Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral

View of Cologne Cathedral from the southeast
Record height
Tallest in the world from 1880 to 1884[I]
Preceded by Rouen Cathedral
Surpassed by Washington Monument
General information
Coordinates 50°56′29″N 6°57′29″E / 50.9413°N 6.958°E / 50.9413; 6.958Coordinates: 50°56′29″N 6°57′29″E / 50.9413°N 6.958°E / 50.9413; 6.958
Construction started 1248
Completed 1880
Antenna spire 157.4 m (516 ft)
Type: Cultural
Criteria: i, ii, iv
Designated: 1996 (20th session)
Reference #: 292
State Party: Germany
Region: Europe
Endangered: 2004–2006

Cologne Cathedral (German: Kölner Dom, officially Hohe Domkirche St. Peter und Maria, English: High Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Mary) is a Roman Catholic church in Cologne, Germany. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Cologne and the administration of the Archdiocese of Cologne. It is renowned monument of German Catholicism and Gothic architecture and is a World Heritage Site.[1] It is Germany's most visited landmark, attracting an average of 20,000 people a day.[2]

Cologne Cathedral was built between 1248 and 1880. It is 144.5 metres (474 ft) long, 86.5 m (284 ft) wide and its towers are approximately 157 m (515 ft) tall.[3] The cathedral is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and has the second-tallest spire and largest façade of any church in the world. The choir has the largest height to width ratio of any medieval church.[4]



Rectangular central section of an altarpiece in the International Gothic style, showing the Three Kings adoring the Christ Child. The arrangement is formal, balanced and intricately detailed. The Virgin Mary, in a robe of brilliant blue sits enthroned with Jesus on her knee at the centre of the painting. The figures have a sweet, doll-like quality. On either side kneel the two older kings clothed in robes of patterned velvet, one green and the other crimson, with gifts of a golden box and a silver chalice. The youngest king stands behind one of the kneeling figures, and presents a container of semi-precious stone.
The Altarpiece of the Three Kings by Stephan Lochner.

Ancient site

When the present Cologne Cathedral was commenced in 1248, the site had been occupied by several previous structures, the earliest of which may have been a grain store, perhaps succeeded by a Roman temple built by Mercurius Augustus. From the 4th century the site was occupied by Christian buildings, including a square edifice known as the "oldest cathedral" and commissioned by Maternus, the first Christian bishop of Cologne. A free-standing baptistery from the 6th century was located at the east end of the Cathedral. The baptistery was demolished to build the old cathedral in the 9th century. Now only the ruins of the baptistery and the octagonal baptismal font remain.[5] The second church, the so-called "Old Cathedral", was completed in 818. This burned down on 30 April 1248.

Medieval beginning

Old photo of the cathedral before completion shows the east end finished and roofed, while other parts of the building are in various stages of construction.
Unfinished cathedral, 1856 with ancient crane on south tower.

In 1164, the Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald of Dassel had acquired the relics of the Three Kings which had been taken from the Basilica of Sant'Eustorgio, Milan, Italy by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. (Parts of the relics have since been returned to Milan.) The relics had great religious significance and could be counted upon to draw pilgrims from all over Christendom. It was important to church officials that they be properly housed. The loss of the old five-aisled cathedral prompted a building program in the new style of Gothic architecture based in particular on the French cathedral of Amiens.

The foundation stone was laid on 15 August 1248, by Archbishop Konrad von Hochstaden. The eastern arm was completed under the direction of Master Gerhard, was consecrated in 1322 and sealed off by a temporary wall so it could be in use as the work proceeded. Eighty four misericords in the choir date from this building phase. In the mid 14th century work on the west front commenced under Master Michael. This work halted in 1473, leaving the south tower complete up to the belfry level and crowned with a huge crane which was destined to remain in place, and a landmark of the Cologne skyline, for 400 years.[6]

Some work proceeded intermittently on the structure of the nave between the west front and the eastern arm, but during the 16th century this ceased.[7]

The completed cathedral in 1911

19th century completion

With the 19th century romantic enthusiasm for the Middle Ages, and spurred on by the lucky discovery of the original plan for the façade, it was decided, with the commitment of the Protestant Prussian Court, to complete the cathedral. It was achieved by civic effort; the Central-Dombauverein, founded in 1842, raised two-thirds of the enormous costs (over US$ 1 billion in today's money), while the Prussian state supplied the remaining third.[citation needed] The state saw this as a way to improve its relations with the large number of Catholic subjects it had gained in 1815.

