Having grown up in a religious family, although not I do not consider myself religious now, churches have played a large part in my upbringing. A few years ago I read Pillars of the Earth, a novel about the medieval construction of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge (not the one in Devon). Ever since then, I have been fascinated by cathedrals – the workmanship and imagination to construct them in a bygone era is astonishing. That serfs could work every day of their working lives on a project they would never see completed, and which had a good chance of actually killing them is bizarre to our modern mindsets. I think it speaks not only to the power exerted by the feudal lords of the time, but of the sway the concept of “giving something to Christ” had over people. In a time when a peasant owned nothing, all he could give was his best labours – and in many cases this may mean cathedral construction.
Cologne Cathedral is one of the most famous on the planet. The tallest building in Europe until the construction of the Eiffel Tower, it is an awe-inspiring sight. In today’s age where everything must be ready now, and we don’t even have time to go into the kiosk to pay for petrol, a building which began construction in 1248 and was not fully completed until 1880 is difficult to comprehend. It would certainly struggle to meet planning requirements with such an open-ended schedule. This centuries long struggle to build the Cathedral, and the eventual result, is a testimony to the strength of will of the community of Cologne, and the Christian population of Europe.
As you approach the Cathedral from the Eastern bank of the Rhine, you cross the famous Hohenzollern Bridge, covered with padlocks. It gives a stunning vista of the church, and as the feature image shows, the Cathedral still dominates the Köln skyline into the 21st century.
Once you are closer to the Cathedral, the striking architecture comes to the fore, and the sheer size of the structure only goes to heighten the incredulity at how light and ornate it appears. The is due in large part to the flying buttresses made famous by the great French Cathedral designers, such as at Notre Dame de Reims, and Amiens. By supporting the weight of the structure with the flying buttresses, it allows the vast bulk of the skeleton to be made up of thin walls and windows. This becomes even more apparent once inside.
The Cathedral has the largest facade of any church in the world, owing to the distinctive spires, whilst the quire has the largest height to width ratio of any medieval church at 3:6:1. As with the vast majority of Cathedrals, and indeed churches, the plan is that of a traditional Latin cross, and a really striking facet of the Cathedral are the clerestory windows, which are absolutely huge and play a large part in the light, airy feeling inside.
The exterior of the Cathedral is designed in the ornate fashion expected along with the Gothic architecture, and has some striking gargoyles and doors in particular. However, the true opulence of the building does not become apparent until you are inside. Once inside, the stained glass windows are striking, in particular, Gerhard Richter’s modern window in the Southern end of the Nave, unveiled in 2007. The way the light cascades through the window onto the Eastern wall of the Nave is incredible, particularly in the afternoon.
A trip up into the tower provides a glimpse of the largest free hanging bell in Europe, St Peter’s Bell, at 24 tonnes, and also a hilarious insight into my own vertigo as well as stunning views of Köln. Back at ground level, the Shrine of The Three Kings is said to hold the relics of the three Magi who visited the birth of Jesus, and the Sacristy houses the Gero-Kreuz. Said to have been commissioned around 960, it is oldest large crucifix North of the Alps.
Finally, unfortunately, my visit into the Cathedral Treasury was the one disappointment with the visit. The room I most wanted to see was shut – that dedicated to the Three Magi. Having been transported from Milan by Frederick Barbarossa in 1164, the relic of the Magi is the most revered artifact in the church. No amount of golden liturgical vessels and reliquaries could compensate for the fact I was unable to view that room!