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A brief history of Cologne Cathedral

The first mention of a bishop of Cologne
The history of Cologne Cathedral begins in the Early Christian era. The first mention of a bishop of Cologne, St Maternus, was in the year 313 AD. Although there is no architectural evidence to prove it, it is possible that in Maternus's lifetime, the cathedral (the seat of the bishop) in Cologne, which was a Roman city at the time, stood in the same area as the cathedral we see today. The site of the Early Christian cathedral was in the north-eastern corner of the city, directly alongside the city wall and close to the northern gate. The area was predominantly residential. It is possible that the first church was situated inside a Roman house, which has been proven to have been the case in other Roman cities.

Sixth century
Merovingian church with baptistery

There is architectural evidence that in the sixth century at the latest, a large church stood on the site of the current cathedral. One of the oldest remnants of Early Christianity in the Rhineland, a baptismal font belonging to an Early Medieval baptistery, is situated to the east of the current cathedral's choir. The baptistery was part of a family of sacred structures, from which a number of things, including the graves of members of Merovingian royalty, an ambo, and the remains of a synthronus made of brick, have been unearthed beneath the cathedral choir.

Around 800
Construction of the old cathedral

After several structural changes to the site, this early set of sacred buildings was replaced by an enormous Carolingian church (now referred to as the 'old cathedral'), sometime around the year 800. Consecrated in 873, this church, which initially had three naves, was extended by a further two aisles in the tenth or eleventh century. Unlike the current cathedral, the old cathedral had two choirs with apses. The western choir was dedicated to St Peter, the cathedral's patron saint; the eastern choir to Mary, the Mother of God. There was an extensive atrium at the western end of the cathedral. To the east, a second atrium connected the cathedral to the Church of Our Lady of the Steps (St Maria ad Gradus), which was founded in the middle of the eleventh century and demolished in 1817.



Translation of the relics of the Magi

The old cathedral was still standing when Archbishop Rainald of Dassel had the relics of the Magi (or Three Holy Kings) brought from Milan to Cologne in 1164. Emperor Frederick I (also known as Frederick Barbarossa) had gifted the archbishop these relics in appreciation of his services on the emperor's Italian campaign. Two year's previously, the emperor, with the support of the archbishop (who was also one of the most powerful princes of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany and archchancellor of Italy) had taken Milan, which had risen up against the emperor, and seized the relics.

The archbishop was clever and quickly made the relics, which had been virtually unknown in Milan, famous throughout the Christian world. Thanks to these relics, Cologne Cathedral become one of the most significant places of pilgrimage in Europe. The relics were of outstanding importance, not least for German royalty. On their way home after their coronations in Aachen, German kings generally stopped in Cologne to venerate the relics of the biblical wise men (who were viewed in medieval times as the first Christian kings). Between the 1180s and the 1230s, the Shrine of the Three Holy Kings, the largest surviving European work of goldsmithery dating from the High Middle Ages, was created largely by the goldsmith Nicholas of Verdun. It was made to house the precious relics of the Magi.



The foundation stone of the Gothic cathedral is laid

On 15 August 1248, Archbishop Conrad of Hochstaden laid the foundation stone for the current High Gothic cathedral. The architecture of the new cathedral was based heavily on contemporary French architecture, above all the cathedral in Amiens or the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Apart from his name, Master Gerhard, little is known about the cathedral's first master architect. The intention was that Cologne's new cathedral would outdo the earlier French cathedrals in terms of size. In doing so, it pushed the boundaries of what was technically possible at the time. Work began with the construction of the cathedral choir. The decision was taken to destroy the eastern part of the old cathedral by fire. However, the flames got out of control, burning down most of the western part of the building as well. At the very last minute, the Shrine of the Three Holy Kings and the Gero Crucifix were rescued from the smoke-filled cathedral. While the foundations for the new choir were laid in the east, the western section of the old cathedral was provisionally renovated so that mass and divine office could be said there every day until the new choir was ready for use.

Sometime around 1265, the ambulatory and radiating chapels were the first parts of the Gothic cathedral to be completed. While construction work continued apace on the inner choir, the radiating chapels were furnished and masses celebrated at their altars. In the course of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, the relics of the Blessed Irmgard and several important archbishops of Cologne were transferred from the old cathedral to the radiating chapels in the new cathedral, where they were interred in new tombs. In 1277, the Dominican scholar and bishop Saint Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus), who lived in Cologne, consecrated the altar of the new sacristy.



Consecration of the new cathedral choir

The inner choir was completed sometime around 1320. Two years later, it was consecrated, and the Shrine of the Three Holy Kings was transferred in a solemn procession to the axial chapel, which was dedicated to Mary the Mother of God. With the exception of a few short periods, it remained there until 1864. Despite the painful loss of a number of items, the furnishings of the high choir, which are for the most part still in place, are unique in terms of their state of conservation and artistic excellence. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, artisans who had been trained in the workshops of Lorraine, Paris, and elsewhere, created the precious choir pier statues of Christ, the Virgin, and the twelve apostles, all of which are characterised by a courtly elegance and seem to be in motion. Also dating from this period are the black limestone high altar with its Carrara marble statuettes, the choir stalls with their rich, fantastical carvings, and the paintings on the back wall of the choir stalls facing the ambulatory. Most of the original medieval windows in the choir clerestory and the radiating chapels have been preserved.

For several centuries, a wall separated the west end of the choir from the transept and nave, which remained incomplete in the Middle Ages.

