A cathedral 600 years in the making
The history of Germany’s greatest gothic cathedral is long and complicated. The foundation was laid in 1248, but worked stopped in 1520 and the building was left unfinished until the 19th century when the original Gothic designs were rediscovered. It was finally completed more than 600 years from the start in 1880. Situated in the heart of Cologne, this masterpiece is the third tallest cathedral in the world, boasting the highest church twin spires ever built. The spires of the Cathedral of Cologne, and to a lesser degree the spires of the Rathaus and the Gross St. Martin, tower over Cologne’s otherwise flat skyline. Piercing the sky at more than 516 feet, the Cathedral of Cologne is an imposing structure near and far.
In World War II, the city center of Cologne was leveled by bombs. The cathedral was the only building that survived. However, it suffered tremendous damage during air-raids when more than a dozen heavy bombs reduced it to a pitiful state of near ruin. Even in its severely damaged condition, the cathedral served as a unifying symbol to the Cologne residents as they emerged from their shelters to find the cathedral still standing. Rising above an otherwise flattened city, some said it was divine intervention. In actuality, it was spared from total destruction because it served as a useful point of orientation for Allied pilots. Restoration work made most of the structure usable by 1948, but the remainder of the building was not fully restored until 1956
Stand at the entrance and look up. If you can see the top of the spires, you have just witnessed the impossible. It’s difficult to take a picture of the massive structure without a wide-angle lens. Most days the spires rest in a pillow of clouds — it’s just that large. The cathedral has 8,000 square meters (about 86,000 square feet) of historical glass windows. But the first thing you notice when you get close is that the stone is black.
According to Prof. Dr. Barbara Schock-Werner, the Cologne Cathedral Architect, “Weathering of the stone began around the middle of the 19th century when the majority of the population began heating with coal. Before that, the poor people heated with wood and nothing happened. But when everyone started heating with coal, the sulphur content in the air increased dramatically.” In addition, train tracks were laid in direct proximity to the cathedral and for nearly 100 years steam engines drove by the cathedral every day and blew their smoke on the building.
Now that steam engines and heating coal are no longer a factor, a staff of 80 people, including thirty craftspeople, stonemasons, scaffold makers, roofers, locksmiths, carpenters, blacksmiths, electricians, stain glass artisans and painters, with an annual budget of between six and seven million Euros (eight and 9.4 million dollars) a year, guarantee the cathedral will be around for another 600 years.
The first thing you notice is that you have to adjust your eyes to the darkened interior. After which your eyes immediately shoot up to the ceiling and down the massive columns. While not as impressive as Saint Paul or the Mainz Cathedral, you can’t help but imagine what it would have been like for a 16th century citizen to make that first pilgrimage to the cathedral. Like most Gothic cathedrals, the interior is shaped like a Latin cross. Two side aisles help to support the massive vault and seven small chapels house the cathedrals precious works of art.
Treasures of the Cologne Cathedral
The Shrine of the Three Holy Kings is the cathedral’s most precious work of art. The shrine, a golden sarcophagus studded with jewels, dates back to the 13th century. It is the largest reliquary in the Western world and is said to hold the crowned skulls and robes of the Three Wise Men. The 2,000 year old bones were discovered in 1864 and current excavations continue to re-discover medieval artifacts.
The Altar of the Magi is a magnificent altarpiece that depicts the Adoration of the Magi when the panels are open and the Annunciation when the panels are closed. It is the oldest free-standing sculpture of the medieval period. The Gero Cross is the oldest surviving crucifix north of the Alps. It was carved in oak in 976 and stands in its own chapel near the sacristy. In the Sacrament Chapel, you will find the Mailänder Madonna (Milan Madonna), an elegant wooden sculpture from the 13th century depicting the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.
In the south transept, marvel at the modern stained glass window created by German artist Gerhard Richter in 2007. The original window was damaged during WWII and the space had been covered by plain glass ever since. Composed of more than 11,000 identically sized glass pieces arranged by computer, it offers a contemporary interpretation of stained glass windows as well as an unexpected treat.
The cathedral has eleven church bells, three of which are medieval and weigh a combined 30 tons. The largest bell, the 24-ton St. Petersglocke (Bell of St. Peter), was cast in 1922 and is the largest free-swinging bell in the world.
The Cologne Cathedral could not be any closer to the central railway station. Take the metro or train to the “Dom/Hauptbahnhof” stop. Cologne is an easy day trip (4-hours roundtrip) from both the Kaiserslautern and Wiesbaden military communities and there are a number of parking lots within easy walking distance of the cathedral.
November to April, 6 a.m. to 7.30 p.m.
May to October, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Opening times for tourists on Sunday and holidays, 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Admission to the Cologne Cathedral:
Main Hall: Free
Treasury Chamber: Adults 5 euros, reduced price 2.50 euros
Tower: Adults 4 euros, family price 8 euros.
Guided tours in English (45 minutes): Monday - Saturday 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.; Sunday and holidays 2:30 pm. For a tour of the Treasury Chamber, please call 0221 - 17940-555.
Fee: 8 euros.
Tips for your Visit:
• You can not explore the main hall of the cathedral during masses or services.
• The altar and choir area will be closed during confession (Monday-Friday 7-9 a.m., Saturday 2-4 p.m.)
• The view from the cathedral tower is breathtaking, but you will have to climb 533 stone steps of a spiral staircase to reach the viewing platform, so wear comfortable shoes.