Work resumed in 1842 to the original design of the surviving medieval plans and drawings, but utilising more modern construction techniques, including iron roof girders. The nave was completed and the towers were added. The bells were installed in the 1870s.

The completion of Germany's largest cathedral was celebrated as a national event on 14 August 1880, 632 years after construction had begun.[8] The celebration was attended by Emperor Wilhelm I.

World War II and post-war history

The cathedral suffered seventy hits by aerial bombs during World War II. It did not collapse, but stood tall in an otherwise flattened city. The great twin spires are said to have been used as an easily recognizable navigational landmark by Allied aircraft raiding deeper into Germany in the later years of the war, which may be a reason that the cathedral was not destroyed. It has been claimed that in June 1945 American troops used the cathedral as a rifle range.[9]

US soldier and destroyed Panther tank, 4 April 1945.

The repairs to the building were completed in 1956. In the northwest tower's base, an emergency repair carried out in 1944 with bad-quality brick taken from a nearby war ruin (see German Wikipedia "Kölner Domplombe") remained visible until 2005 as a reminder of the War, but then it was decided to reconstruct this section according to its original appearance. The brick-filling can be seen in the image on the right.

Some repair and maintenance work is constantly being carried out in some section of the building, which is almost never completely free of scaffolding, since wind, rain, and pollution slowly eat away at the stones. The Dombauhütte, which was established to build the cathedral and repair the cathedral, is said to employ the best stonemasons of the Rhineland. There is a common joke in Cologne that the leader of the Dombauhütte, the Dombaumeister (master builder of the cathedral), has to be Catholic and free from giddiness. The current Dombaumeisterin is Barbara Schock-Werner. Half of the costs of repair and maintenance are still borne by the Dombauverein.

On 25 August 2007, the cathedral received a new stained glass in the south transept window. With 113 square metres of glass, the window was created by the German artist Gerhard Richter. It is composed of 11,500 identically sized pieces of coloured glass resembling pixels, randomly arranged by computer, which create a colorful "carpet". Since the loss of the original window in World War II, the space had been temporarily filled with plain glass.[10] The archbishop of the cathedral, Joachim Cardinal Meisner, who had preferred a figurative depiction of 20th-century Catholic martyrs for the window, did not attend the unveiling.[11]

World Heritage Site

In 1996, the cathedral was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List of culturally important sites. In 2004 it was placed on the "World Heritage in Danger" list, as the only Western site in danger, due to plans to construct a high-rise building nearby, which would have visually impacted the site. The cathedral was removed from the List of In Danger Sites in 2006, following the authorities' decision to limit the heights of buildings constructed near and around the cathedral.

As a World Heritage Site, and with its convenient position on tourist routes, Cologne Cathedral is a major tourist attraction, the visitors including many who travel there as a Christian pilgrimage.

Visitors can climb 509 stone steps of the spiral staircase to a viewing platform about 98 m (322 ft) above the ground. The platform gives a scenic top view of the Rhine.

On 18 August 2005, Pope Benedict XVI visited the cathedral during his apostolic visit to Germany, as part of World Youth Day 2005 festivities. An estimated one million pilgrims visited the cathedral during this time. Also as part of the events of World Youth Day, Cologne Cathedral hosted a televised gala performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Choir conducted by Sir Gilbert Levine.

Cologne Cathedral seen at night from the other side of the Rhine at Deutz


The nave looking east

The design of Cologne Cathedral was based quite closely on that of Amiens Cathedral in terms of ground plan, style and the width to height proportion of the central nave. The plan is in the shape of a Latin Cross, as is usual with Gothic cathedrals. It has two aisles on either side, which help to support one of the very highest Gothic vaults in the world, being nearly as tall as that of the ill-fated Beauvais Cathedral, much of which collapsed. Externally the outward thrust of the vault is taken up by flying buttresses in the French manner. The eastern end has a single ambulatory, the second aisle resolving into a chevet of seven radiating chapels.

