The Cologne Cathedral – More than 600 Years of Construction

The Cologne Cathedral (at c. 1900)

The Cologne Cathedral (at c. 1900)

On August 14, 1880, after more than 600 years the construction of the Cologne Cathedral, the most famous landmark in Cologne, Germany, was completed. The World Heritage Site is Germany‘s most visited landmark, attracting an average of 20,000 people a day. The cathedral is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and has the second-tallest spires and largest facade of any church in the world.

The Relics of the Three Kings

The Cathedral as we know it today was to be constructed in 1248, but it wasn’t the first building on that specific spot. Beginning in the 4th century the site was used by Christian buildings and the latest building, the Old Cathedral or Hildebold Cathedral, was consecrated on 27 September 873. The Old Cathedral was to be gradually demolished in 1248 in order to begin construction of the new Gothic cathedral. Only the eastern choir was to be demolished by fire, but almost the entire cathedral burned down. Its western parts were provisionally restored so that fairs could be celebrated there. In the same year the construction of today’s Cologne Cathedral began. On 23 July 1164, the Archbishop and Chancellor of the Reich Rainald of Dassel of Cologne brought bones from Milan to Cologne, which were regarded and venerated as relics of the Three Kings at the latest since their transfer to Cologne. Whether this was already the case in Milan is disputed in research due to the fact that the Milanese only verifiably complained about the lack of relics after the establishment of the Cologne Epiphany Pilgrimage. The relics were given to him by Emperor Friedrich I from his spoils of war. They led many pilgrims to the old cathedral, so that it became too small.

Laying the Foundation Stone

Archbishop Konrad von Hochstaden laid the foundation stone on August 15 1248. The first part, the eastern arm was finished in 1322 and a few years later, work on the western part started. When the south tower was complete about up to the belfry level, the main construction work halted for nearly 400 years. Towards the end of the 15th century the building intensity steadily decreased. The last known cathedral architect was Johann Kuene van Franckenberg from 1469, who was last mentioned in 1491. Around 1500 the foundation stone of the North Tower was laid. Work on the cathedral has been discontinued successively since 1510. Recent research assumes that construction will be largely halted as early as after 1530, even though money was still flowing in for equipment and repairs.

French Occupation

From 1794 onwards, it was severely damaged by the French occupation of Cologne. In November 1796, the French occupying forces ordered the cessation of services in the cathedral. The cathedral was used by the Napoleonic troops as a stable and warehouse.For more than 300 years, the unfinished Cologne Cathedral dominated the silhouette of the city. Until 1868 the cathedral crane, a wooden slewing crane more than 25 metres high from the 14th century, was installed on the unfinished southern tower of Cologne Cathedral. From that time also originates the local saying that the world would come to an end once the cathedral was ever finished.

Rediscovery and National Movement

In the course of the 19th century, architects as well as artists re-discovered their interest in designs and constructions of the middle ages. In addition, around 1800 the medieval Romantics drew public attention to the unfinished cathedral, which also became a symbol of German unity in the growing national movement. However, this has also been criticised by many: The Catholics feared a loss of sacred versus national importance of the cathedral. The Protestants took the view that its completion was a waste of money, since Catholics were not enthusiastic about the whole German cause. When the construction plans for the cathedral were discovered, it was decided to complete the building. This was a huge project, costing about 1 billion USD which was achieved by private funds and governmental support. Luckily, the old plans were well preserved and could be mainly completed.

The unfinished cathedral around 1824, after Max Hasak: Cologne Cathedral, 1911

The unfinished cathedral around 1824, after Max Hasak: Cologne Cathedral, 1911

Finally Completed

The Cathedral’s completion was celebrated on August 14, 1880. Unfortunately the church faced several damages during World War II and had to be repaired. Luckily the completion of the building in the 19th century took place with the old design plans but were realized with newer and more stable techniques that were established in between the years.

Amiens for a Template

The cathedral’s architecture was originally based on the Amiens Cathedral and was realized with an extra aisle on each side, forming a cross, which was usual for Gothic buildings. The interior is characterized by its many treasures, like the High Altar which has been installed in 1322 and is made of black marble. The Shrine of Three Kings is presumably the most famous installation and was created by Nicholas of Verdun. The nave of Cologne Cathedral, with a length of about 120 meters, was built in the course of seven centuries in five construction epochs. Nevertheless, it has a strictly uniform, High Gothic form, the original plan of which apparently appeared so complete that all later master builders liked to stick to it. The entire architecture of the Cologne Cathedral is designed to accommodate the largest possible windows. It has therefore been described as an “exceedingly harmonious glass house”. The windows cover an area of about 10,000 m², which is approximately the footprint of the building. Of all the great cathedrals, Cologne has the largest window area in proportion to the length of the church. About 1,500 m² of the window area is preserved from the Middle Ages.

A Bet with the Devil – The Cathedral Legend

Several legends about the construction of the cathedral arose in the Middle Ages, which imaginatively connected the daring of the construction project, the accidental death of the first Cologne cathedral builder Gerhard and the long construction period with the non-completion of the cathedral. They were first printed in the collection of German legends by the Brothers Grimm.[6] In the version by Ludwig Bechstein, the builder let himself be persuaded by the devil to make a bet that he could build a water pipe from Trier to Cologne before the cathedral was finished. When Gerhard had to discover that he had lost the bet, he threw himself from the scaffolding; the construction plans were burned. In the 19th century, the remains of a Roman water pipe and a basin were found under the southern transept of the cathedral. This discovery could be the true core of the legend.

Travis Lee Clark, Lecture 15 Gothic Part 1 [5]

References and Further Reading:

One comment

  • Delightful article, although “600 years” seems like a bit of a misnomer, given the four-century hiatus. 200 years is impressive enough! Imagine being the archbishop who laid the cornerstone, knowing that the building would not be completed in his lifetime. It’s a testament to faith.


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