“ Sightseeing Type: Churches / Temples „
I will refer throughout to the subject of this review as Cologne Cathedral, that being the familiar English term for it. If you wish to carry out further research you will also need to know the German title: "Kolner Dom".
Two of my great interests in life are architecture and history; seldom do they merge better and in more spectacular style than in the great churches and cathedrals. Over the years I have enjoyed visiting virtually all of the cathedrals in England - many in Poland during the last seven years too. Since my late teens there had been one cathedral above all others that I had wanted to visit - Cologne.
However well one may, or may not, know Cologne, Germany, or even in a much wider sense church architecture, the iconic silhouette of Cologne Cathedral, with its truly colossal twin towers, will probably be familiar to many.
Strengthening our desire to visit Cologne, had been the sight of this great cathedral from the A4 Autobahn each time that we had sped through the city en-route to Poland, twice a year every year since 2001. In October of last year at last the opportunity arose - we were in Lubeck for a friend's wedding and decided to combine this occasion with a three day visit to Cologne.
Whilst the outline of the Cathedral externally was familiar to me, the history and indeed treasures that lay within were not. Whatever religious views you may hold, your first impressions here.....and indeed your lasting memories are of awe, and on so many levels.
Photographs, guide books, the internet, you can research the lot before you arrive in Cologne and whatever your prior expectations of the Cathedral, nothing can really prepare you for the sheer scale of it when standing anywhere within about half a mile of it.
ORIENTATION AND GETTING THERE
Arrive, by any method, in Cologne and I do not need to tell you how to find the Cathedral which forms the very centre of the city. From almost every part of the city it is visible, positively towering over the "Old Town" quarter. There are many other church spires and towers to be seen in the city skyscape but the Cathedral simply dwarfs them.
This status is permanently protected by local planning laws which prohibit any construction within the city which is taller than the Cathedral spires.
Appropriately Cologne is of Roman origin, and as all roads lead to Rome so, in this city at least, all roads lead to the Cathedral. Not only the roads, but also the incredibly busy river Rhine - all the Rhine cruise ships stop here. The even busier railway, Cologne's main station is located immediately adjacent to the Cathedral, passes within a couple of hundred metres of it. Get off a train in Cologne and you will need no other transport in order to visit the Cathedral.
THE HISTORY OF St PETER'S CATHEDRAL, COLOGNE
Whilst 2008 celebrates the 760th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the current, Gothic, Cathedral, the religious origins of this site are known to date from Roman times. In those times the church that stood here formed the northern edge of the city; to this day the "Old Town" is clustered around narrow streets immediately to the south and literally in the shadow of, the great Cathedral.
The buildings that stood here in the first millennia were naturally rather different from the Gothic edifice so much admired today. From these early Roman times, Cologne was an important centre of European Christianity. Churches are known to have occupied the site before 500, but it is only from that date that the archaeologists have been able to trace the definite floor plans and evolution of the rapidly increasing size of houses of worship located here.
THE THREE WISE MEN
Hands up all those of you who know where the earthly remains of the Three Wise Men, Three Kings, The Magi - or whatever you may know them as - are located.
OK then, if you learn anything at all from this particular review let it be this! In 1164 Archbishop Rainald von Dassel brought the relics of the Three Wise Men to Cologne, from Milan, thus turning the city into not only the archbishop's seat, but also a European centre of pilgrimage.
To my shame, before actually arriving in Cologne, neither my wife nor I were aware of the significance of the city in this sense. Once again, whatever your religious views you cannot help but have heard of the Three Kings, some of your children may even have played one of them at Christmas in the nativity!
Their arrival in Cologne provided the impetus required to design and construct a building worthy of their importance......
......and about as far removed from the humble stable in Galilee that they visited as it is possible to get!
BUILDING A 40,000 SEAT SHRINE TO GOD AND THE THREE KINGS
In this day and age with think little of the ever growing number of super-stadia, but how about the idea of building a 40,000 seater back in 1248?
Impressed? We should be!
Why 40,000 seats? Quite simply that was the total population of Cologne at the time.
A big Cathedral for a big city. If it looks big and impressive now, in a large industrial city of one million inhabitants, what on earth must it have looked like to those fourteenth and fifteenth century inhabitants of this city? I guess we will never know the answer to that one.
History can be traced by the building of the Cathedral, the technology employed may have been simple, of necessity vastly over-engineered too, but the labours involved in its' construction defy the imagination.
