I’ve circled are what is represented in the ground-level statue. It really helps you get a better sense of just how monumental a structure the Cologne Cathedral is, and we are truly fortunate to have been able to visit it on our tour.


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