Cologne Cathedral

History of the cathedral


Foundation stone laid for the Gothic cathedral

On 15th August 1248, the foundation stone for today's High Gothic cathedral was laid by Archbishop Konrad von Hochstaden. The architecture of the new cathedral was closely oriented to the latest French architecture, especially that of the Cathedral of Amiens or the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Little is known about the first master builder of the cathedral other than his name: Master Gerhard. In terms of size, the new construction was designed to surpass the earlier French cathedrals and thus came close to the boundaries of what was then technically possible. Building work began with the construction of the cathedral choir stall. When they attempted to demolish the eastern parts of the old cathedral with the help of fire, the flames got out of control, and large parts of the western part of the old building burned down too. At the last moment, they were at least able to save the Shrine of the Three Kings and the Gero Crucifix from the already smoke-filled cathedral. While the foundations of the new choir were laid in the east, the western part of the old cathedral was provisionally restored so that daily church services and hourly prayers could still be held.

The first part of the ambulatory was completed in 1265 with the choir chapels. While building operations continued in the inner choir, the chapels were fitted out and masses read at their altars. The remains of Saint Irmgardis and some significant Cologne archbishops were transferred in the course of the late 13th and early 14th centuries from the old cathedral to the new choir chapels and put into new tombs. In 1277, the Dominican scholar and bishop, Albertus Magnus, who lived in Cologne, consecrated the altar of the new sacristy. 


Consecration of the new cathedral choir

In 1320, the inner choir was finally completed. It was consecrated in 1322, and the Shrine of the Three Kings was transferred in a festive procession to the axial chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It stood here, with just a few interruptions, until 1864. Despite some unfortunate damage in some important areas, the features of the high choir are unique in terms of their condition and their artistic quality. Among other things, craftsmen trained in Lothringen and Paris created, in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the delicately composed, courtly and elegant figures of Christ, Mary, and the twelve apostles on the choir pillars, as well as the High Altar of black limestone with its statues made from Carrara marble, the choir seating with its rich, imaginative carving and the choir screen paintings. Large parts of the medieval glass windows have been preserved in the clerestory windows and in the choir chapels.

In the west, for centuries the choir was separated by a temporary wall from the transept and nave areas that had been left unfinished in the Middle Ages. 

after 1520

Cessation of construction work

After the choir was completed, the rest of the old cathedral was completely dismantled and work began on the construction of the transept, nave and towers – first on the south side, then from the 15th century on the north. After 1520, construction work was interrupted for more than 300 years, and in these areas the cathedral was left completely unfinished. The nave and transept were closed off by temporary lean-to roofs, which in most areas were attached 15 metres up directly above the capitals of the pillars. Only the western areas of the northern side aisles already had vaulted ceilings. While the outer walls of the north tower were only five meters high in places, at 56 metres the south tower had already reached a good third of its current height. On the base of the tower there was a huge wooden crane, which for centuries was the landmark of the city of Cologne and was seen by many people as a reminder that the construction of the cathedral would one day be completed.


Occupation of the Rhineland by French revolutionary troops

One of the darkest times 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 church services and served instead as a horse stall, arsenal and prisoner-of-war camp. Some of the lead on the roof of the inner choir was melted down, as were some bronze artworks, while wooden coats of arms were publicly burnt in anticlerical celebrations. The wooden features of the nave were used as firewood by prisoners-of-war in the winter of 1797/98. In 1801, the cathedral was returned to religious use, but the building was in a critical condition due to years of neglect. With the re-establishment of the archdiocese of Cologne in 1821, the cathedral became a bishop’s church once more.


Foundation stone for the completion of the cathedral

The transition from the 18th to 19th centuries however, was also a time in which medieval art and architecture were rediscovered. The unfinished cathedral was viewed as particularly important at this time, being the largest Gothic cathedral in Germany. In particular, the brothers Sulpiz and Melchior Boisserée and, along with many others, Joseph Görres, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Joseph von Eichendorff, campaigned for the resumption of construction work on the cathedral so that it could finally be completed following a break in construction of over 300 years. In 1823/24, the Kölner Dombauhütte (Cathedral Building Office) was re-founded, and began by spending almost twenty years renovating the existing structure.

In 1842, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia laid the foundation stone for the completion of the cathedral. He saw the building primarily as a German national monument, and felt that its completion should be a matter of concern to all citizens, regardless of their religion or federal affiliation. The construction work under the master builders Ernst Friedrich Zwirner and Richard Voigtel initially focused on the completion of the nave and the transept. In 1863, the partition that had separated the completed choir from the unfinished areas was finally removed. The entire interior of the cathedral could now be experienced for the first time. The construction work was not financed by the King alone. Cologne’s citizens founded the Central Cathedral Construction Association in the year 1842, which eventually raised 60 percent of the money required to complete the work. The Association still exists today and continues to finance the work of the Kölner Dombauhütte for the maintenance of Cologne Cathedral.


Completion of the cathedral

The towers were finally completed in the 1860s and 1870s. The Dombauhütte, which employed more than 500 employees at this time, used the latest construction technology, such as winching carts, which ran on rails through the construction site, and a steam engine. When the cathedral was at last completed in 1880, it was the highest building in the world with its two 157-metre high towers – and this despite the fact that the design stuck precisely to the medieval facade plan, which had been drawn up 600 years previously, around the years 1280/90.

after 1945

Reconstruction of the cathedral after the Second World War

In the Second World War, Cologne Cathedral was hit by 14 heavy explosive bombs and over 70 fire bombs as well as shelling, all of which caused extensive damage: most of the vaults of the central aisles of the nave and the transept fell in, the organ and most of the 19th century windows were destroyed, and the entire building showed countless larger and smaller scars. One particular threat to the cathedral came from a direct hit on one of the tower uprights, which was temporarily repaired with brick during the war. Luckily, the medieval windows and many important features in the cathedral had been removed in time and others protected by sand bags and formwork, so that there were no major losses of medieval art works in the Cathedral.

The Dombauhütte was able to restore the cathedral building by its 700th anniversary in 1948, followed by the choir and transept and finally the particularly badly damaged nave by Catholics Day in 1956. There is still a lot of minor war damage apparent within the building. Today, the main task of the Kölner Dombauhütte is considered to be the restoration of the stonework, which has been severely damaged by the weather and environmental influences, and the preservation and protection of the valuable historical windows.

In 1996, Cologne Cathedral was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


World Youth Day

A special event in the most recent history of Cologne Cathedral was the XX. World Youth Day 2005 and the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. in Cologne. Hundreds of thousands of young Christians, from almost every nation, came together between the 16th and 21th August in Cologne and transformed the city and the cathedral into a "seething cauldron of euphoria" of faith and sheer joie de vivre. It was the largest festival ever celebrated in the history of the city of Cologne.


Source: (Status: 24.08.2018)
Author: Matthias Deml


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