The architectural style of Cologne Cathedral is described as French Gothic. The cathedral architects and builders of the time were inspired by the great French cathedrals; none however would be as great as this one!
Cologne Cathedral must actually rank as one of the most prolonged building projects of the last millennium. In 1880, 632 years after the laying of the foundation stone, the last stone topped out the South Tower. Strictly speaking, it should be explained that there was a very long interruption in the building programme, between the body of the church being completed in the sixteenth century and the resumption of the completion of the 157 metre (515ft) tall towers in 1842.
A famous feature on the Cologne skyline for hundreds of years, whilst no building took place, was the colossal wooden crane used to construct the towers. This had been left in tact, for the rapid resumption of construction. Fascinatingly it has been partially dismantled and is now on display in the very south west corner of the Cathedral.
For nine years, until the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889, Cologne Cathedral, thanks to its spired towers, stood as the world's tallest construction.
The South Tower had been built to the second storey in the fifteenth century, allowing the installation of the Pretiosa and Speciosa bells which were cast in 1448 and 1449 respectively. Miraculously, these two famous bells along with the even larger St Peter's Bell (1923) escaped being melted down for scrap metal during the Second World War. Almost equally miraculous was the fact that whilst the cathedral inevitably, being adjacent to the railway bridge over the Rhine, suffered bombing, at least 14 bombs were known to have struck it, the towers and bells escaped in tact.
Bearing in mind that 95% of the city of Cologne was totally destroyed in the Second World War bombing, it is astonishing that the Cathedral still stands today.
Surprisingly, after this long and at times troubled history, the whole Cathedral now presents an entirely homogenous appearance; nearly 130 years weathering (and air pollution) has ensured that all of the stonework is the same colour. More importantly architecturally is that the nineteenth century spires were built to medieval architects' drawings dating from around 1300.
Walking the half mile or so from our hotel towards the Cathedral, we had the best chance to actually appreciate the growing enormity of it. Our first impressions were actually in the dark on a damp October evening. It is at night that the exterior of Cologne Cathedral looks its spectacular best. The whole structure is beautifully illuminated, the spires particularly, lit by lanterns from within, make the most lasting impression.
In reality, whilst yes the twin spires point dramatically skywards, it is the sheer bulk of the body of the building which begins to make a real impression upon you. We finally approach via a flight of shallow steps up from the river bank, viewing the half circular clerestory end with its complex arrangement of flying buttresses and multiplicity of spires. In the dark with shadows cast by the pavement mounted lamps the stonework on the ornate flying buttresses appears even more intricate than in daylight.
It takes a couple of minutes to walk the 144 metre (472 feet) length of the Cathedral, passing as we do so the entrance to the shop, the Cathedral Treasury and indeed the "marked" entrance to the Cathedral - all located in the North Transept. Walking around the Cathedral in this anti-clockwise circuit (from the river) there is an ever increasing sense of anticipation before your arrival at the towered West Front.
Standing close to the front of the building gives you little impression of the sheer style and awesome scale of not only the twin spires, but of the three arched entrances. This is not a quiet area at night, there is a lot of life in and around the Cathedral Precincts, but we felt entirely comfortable and at ease here.
FOLLOWING IN MILLIONS OF OTHER VISITORS FOOTSTEPS
Since 1996 the Cathedral has been a UNESCO World Heritage site and is Germany's most visited attraction - over two million people visit annually.
I am not going to use the word pilgrims or indeed tourists here, everyone I suspect has slightly different and personal reasons for actually stepping over the threshold and entering the colossal space enclosed by Cologne Cathedral.
It is difficult to actually describe, in words, the sheer enormity of the interior of this building. The bald statistics may help, but they cannot give you a true impression of the space and light within:
Total Floor Area: 6166 square metres (20,229 sq. ft.)
Total Length: 144 metres (472ft)
Total width: 86 metres (282ft)
Height of Central Aisle: 43 metres (141ft)
We enter through the door in the North Transept and are immediately transported back in time. The modern hubbub of Cologne, its river and railway station (although you can still hear the station announcements), are left outside.
There are hundreds of people milling about in the immediate vicinity of the entrance - rows upon rows of memorial candles are burning here. This is a surprisingly "intimate" experience. Paradoxically in this huge church, my overwhelming personal memory remains one of intimacy here, that in a sense, in spite of all the odds.
On a busy day in the height of season you may indeed feel that you are competing here with thousands of trolley / case wielding tourists, maybe having an hour or so to kill between connecting trains, certainly this is the first cathedral that we have visited where many of our fellow visitors appeared to be using it as a transit waiting room.
