Monday, 19 August 2013

Preview: Cologne Cathedral

What was the tallest structure in Cologne and one of the tallest structures in Europe for almost 400 years? It was a wooden crane. A fixture in just about every image of the city made between the 15th and 19th Centuries, the crane stood prominently on top of the unfinished Cologne Cathedral, a vivid reminder of economic decline. The cathedral had been conceived during the Gothic revolution that had produced masterpieces such as Chartres and Amiens, but these were inescapably finished, Cologne was inescapably not. Begun in the mid-13th Century and only finished in the late-19th Century, it puts other delayed projects to shame. Was 600 years of waiting worth it?


I'm going to cut straight to this - I think Cologne Cathedral is incredible. It's one of my favourite buildings of all time. Sitting in the centre of Cologne, massive and dominant and black from soot and war, it is a brooding, almost menacing presence in the city, like a dragon squatting in a village. It is so big. I can throw out some numbers at you, like the twin spires are 157 metres tall, the overall length is 144.5 metres, and it's 86 metres wide, but these don't mean much until you're standing in the small square facing it and feel utterly overwhelmed. Cologne Cathedral has the largest church facade in the world, and you never doubt it. It was the tallest building in the world from its completion in 1880 to 1884 (it was overtaken by the Washington Monument) and remains one of the tallest churches in the world. The Sagrada Familia will eventually become number one, but both it and the current tallest, Ulm Minster, are single peaks. Cologne Cathedral has twin towers, like a sheer cliff face, and is all the more powerful for it.

The High Cathedral of St Peter and Mary as absolutely nobody calls it was formally started in August 15th 1248, when the foundation stone was laid. Even then, the site had been in constant religious use for over a thousand years, having originally hosted a Roman temple, before being turned into a Christian complex from the early 4th Century. There had been various Christian buildings before the "Old Cathedral" was built in 818. On 13th April 1248, a resolution was passed to build a grand new Gothic cathedral - conveniently, 13 days later there was a huge fire that totally destroyed the old one. In case this sounds suspicious, well hey, it's just another in a long line of cathedrals that were built when the old one conveniently burnt down. At least in the case of Cologne an explanation is at least offered. Back then, one method of controlled demolition of select parts of the Old Cathedral was by the use of fire to cause collapse, and it doesn't take much for a controlled fire to become uncontrolled. I can imagine the bishop of Cologne meeting with the bishops of Amiens, Chartes, and Reims and saying, "You'll never guess what, guys, mine burnt down as well! High-five!"

The impetus for the grand and new Cologne Cathedral wasn't just to get with the times but was from the arrival of some holy relics a century before. In 1164, the archbishop of Cologne had acquired the bones of none other than the Three Kings (one of whom, incidentally, was thought to have been from Petra), donated to him by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who had stolen it from Milan during his early 12th Century conquest. In the usual convoluted voyage of holy relics, they had been transferred to Milan in the 6th Century, after having been discovered in the 4th Century, so it was said, by the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. She'd gone on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and found all sorts of holy relics, including parts of the cross, some of Jesus's clothing, and even his crown of thorns, now to be found in the likes of St Peter's and the Notre-Dame. She is also credited with the introduction of cats into Cyprus - so a busy lady. My own mother, as it happens, has introduced quite a few cats into the north of Scotland, but to my knowledge has never found any physical remnants from the Bible. But then, I'm not a Roman Emperor.

The bones of the Three Kings were some top class relics. German kings particularly liked them as they felt that offering gifts to the relics would give them divine confirmation of their right to rule, just as Christ's acceptance of the Three Kings' gifts had indicated his recognition of them. Sure, he'd just been a newborn baby, but he'd surely given some kind of affirmative gurgle. The relics were thus treated sumptuously and put into a 7-foot long gilded silver reliquary (a special container for relics), opulently decorated. This was done around 1200 and it remains the largest reliquary in existence. But that wasn't enough. The Three Kings represented the first ever pilgrimage, and it was a sure-fire bet that their relics would be attracting a lot of pilgrims. An appropriate church was required.

