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Cologne Cathedral - Story of a Gothic Masterpiece


The cathedral city of Cologne is one of Germany's oldest cities, with a history that goes back almost 2,000 years to 50 AD and a village on the right bank of the Rhine River. It belonged to the "Ubii", a Germanic tribe.

Then the Romans arrived and they founded "Kolonia", Colony.

Dominating the city's panorama, Cologne Cathedral's twin towers are as visible today from nearly everywhere within the city, and many points outside, as they were in 1880; when more than 600 years after the foundation stone had been laid on August 15, 1248, the cathedral was completed.

Archbishop Rainald von Dassel had been given relics of the "Three Kings" in 1164 by Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa, who had brought them to Cologne after taking them from a conquered Milan. They had been kept there since the fifth century.

After the "Old Cathedral", which had been built on the site of a 4th century Roman temple, burned down on April 30, 1248, work immediately began on planning a new Cologne Cathedral.

And it was to be one considered suitably impressive to house the relics, and their magnificent gold and jewel encrusted sarcophagus.

Plans were drawn up in the new style of Gothic architecture, the form of a Latin cross; based mainly on the French Gothic cathedral of Amiens. A building program began that was to continue for several centuries.

As it housed the remains of the Biblical Magi, which were of enormous religious significance, the Cathedral of Cologne was one of Europe's most important pilgrimage destinations; but, through lack of both interest and money, building work gradually ceased in the early 16th century.

The lower section of the South Tower with bell tower, as well as the long nave and the cross nave, had been completed up to the lower arcades, but the North Tower was almost nonexistent; for more than 400 years a huge and ancient building crane on the incomplete South Tower, believed to date from 1350, was a major scenic landmark and symbol for Cologne.

Decorating the cathedral's interior continued until 1794 however, only ending when French revolutionary troops marched into the city.

The archbishop and cathedral chapter fled to Aachen, while the shrine, library and documents were stored for nine years in Arnsberg, another town North-Rhine Westphalia town.

Then the building was used for many purposes, including as a storehouse for grain and fodder, until 1801 when it was re-consecrated as a Cologne church.

These seven years of misuse had helped bring about a renewed enthusiasm for Cologne's unfinished cathedral, and this gained support from an emerging and influential German Romantic movement that had a passion for the Middle Ages.

Continuation and completion of Cologne's Gothic Cathedral became a matter of urgency and importance. A foundation stone marking the continuation of building work was laid in 1842 by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, and his treasury contributed half of the necessary financing. A supporter of "Romanticism", and a protestant, he became the first King of Prussia to ever enter a Roman Catholic building.

Using modern building practices, but following the original medieval plans, forms and techniques faithfully, the beautiful Gothic Cathedral with its soaring buttresses and pinnacles was completed in a record time of 38 years; with both of the towers, the North Tower at 157.38 meters is 7 cm (2.3/4 inches) higher than the South Tower, finally finished in 1880.

Its completion was celebrated as a national event on 14 August 1880, 632 years after construction had begun.

The celebration was attended by the first German Emperor Wilhelm I, Kaiser of a united Germany and King of Prussia, and younger brother of Friedrich Wilhelm IV whose influence and financial support had been so important for the continuation of the cathedral's construction.

Cologne Cathedral's interior is spectacular. A stone mass seems to rise weightlessly up to the (142 feet) high canopy styled arches and the narrow main nave leading to the chancel; the space around the altar in the sanctuary has two side naves, with a kaleidoscope of multi-colored light shining through the five glass windows in the northern side nave.

It has the largest existing collection of 14th century windows in Europe.

The cathedral's full length is 145 meters (476 feet), the cross nave 86 meters,(282 feet), and its total area is almost 8,000 square meters (86111 square feet) with room for more than 20,000 people. Above and behind the high altar, on an enormous monolithic slab of black marble, is the "Shrine of the Three Kings", Dreikoenigsschrein.

A large gilded and decorated triple sarcophagus containing relics of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, the Biblical Magi and city patrons of Cologne, covered by seven feet of gilded silver and jewels pillaged from Constantinople during the Crusades.

In terms of medieval gold craftsmanship, size and opulence it surpasses all other reliquary in the western world.

At least 70 bombs, 14 of them heavy and high explosive, landed on Cologne Cathedral during WWII but although badly damaged it survived; probably because its two towers remained standing and could be used as navigation points for Allied pilots.

Then during June 1945 the cathedral was used by American troops as a rifle practice range, but by 1956 its reconstruction was complete.

Now over 60 stonemasons, glaziers, roofers and other specialists are constantly working to maintain, and restore, the cathedral from the everyday ravages of weather, the environment, and city pigeons.

Although a cathedral falcon helps out with that particular problem.

It is "die ewige Baustelle", an everlasting construction site, which always has some scaffolding somewhere as additional decoration. But that is "voellig in Ordnung", absolutely OK, as there is a saying that the world will end once Cologne Cathedral is finally completed.

A beautiful World Cultural Heritage site alongside the Rhine River, the image of centuries old Cologne Cathedral is a symbol from the past, and together with Schloss Neuschwanstein, identified worldwide with the art, culture and life of today's Germany.




A Related Link: The celebrations in Germany for "Twelfth Night" on January 5th, and Epiphany, "Three Kings Day", on January 6th, involve many customs that are based on the stories around the Biblical Magi.

Koelner Dom nachts 2013CC-BY-SA-3.0-de Thomas Wolf, www.foto-tw.de via Wikimedia, with the Fish Market and the Rhine - Cologne Cathedral in 1856 showing the unfinished South Tower with its ancient crane, the Gothic eastern end and south transept. Photographer Johann Franz Michiels (1823-1887) - Cologne Cathedral Bavarian Window from 19th century, donated by Bavaria's Ludwig I, photographer Raymond Raimond Spekking / CC-BY-SA-3.0 - illustrations via de.Wikimedia


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Content copyright © 2015 by Francine McKenna-Klein. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Francine McKenna-Klein. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Francine McKenna-Klein for details.

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