A second distraction is provided by the many guided parties, conducted in any number of different languages, lending a Babel like atmosphere if you become trapped in the midst of them. Having said that, from 'listening in' to a very good English speaking guide, I would, on a future visit, be inclined to take a guided tour (which last for about an hour and a half) as you learn so much more about the detail of the place.
We used the free paper "short guide" sheet in order to find our way around, and for a first visit it is quite adequate. Believe me, you will barely touch the surface of this great cathedral on your first visit, there is simply far too much to take in. Incidentally the short guides are available in a plethora of languages, reflecting the truly international background of the visitors here.
We found that on our second visit the following afternoon, we discovered far more and admired much that had completely passed us by the previous morning. The cathedral interior also looks quite different in the early evening light to that of a brighter morning. Between the two visits we had also purchased from the Cathedral Shop an excellent little guide book which further filled in the details.
SOME INTERIOR HI-LIGHTS
I was intending to write a full description of the interior here, but backed away from doing that when I looked at the many photographs taken during our two visits, such a description would require an entire book!
This awe inspiring building is one of superlatives, but some of the treasures that lie within are equally fascinating and almost defy belief in their sheer antiquity and significance.
On our first visit, entering as we did the North Transept, we were not hit by the sheer majesty of the slender Gothic arches supporting the 43.5 metre (143ft) high nave. This being the best first impression - along with the sheer unbroken length of the Cathedral, I would recommend entering, on your first visit, via the main front entrance. If you do so, I can promise you a breathtaking view!
Initially your breath may be taken away by the stained glass, the sheer expanse of it can hardly escape your notice - standing anywhere within the cathedral you are quite literally surrounded in it. The superb clerestory windows, the first installed, date from around 1300, their radiance and clarity have defied the turmoil of the last seven centuries.
Thanks, in part, to the expanse of glass the general impression inside this ancient building is one of light, all the better to admire some of the "placed" treasures - as opposed to the built in ones.
First, as befits the oldest, is the renowned "Gero Crucifix", so named as it was commissioned by Archbishop Gero in the tenth century, yes we are looking at a 2 metre high wooden cross with the dead body of Jesus that was created over 1000 years ago.
Amongst the many archbishops' tombs here, Gero (969-976ad) can be found in one of the side chapels.
Far more up to date, 17th century, but of no less importance spiritually is the Jewellery Madonna. This had me puzzled until we later read about it. A statue of Mary and Child, clothed in white fabric, the dress and indeed whole shrine is richly embellished with precious stones, watches and crucifixes. It is customary in Cologne for believers to donate precious stones or gold to the "miracle-working" image when needing help in love, or attempting to conceive a child.
Very many other biblical and religious figures are represented here in Cologne Cathedral, all are of superb quality and remarkably well preserved.
BACK TO THE THREE KINGS......
......the shrine of which, it is mighty difficult not to be impressed by. Whatever your opinion of the relics that are encased here, and it appears that their provenance is sound, this has to rate as one of the most important historic artefacts of all time.
The Shrine of the Magi, as it is known, is located in a glass cabinet situated at the eastern end of the choir, behind the High Alter. Visitors to the cathedral are rewarded with an excellent view of it.
Having been brought by the Archbishop to Cologne in their original wooden casket, sponsored by their donor, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Europe's foremost goldsmith, Nicholas of Verdun was employed to build the shrine which you see today. Starting in 1190, it took he and his colleagues thirty years to create, encasing the original wooden casket within. The shrine has led an interesting a chequered life, but was fully restored to its current condition in 1973.
In a sense the shrine is three in one, two alongside on the bottom tier with one on top. The shrine measures 1.53 metres (5ft) tall, 1.1 metre (3ft 6in) wide and 2.2 metres (7ft 2in) long. It was created using a lavish composition of brass, gold and silver - predominantly gold, and is encrusted with 1000 precious stones and pearls and further decorated with over 300 ancient gems and cameos. On both tiers, scenes from the Old Testament and early Christianity are depicted. Without seeing the photographs its stunning beauty cannot fully be appreciated.
Incidentally at Epiphany, on 6th January - the Festival of the Magi - the front plate of the shrine is removed, displaying, behind a glass screen, the skulls of the Three Kings along with their three gold crowns. My wife is particularly keen that we should plan a return visit to Cologne to coincide with this festival!
