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Cologne Cathedral - Story of a Gothic Masterpiece

The cathedral city of Cologne is one of Germany's oldest cities. Its roots go back almost 2,000 years to 50 AD when it was a village on the right bank of the Rhine River belonging to the Ubii, a Germanic tribe. Then the Romans came and 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 over 600 years after the foundation stone had been laid on August 15, 1248, the cathedral was finally completed.

Archbishop Rainald von Dassel was 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 where they had been kept 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 with the form of a Latin cross, based mainly on the French Gothic cathedral of Amiens, and a building program began that was to continue for several centuries.

Housing 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, nevertheless 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 and for more than 400 years an ancient, and huge, building crane on the incomplete South Tower, believed to date from 1350, was a major scenic landmark and symbol for Cologne.

Nevertheless the rich decoration of the cathedral's interior was continued until 1794, when French revolutionary troops marched into Cologne.

The archbishop and cathedral chapter fled to Aachen and the shrine, library and documents were stored for nine years in Arnsberg, also in North-Rhine Westphalia. In the years that followed the building was used for many purposes, including as a storehouse for grain and fodder, until it was re-consecrated as a Cologne church in 1801.

These seven years of misuse helped bring about a renewed enthusiasm for Cologne's cathedral and its unfinished building work, which gained support from the emerging and influential German Romantic movement with its passion for the Middle Ages.

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

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, younger brother of Friedrich Wilhelm IV King of Prussia whose influence and financial support had helped towards the continuation of the cathedral's construction.

Cologne Cathedral's interior is spectacular. A stone mass seems to rise weightlessly up to the 43 meter-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.

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

The full length of Cologne's cathedral is 145 meters (476 feet) and the cross nave 86 meters, (282 feet), the total area of the Cathedral measures almost 8,000 square meters (86111 square feet) with room for more than 20,000 people, and above and behind the high altar, 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, is 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 so 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, however by 1956 its reconstruction was complete.

Now over 60 stonemasons, glaziers, roofers and other specialists work constantly maintaining, and restoring, the cathedral from the everyday ravages of weather, the environment, while pigeons are a bit of a headache.

Although there is also a cathedral falcon who helps out with that particular problem.

It is "die ewige Baustelle", an everlasting construction site, and it normally does have some scaffolding as additional decoration, which as there is a saying that the world will end once the Cologne Cathedral has been finished is considered to be "voellig in Ordnung". Absolutely OK.

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 - Cologne Cathedral in 1856, 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

The Eyewitness Travel Guide for Germany is absolutely the best travel book available for anyone, who wants to visit the country. Either from the comfort of their armchair or in person. With stunning illustrations and descriptions it covers everything any traveler would ever need, including a comprehensive piece on all that Cologne can offer a visitor. It is written in a way that makes it fascinating to read for anyone interested in Germany and is my personal favorite.

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Content copyright © 2014 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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