The history of Germany’s greatest Gothic cathedral is unusually long and complicated. The foundation stone of the present cathedral was laid on August 15, 1248, and the presbytery consecrated in 1322. The cathedral was built gradually until around 1520, but remained unfinished until the 19th century. The building was finally completed in 1842-80, according to the rediscovered, original Gothic designs. Once the world’s tallest building, Cologne Cathedral still boasts the world’s largest church facade.
THE CATHEDRAL BELLS
The 3.4-ton bell cast in 1418 in honor of the Three Kings was tuned to the note B. It hung in a belfry adjacent to the cathedral, but in 1437 it was moved to the south tower. Eleven years later, it was joined by Europe’s largest bell, the 10-ton Pretiosa (Precious One), tuned to G. When rung together, the bells produced a G-major chord. In 1449, the 4.3-ton Speciosa (Beautiful One) was added. It was tuned to A, so that Cologne Cathedral would be the first church to have its bells tuned to a melody rather than a chord. The first bell has since been replaced.
Around 30 years after the cathedral’s foundation stone was laid, the pillars of the choir were decorated with early-Gothic statues of Christ, the Virgin Many and the 12 Apostles. These larger-than-life figures are clad in splendid robes. Above them there is a choir of angels playing musical instruments, symbolizing the heavenly music played to celebrate the celestial coronation of the Virgin Mary. The coronation itself is depicted in the figures of Christ and Mary. A similar interpretation, dating from 1248, can be seen in the church of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. There, too, 12 of the pillars supporting the building symbolize the 12 Apostles as the most important pillars of the Christian church.
SHRINE OF THE THREE KINGS
The Shrine of the Three Kings, the largest reliquary in the Western world, is located near the high altar. Studded with precious and semiprecious stones, this lidded sarcophagus is a masterpiece of medieval gold smithery. Its sides are decorated with images of the prophets and Apostles, the adoration of the kings and the baptism of Christ. The rear features a portrait of Rainald von Dassel, archbishop of Cologne (1159-67). As chancellor to Emperor Barbarossa (r. 1152- 90), the archbishop is said to have brought the mortal remains of the Three Kings from Milan to Cologne in 1164. On January 6 every year, the front of the shrine is opened to reveal the golden-crowned skulls of the kings.
The massive oak stalls, built in 1308-11, were the largest that had ever been made in Germany.
Shrine of the Three Kings
This huge Romanesque reliquary was made by Nikolaus von Verdun in 1181-1220 to hold the relics, acquired by the cathedral in the 12th century, put Cologne on the pilgrimage map.
This fine early-Gothic carving of the Milan Madonna and Child dates from around 1290. it is currently displayed in the Marienkapelle.
The Gothic altar stab, which dates back to the consecration of the presbytery, depicts the Coronation of the Virgin Mary, flanked by the 12 Apostles.
Elaborately decorated, spirelike structures top the supporting pillars.
These arches were used to transfer the thrust of the vaults onto the buttresses.
Housed in the cathedral’s 13th -century stone cellar vaults, the treasury contains a large collection of golden objects, including the Engelbert Reliquary (c. 1630).
Altar of the Magi
This splendid altar (c. 1445) is the work of Stephan Lochner and is dedicated to the Three Kings, Cologne’s patron saints.
Unprecedented structural height was achieved through the use of flying buttresses, which support th entire bulk of the cathedral.
The portal of St. Peter, the only one built in the second half of the 14th century, has five Gothic figures.
Several churches had come and gone on the site by the time the first cathedral was completed in 870. Today’s larger Gothic cathedral became necessary because of the number of pilgrims wanting to see the Shrine of the Three Kings.
1248: Work begins on a new cath to house the relics of the Three Kings.
1265: The outer walls of the choir and adjacent chapels are completed.
c. 1530: Work on the cathedral halts with the south tower 190 ft (58m) in height.
1794: French troops use the cathedral as a warehouse and stables during the French Revolutionary Wars.
1801: The cathedral is reconsecrated and the city’s citizens demand that it is completed.
1842-80: Building work recommences and the cathedral is finished according to the medieval plans.
1996: Cologne Cathedral becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site.