Cologne’s magnificent Cathedral is the most renowned landmark in the city and serves as the seat of the Archbishop of Cologne. It is one of the largest churches in the world, and for some time the cathedral even held the title of the world’s tallest building.
With interruptions, it took more than six hundred years to build this amazing ecclesiastic structure, with building commencing in 1248 and finally ending in 1880. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dubbed “an exceptional work of human creative genius.” The cathedral is by far the city’s most iconic landmark and attracts millions of visitors each year.
A (Long) History
Dedicated to St. Peter and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Cologne Cathedral was originally built to house the relics of the three Magi, which were given to the Archbishop of Cologne in 1164. Construction started in 1248 and began quickly at first, with the eastern arm being consecrated in 1322. After that, however, there were large pauses in construction. As a matter of fact, work ceased in 1534, leaving all but the east arm unfinished.
Ominously, a crane hung over the South Tower of the cathedral for more than four hundred years, waiting for someone to take the initiative to complete the structure.
In 1842, with the help of the Prussian State – which saw the cathedral as a symbol for German unification – it was decided that the cathedral needed to be completed. Work resumed, using new and improved building techniques and materials that allowed construction to progress much more quickly than it did six centuries prior. A national event was held in 1880 to mark the cathedral’s completion.
Tragedy came, however, during World War II. The Cologne Cathedral was hit by an estimated seventy bombs and was severely damaged, though not totally destroyed. Repairs commenced after the war and were completed in 1956. Various other small repairs or renovations have been completed since that time, including the installation of a grand stained-glass window in the south transept, replacing the plain glass that had been there since the end of World War II.
The cathedral has a length of almost 144.6 meters and at its widest point measures more than 86 meters (474 x 282 ft). The front facade is dominated by two 157 meters (515 ft) high towers. The exterior is beautifully decorated with plenty of statues, bar tracery, pinnacles, gargoyles and flying buttresses. The Cathedral’s oldest doorway is the Petersportal, built between 1370 and 1380 and decorated with statues that were created by the Parler family.
As with most Gothic cathedrals, the shape of Cologne Cathedral is that of a Latin cross. It has two aisles on each side and one of the highest Gothic vaults in the world. The thousands of visitors that head there each day can view the Sarcophagus of the Magi, a reliquary made of gilded silver and jewels, housing three gold-crowned skulls that are believed to be those of the Wise Men that visited baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
Also inside, visitors will find the Gero Cross (Gero Kreuz), carved in 976 AD and the oldest surviving monumental crucifix north of the Alps. Other notable works of art inside the cathedral include “The Patron Saints of Cologne”, painted in 1442 by Stefan Lochner; the “Madonna of Milan”, a beautiful wooden sculpture crafted in the late thirteenth century; and the “Jeweled Madonna”, an early Baroque statue of mother and child dress in white silk and covered with jewels.
Also noteworthy are the large stained-glass windows, which cover an area of about 10,000 sq meters (110,000 sq feet) and allow floods of natural light to enter the building. The oldest window in the cathedral – known as the Älteres Bibelfenster (Old Bible Window) – is in the chapel of the Three Magi.
Guests may visit the Cologne Cathedral daily at no cost. However, there is a charge to go up into the south tower, which has a viewing platform at a height of 97 meters (318 ft.). Make sure you’re ready for a climb of 509 steps, as there is no elevator in the tower. During the long climb you’ll pass eight bells, including the 24 tons heavy Petersglocke (St. Peter’s Bell), cast in 1923. The tower can be accessed from a visitors center outside the cathedral’s south side.