Internally, the medieval choir is more varied and less mechanical in its details than the 19th century building. It presents a French style arrangement of very tall arcade, a delicate narrow triforium gallery lit by windows and with detailed tracery merging with that of the windows above. The clerestory windows are tall and retain some old figurative glass in the lower sections. The whole is united by the tall shafts which sweep unbroken from the floor to their capitals at the spring of the vault. The vault is of plain quadripartite arrangement.

The choir retains a great many of its original fittings, including the carved stalls, which is made the more surprising by the fact that French Revolutionary troops had desecrated the building. A large stone statue of St Christopher looks down towards the place where the earlier entrance to the cathedral was, before its completion in the late 19th century.

The nave is enhanced by a good many 19th century stained glass windows including a set of five on the south side called the "Bayernfenster" which were a gift from Ludwig I of Bavaria, a set highly representative of the painterly German style of that date.

Externally, particularly from a distance, the building is dominated by its huge spires which are entirely Germanic in character, being openwork like those of Ulm, Vienna and Regensburg Cathedrals.[12]


One of the Treasures of the cathedral is the High Altar which was installed in 1322. It is constructed of black marble, with a solid slab 15 feet (4.6 m) long forming the top. The front and sides are overlaid with white marble niches into which are set figures, with the Coronation of the Virgin at the centre.[13]

The most celebrated work of art in the cathedral is the Shrine of the Three Kings, a large gilded sarcophagus dating from the 13th century, and the largest reliquary in the Western world. It is traditionally believed to hold the remains of the Three Wise Men, whose bones and 2,000-year-old clothes were discovered at the opening of the shrine in 1864.

Near the sacristy is the Gero-Kreuz,[14] a large crucifix carved in oak and with traces of paint and gilding. Believed to have been commissioned around 960 for Archbishop Gero, it is the oldest large crucifix north of the Alps and the earliest-known large free-standing Northern sculpture of the medieval period.[15]

In the Sacrament Chapel is the Mailänder Madonna ("Milan Madonna"), dating from around 1290, a wooden sculpture depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. The altar of the patron saints of Cologne with an altar piece by the International Gothic painter, Stephan Lochner is in the Marienkapelle ("St. Mary's Chapel"). Other works of art are to be found in the Cathedral Treasury.

The altar also houses the relics of Saint Irmgardis.

Jewish tablets

Embedded in the interior wall are a pair of tablets on which are carved the provisions worked out by Archbishop Englebert II (1262–67) under which Jews were permitted to reside in Cologne.[16]


The cathedral has eleven church bells, four of which are medieval. The first was the 3.8-ton Dreikönigsglocke ("Bell of the Three Kings"), cast in 1418, installed in 1437, and recast in 1880. Two of the other bells, the Pretiosa (10.5 tons; at that time the largest bell in the Occident) and the Speciosa (5.6 tons) were installed in 1448 and remain in place today.

During the 19th century, as the building neared completion, there was a desire to extend the number of bells. This was facilitated by Kaiser Wilhelm I who gave French bronze cannon, captured in 1870–71, for this purpose. The 22 pieces of artillery were displayed outside the Cathedral on the 11 May 1872. Andreas Hamm in Frankenthal used them to cast a bell of over 27,000 kilos on the 19 August 1873. The tone was not harmonious and another attempt was made on the 13 November 1873. The Central Cathedral Association, which had agreed to take over the costs, did not want this bell either. Another attempt took place on the 3 October 1874. The colossal bell was shipped to Cologne and on the 13 May 1875, installed in the Cathedral. This Kaiserglocke was eventually dismantled in 1918 to support the German war effort.

The 24-ton St. Petersglocke ("Bell of St. Peter", "Dicke Pitter" in the Kölsch dialect), was cast in 1922 and is the largest free-swinging bell in the world.[17] (See below: Gallery, Petersglocke)

Petersglocke, note person to right of bell clapper.