After 1520
Cessation of construction work

Once the choir of the Gothic cathedral was completed, the rest of the old cathedral was demolished and construction of the transept, nave, and towers got underway. Work in these areas began directly on the south side and continued, from the fifteenth century onwards, on the north side. When construction work was interrupted in 1520, these parts of the cathedral were left unfinished. For over 300 years, the cathedral resembled a massive ruin. The nave and the transept were closed off by provisional roof trusses, which in most areas began above the pier capitals 15 metres above the ground. There were no ceilings in these areas, which meant that visitors could see the roof truss structure from inside the cathedral. Only the western parts of the northern aisles had finished vaults. While some of the outer walls of the northern tower rose to a height of only five metres, the south tower stood 56 metres tall, a good third of its height today. On the stump of the tower stood a huge wooden crane, which was the symbol of the city for several hundred years and served as an exhortation to one day finish the cathedral.

Occupation of the Rhineland by French revolutionary troops

One of the darkest chapters in the history of Cologne Cathedral began with the occupation of the Rhineland by troops of the French Revolution in 1794. In 1796, the cathedral was closed for masses and was used instead for a variety of purposes, including as a stable, a magazine, and a place of detention for prisoners of war. By that time, parts of the lead roofing of the inner choir and bronze works of art had been removed and melted down for raw material, and wooden coats of arms had been publically burned in anti-clerical celebrations. The wooden furnishings in the nave were used as firewood by prisoners of war in the winter of 1797/98. In 1801, the cathedral was returned to liturgical use again when it became a parish church. However, after years of neglect, the structure was in a lamentable state. When the Archdiocese of Cologne was re-established in 1821, the cathedral once again became the seat of a bishop.

The foundation stone for the completion of the cathedral is laid

Despite these turbulent years, the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century was a time in which medieval art and architecture was being rediscovered. As the largest Gothic cathedral in Germany, the incomplete cathedral in Cologne attracted much attention. In particular, it was the brothers Sulpiz and Melchior Boisserée and, among many others, Joseph Görres, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Joseph von Eichendorff who called for work on the cathedral to begin again after a break of over 300 years so that it could at last be completed. The Cologne Cathedral workshop was re-established in 1823/24. It spent the first 20 years of its renewed existence restoring the existing structure.

In 1842, King Frederick William IV of Prussia laid the foundation stone for the start of work on the completion of the cathedral. For him, the structure was first and foremost a national German monument, the completion of which he felt was surely of importance for all Germans, regardless of their religious denomination and the German state to which they belonged. While cathedral architects Ernst Friedrich Zwirner and Richard Voigtel were in charge, construction work focused on the completion of the nave and the transept. In 1863, the wall that had separated the completed choir from the remaining incomplete cathedral was torn down. For the first time ever, the interior of the entire cathedral could be viewed and visited as a whole.

But it was not only the king who funded the completion of the cathedral. In the year the foundation stone was laid, 1842, citizens of Cologne founded the Zentral-Dombau-Verein, an association whose goal was to raise money for the cathedral. Ultimately, the association raised 60 per cent of the money needed to complete the building. The Zentral-Dombau-Verein still exists today and continues to finance to a considerable degree the work carried out by the cathedral workshop to preserve this Cologne landmark.



Completion of the cathedral

The two towers were completed in the 1860s and 1870s. The cathedral workshop, which employed over 500 people at the time, used state of the art construction technology such as a carriage-on-track system for winching loads across the construction site or the use of steam engines. When the cathedral was finally completed in 1880, its two towers were over 157 metres high, making it the tallest building in the world. This is astonishing, considering that the cathedral architects had adhered assiduously to the medieval plan for the facade, which had been drawn up over 600 years previously, sometime around 1280/90.

After 1945
Reconstruction of the cathedral after the Second World War

In the Second World War, Cologne Cathedral was seriously damaged by 14 major high-explosive bombs and over 70 firebombs. It was also hit by artillery and various projectiles. Most of the vaults in the main vessels of the nave and transept had collapsed, the organ and most of the nineteenth-century windows were destroyed, and there were countless instances of major and minor damage to the entire structure. The pier of the north tower had received a direct bomb hit, which posed a particular threat to the cathedral. The damage was repaired during the war using bricks. Thankfully, the medieval windows and many of the important items in the cathedral had been removed in time while others were protected by sandbags and cladding. As a result, none of the cathedral's major medieval works of art were lost.

It was a mammoth task, but the cathedral workshop succeeded in restoring the choir and the transept in time for the 700th anniversary of the laying of the first foundation stone in 1948 and the badly damaged nave in time for the German Catholic Convention (Katholikentag) in 1956. Countless instances of minor war damage are still visible to this day. Today, the main task of Cologne's cathedral workshop is to restore the stonemasonry, which is badly affected by weathering and the ravages of environmental influences as well as the conservation and protection of the valuable historical windows. 

In 1996, Cologne Cathedral was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

World Youth Day

A very special event in the recent history of Cologne Cathedral was the XX World Youth Day 2005 and Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cologne. Hundreds of thousands of young Christians from all four corners of the globe made their way to Cologne, and from 16 to 21 August transformed the city and the cathedral into a 'bubbling cauldron of euphoria' of faith and pure joie de vivre. It was the greatest celebration that ever took place in the history of Cologne.


Matthias Deml

Kulturstiftung Kölner Dom Das Generationenprojekt 11.000 Sterne für den Kölner Dom ZENTRAL-DOMBAU-VEREIN ZU KÖLN VON 1842 DOMKLOSTER 4