THE LATEST ADDITION
In 1998, to celebrate the 750th year of the inauguration, a new, electronically controlled "swallows nest" organ was installed. The console is located at ground level whilst the pipes, all thirty tonnes of them, are hung on the wall of the central nave, no mean construction feat in its own right. The new organ is supplementary to, although only half the size of the original instrument, located in the North Transept.
IF YOU DON'T LIKE HEIGHTS LOOK AWAY NOW!
Whilst on a spiritual and artistic level, the shrine of the Magi is the undoubted highlight of any visit to Cologne Cathedral, in my book the experience of climbing the tower takes some beating. This is something of a hobby of ours, climbing towers, particularly in cathedrals, if you think the view from the top of St Paul's in London is good, then that from the top of St Peter's Cologne is in another league!
In order to make the 509 stair ascent of the South Tower to a viewing platform at the base of the spire, we handed over 2 Euro each at the kiosk and started climbing. This was at about 10.00am; by the time we came down, approximately an hour and a half later, there was a long queue to go up. I would advise going early in the day, when it is less busy.
There is no lift and the spiral staircase is narrow; you ascend and descend the same staircase, which is crowded with people. This is not an attraction for the less able bodied amongst us - indeed if you have any medical or respiratory complaint I would most strongly advise against attempting to make the tower climb.
Approximately half way up the tower you will enter the colossal bell chamber. Look in awe at the three bells here, two of them (as already discussed) from the fifteenth century, the larger one - St Peter's bell, known better locally as 'Decke Pitter', at 24 tonnes, is the worlds largest free swinging bell. In the bell chamber you will find a small souvenir kiosk selling post cards and guide books - an odd place to purchase them I thought!
Carrying on up the stairs to the highest level (95 metres / 311ft) we are now open to the elements which allows us to appreciate fully the intricate traceries of the stonework, not only in the spire which we climb into the base of, but also of the, almost, identical North Tower. The mystery of the night-time lighting is revealed as each spire has a light-house mounted in the base of it.
Arriving at the viewing platform we are surprised at how spacious an area this is, at this level you can fully appreciate the girth and height of the spires pointing skywards above you. It is hard knowing what to view first here - the outstanding river and cityscape or the equally fabulous architectural detailing on the Cathedral now some way below us. Once again from up here, it is impossible but be impressed by the sheer size of the building stretching out below.
A BUSY WORKING CATHEDRAL
If all that I have written here makes this sound like some kind of ancient museum then I have given a false impression of the place.
Cologne is one of the most "religious" cities in Northern Europe, many aspects of religious life, long since abandoned elsewhere are still strictly adhered to here - most notably Sunday non-trading. The inhabitants of Cologne also, maybe inspired by this great building, attend church in far greater numbers than elsewhere.
Central to this life is St Peter's Cathedral which is, as it always has been, a fully functioning Catholic church. If you are in Cologne and wish to attend mass at the Cathedral, full mass times are published on the excellent Cathedral website (http://www.koelner-dom.de/index.php?id=2&L=1) which is updated daily.
At all other times you are encouraged to use a side chapel for silent prayer and contemplation. This is the only place in the Cathedral where photography is prohibited.
Entrance to the Cathedral is FREE, donations are requested and placed in a box inside the West Front.
No Photographic Permit is required.
The Cathedral is open: 06.00 to 19.30. There is no viewing during services.
Guided Tours: (4 Euro, approx. £2.80) 10.30 and 14.30. Sundays: 14.30 only.
Tower Ascent: (2 Euro, approx. £1.40) 09.00 to 16.00 (November to February), 09.00 to 17.00 (May to September).
Treasury: (5 Euro, approx. £3.50) 10.00 to 18.00.
COLOGNE CATHEDRAL IN A NUTSHELL
My review has barely touched the surface of this most intriguing subject; given sufficient time and space it would be possible to wax lyrical for hours on the Cathedral and its stunning contents.
There is so much to see here that it is simply impossible to appreciate it all in one, or even two visits. If you are in Cologne, maybe even stopping off there for a day on one of the many Rhine cruises, I would recommend allowing at least half a day to visit the Cathedral, especially if you intend to climb the tower.
Never have we actually come across such a deserving candidate for World Heritage Site status.
Having spent a whole morning exploring the interior of the Cathedral, we returned to discover a whole lot more the following afternoon. Indeed were we to go back to Cologne next week, the cathedral would be the first place that we would visit.
Recommendation enough I think.