Bells of the ridge turret:

  • Consecration Bell – 0.425 tons (Wandlungsglocke)
  • Vespers Bell – 0.28 tons (Mettglocke)
  • Angelus Bell – 0.763 tons (Angelusglocke)

Bells of the main bell cage in the south spire:

  • Hail Bell – 0.83 tons (Aveglocke)
  • Chapter Bell – 1.4 tons (Kapitelsglocke)
  • St Joseph's Bell – 2.2 tons (Josephglocke)
  • St Ursula's Bell – 2.55 tons (Ursulaglocke)
  • Bell of the Three Kings – 3.8 tons (Dreikönigsglocke)
  • Pretiosa – 10.5 tons
  • Speciosa – 5.6 tons
  • St Peter's Bell – 24 tons (St. Petersglocke)

Church music

Cologne Cathedral has two pipe organs by Klais Orgelbau, the Transept Organ built in 1948 and the Nave Organ built in 1998. Cathedral organists have included Josef Zimmermann, Clemens Ganz (1985–2001) and Winfried Bönig (2001).


Detail of a tower, from an albumen print taken ca. 1877–1880
External length 144.58 m (474.3 ft)
External width 86.25 m (283.0 ft)
Width of west façade 61.54 m (201.9 ft)
Width of transept façade 39.95 m (131.1 ft)
Width of nave (with aisles, interior) 45.19 m (148.3 ft)
Height of southern tower 157.31 m (516.1 ft)
Height of northern tower 157.38 m (516.3 ft)
Height of ridge turret 109.00 m (357.61 ft)
Height of transept façades 69.95 m (229.5 ft)
Height of roof ridge 61.10 m (200.5 ft)
Inner height of nave 43.35 m (142.2 ft)
Building area 7,914 m2 (85,185.59 sq ft)
Window surface area 10,000 m2 (107,639.10 sq ft)
Roof surface area 12,000 m2 (129,166.93 sq ft)
Gross volume without buttresses 407,000 m3 (14,400,000 cu ft)


See also


  1. ^ "UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Cologne Cathedral". Retrieved 15 August 2010. 
  2. ^ A Little Closer to Heaven, the official movie, Cologne Cathedral website. Retrieved 7 November 2010.
  3. ^ "Cologne Cathedral official website". Retrieved 15 August 2010. 
  4. ^ Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method
  5. ^ Baptismal font behind cathedral
  6. ^ Wim Swaan
  7. ^ Wim Swaan gives the latest date as 1560, but a date of 1520 is considered more probable by other scholars.
  8. ^ Fallows, Samuel, ed (1895). Progress. The University Association.. p. 468. Retrieved 13 August 2011. 
  9. ^ Monate im Dunkeln, Dr. Heinrich Schneider, 1955 (Dissertation)
  10. ^ Gerhard Richter digitizes Cologne cathedral, Google translation from German to English, Original German article
  11. ^ Fortini, Amanda (9 December 2007). "Pixelated Stained Glass". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 12 January 2008. 
  12. ^ Wim Swaan, Banister Fletcher
  13. ^ Joan Holladay, Iconography of the High Altar in Cologne Cathedral, (1989)
  14. ^ Arthistory, University of Pennsylvania
  15. ^ Howard Hibbard
  16. ^ A social and religious history of the Jews, Salo Wittmayer Baron, 2nd Edition, Columbia University Press, 1965, p. 174
  17. ^ The World Peace Bell in Newport, Kentucky is larger, but turns around its center of gravity rather than swinging about its top.


  • Wim Swaan, The Gothic Cathedral, Omega Books (1969), ISBN 090785348X
  • Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method.
  • Howard Hubbard, Masterpieces of Western Sculpture, Thames and Hudson, ISBN 0500232784
  • Wolff, Arnold, Cologne Cathedral. Its History – Its Works of Arts, Verlag (editor) Kölner Dom, Cologne: 2nd edition 2003, ISBN 9783774303423

External links

Preceded by
Rouen Cathedral
World's tallest structure
157.38 m
Succeeded by
Washington Monument
Tallest building in the world
Succeeded by
Ulm Minster

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