The plans were likely drawn up by a master mason called Gerhard, who in the typical manner of the day didn't exactly release a biography of his life and loves. All we know about him is that he was called Gerhard, was a master mason, and was the inventor of the banjo - and even then I've had to make one of these facts up. It seems highly probable he studied or lived in France and was involved with, or at least witnessed, the construction of one of their Gothic cathedrals. The nature of the timescale of cathedral construction meant that Gerhard only oversaw the initial stages. He died some time in the 1260s, and another master mason took over. Everything seemed go well for a while. By 1265, there was enough of a building for worship to go ahead, and by 1300 the core of the cathedral was in place. Work seemed to slow after 1300 - already over 50 years of construction had been going on and enthusiasm and funds would have been waning a little. Still, plenty was done, with the rear of the cathedral more or less finished, and by the mid-15th Century, the base of the south tower was ready, a not-insignificant 59 metres high. On this base, the lone wooden crane stood, towering over the city. But things got slower. Funds were short, and work just continued in fits and bursts. Some windows were installed. Some bells were hung. The very beginning of the north tower appeared. But in 1560 - it ground to a halt. And for almost 300 years, Cologne got used to being dominated by an unfinished cathedral crowned with a wooden crane.

And so it slept, forever it must have then seemed. But in the 19th Century came a stroke of luck. It was an age with a new found Romantic enthusiasm for the architecture and buildings of the Middle Ages, with the French especially spearheading a Gothic revival. And in around 1814, two very fortunate discoveries were made - detailed 14th Century plans of the cathedral's unbuilt main facade turned up, in a loft and in an antique shop. It was the perfect discovery at the perfect time, and from 1842 to 1880 Cologne Cathedral was finally finished, almost exactly as it had been conceived centuries earlier. Curiously, a third of the money came from a Protestant source, in the form of the Prussian Government in a bid to improve relations with their Catholic citizens. The remaining two-thirds came privately, through fundraising by a special association set up to oversee construction and that is still in charge of maintenance today. At an estimated cost of $1 billion, it didn't come cheap. But what's $1 billion, or 600 years, when you have a masterpiece?



I've visited Cologne and seen the cathedral twice. The first was during the World Cup in 2006, where Cologne hosted one of football's most famously dull games, the 0-0 after extra-time between Ukraine and Switzerland (Switzerland won 3-0 on penalties). I still clearly recall leaving the train station and finding myself in front of the cathedral. I knew nothing of Cologne then and wasn't aware such a cathedral existed - I was entirely blown away. The element of total surprise always helps a first impression, but to this day I can't think of any other structure I've ever seen that has impressed me as much. Perhaps the Taj Mahal, in terms of sheer, perfect beauty. Cologne Cathedral these days may not be as tall as many buildings out there, but hardly anything seems as big. The Empire State Building might, technically, be over twice as tall, but Cologne Cathedral could wrestle and pin it to the ground in seconds. It conveys sheer strength and power. But it is also beautiful with its soot-covered details, in a dark, slightly ominous, fascinating way. And as it happens, it's also pretty good for putting a giant screen on the southern side and watching football on, as I discovered during the World Cup.

The second time I visited was on a deliberately engineered stopover, where I had just enough time to race into the city centre and see the cathedral for half an hour. I was worried the sense of expectation might lead to disappointment. But it didn't. I was still blown away.

Personal favourites don't necessarily equate to World Wonders, but Cologne Cathedral is an excellent dark horse in this race. I think it is a hugely underrated building - sure, it gets accolades, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it never gets mentioned in the same breath as the more traditional Wonders. Well, I think it's a world heavyweight, and I expect this to be featuring very high up come the day of reckoning.

I'll be visiting Cologne Cathedral at some indeterminate point next year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history, as well as my own impressions, then.


  1. I really like Gothic architecture and this cathedral is high on my list of things to see one day. I was interested in what you said about its long completion - I was aware that the spires were only built in the 19th century, but didn't know that they actually followed the original plans (I assumed that they just added neo-gothic upon original gothic, if you see what I mean). So this really is a proper, gothic cathedral - just a long time in the making.

    As for the blackened stone, I'm not sure if I like it (bearing in mind that I haven't seen it for real). Generally I have nothing against a bit of wear and tear on ancient monuments, it's part of their history and what they've been through. But a lot of this is simply dirt (from factory chimneys, and more recently from cars). Every time that I have seen a familiar building cleared of its decades of dirt and see it finally the colour it was meant to be seen originally, I have always found it to be an improvement. Of course, stone can take on a patina, which is different from pollution.

    Also, knowing the level of destruction in Germany at the end of WWII, I think we are lucky to be able to enjoy this building today.

  2. I do agree with you generally. Aberdeen has a great neo-Gothic building called Marischall College, that until recently was dark and dirty, and I thought it suited it fine. Then they cleaned it up - and wow. It looks magnificent now. I believe the same was done with the Notre-Dame in the 70s. But for Cologne Cathedral... I kind of like its dark looks. I'd be scared that if they cleaned it up it might look too "pretty". And for me, Cologne Cathedral is wonderfully menacing rather than pretty.


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