The Magnificent Cologne Cathedral

Cologne, the lovable metropolis on the Rhine, covering an area of ‎405.15 km² (156.43 sq mi), was founded 37 b. c. and was named Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium after the spouse of the emperor Claudius.  In the 4th century AD, it was known as Colonia Agrippina, which was shortened to Colonia sometime after the 5th Century.

The first historical records of Cologne, date from a period when ancient history was a thing of the past, and the convulsions of the middle ages were regenerating the world. Emperor Constantine built a bridge over the Rhine, a. d. 310, and his mother Saint Helena founded the church of St. Gereon.

Thousands of martyrs; St. Gereon with his followers; St. Ursula with her Company of heroic virgins have watered the soil of Cologne with their blood. In the year 355 Cologne was taken by the Franks and almost entirely devastated. For a short time, the city again fell into the hands of the Romans; but in 462 the Franks regained possession of it, and their kings, Chlodwig, Dagobert, and Pippin resided in Cologne, while the consort of King Pippin founded the church of “St. Maria im Capitol.” Charlemagne also had a palace in Cologne. The town had already been in existence for nine centuries and had played an important part in history when in the year 949, it was incorporated with the Germanic Empire.

The Cathedral of Cologne, the most significant monument of the German nation and of its fortunes, is erected on the northeast corner of the Colonia Agrippina. The foundations of the north side, rest upon the fortifications of the ancient Roman town. The site upon which this sacred temple stand is an artificial hill, raised by the ruins of buildings, dating from the Roman and Frankish periods.  On this same spot, stood the capitol, the Forum and the Temple of Mercury. The beautiful Agrippina, the mother of Nero, the bloodthirsty persecutor of the first Christians, was born in Cologne and once walked its streets and the rulers Vitellius and Trajan were most likely proclaimed emperors on this same spot.

It is probably here that the column of smoke from Roman sacrificial altars ascended toward the sky.  Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, and his mother St. Helena came to this place; before the invading hordes of the Teutonic nations, the Roman legions were compelled to retire and the empire of Rome crumbled into dust. The waves of the Migration of Nations swept over this spot, burying in their depths the remains of ancient civilization and on their ruins rose the Episcopal Church of Cologne. The government of the Franks began, and their empire was united under the powerful dynasty of Pippin which put an end to the Merovingian period, so famous for its bloodshed and rapine.

The Cathedral of Cologne, although not actually the present building, has witnessed the foundation and development of the German empire, from its commencement to its highest power and extent, under the emperors of the house of Hohenstaufen. But the present building, which was founded at the time of the greatest prosperity of the empire, also saw its fall initiated by the continued conflicts between the emperors and the Papal throne, as well as by the dissensions amongst its princes and people; the fall being brought to a consummation by the loss of unity in faith.

Abandoned by its architects and their workmen, the Cathedral looked down upon the misery and the helplessness of the German nation.  It was only after centuries of humiliation that people rose in new might under the leadership of the house of Hohenzollern and established its unity once more and with it completed the erection of the Cathedral of Cologne, which had so long been allowed to remain a mass of unfinished fragments.

The foundations of the Episcopal jurisdiction belong to a very ancient period.  The first building was probably the Mathias and Victors Kapelle, which formerly stood near the Cathedral. In the sixth century, there was a church dedicated to St. Peter, which is the first historically authenticated Cathedral, and which had already existed in the time of Charlemagne and archbishop Hildebold.

In subsequent centuries the Cathedral was much altered and enlarged, so that, at the commencement of the 13th Century, it was a magnificent construction, having two choirs, two crypts, and four towers with 24 windows on both sides in the nave. Still, it has no longer sufficed for the progressive requirements of the age and for the increasing importance of the town.  Owing to the fact of the relics of the Magi having been brought from Milan to Cologne at the time of the emperor Frederick I and Archbishop Reinald von Dassel, (1164) this temple, to which pilgrims from all parts of Europe flocked, required to be endowed with more magnificent splendour.  Hence, archbishop Engelbert I, conceived the idea of building a new cathedral, which should surpass all others in magnificence and should be worthy of the great city of Cologne; but he was not permitted to carry out his design, as in 1225 he was foully murdered near Gevelsberg in the vicinity of Schwelm.

During March 1248, under the archbishop Conrad von Hochstaden (1238—1261), the decision was made to build a new cathedral — the old one having, in that year fallen prey to the flames — and the foundation stone of the present building was laid on the 15th August 1248.

Tradition mentions the Dominican friar Albertus Magnus as the inventor of the plan. The latest researches, however, leave no doubt that a specific architect, called Gerhard was the first Superintendent of the building,  the choir and probably also the inventor of the design. The choir commenced by him, was carried on by his successor Arnold (1295 —1301) and completed by the son of the latter, named Johann (1330) being eventually, in 1320 consecrated by archbishop Heinrich von Virneburg.  The architects who subsequently carried on the work, in chronological succession; Rutger (1330—1333), Michael (?- 1368), Andreas von Everdingen (?- 1412), Nicolas von Büren (?-1445), Conrad Cugn (?-1469) and Johann von Frankenberg (1469 —?.)

The first Intention seems to have been merely to add a choir to the existing building, to make the nave correspond with it and to pull down the older portions which had been left standing.  In the year 1347, the erection of the walls of the nave and of the Southern tower was commenced.  The troubles of the empire and the constant feuds between the archbishops and the townsmen were however by no means conducive to speedy progress.

In the year 1437, the South tower was so far advanced that the bells could be hung; it had therefore reached the same height as it possessed in 1868, when the old crane, which had during the 15th Century, been erected on a platform, for the purpose of raising building materials, was finally removed.

During the 16th Century the northern aisle of the nave was completed and in 1508 the stained glass windows, which still exist, were put in. The building proceeded with sluggish steps, funds for the design flowed in more and more sparsely and, in the year 1560, the work came to a complete stand-still.  At the end of the 18th and commencement of the 19th centuries the period of revolutions and wars brought with it still greater misfortunes for the Cathedral.  It wasn’t until 4th September 1842 that the foundation stone for continuing the completion of the Cathedral was solemnly consecrated by the coadjutor archbishop John of Geissel.

After the building had proceeded for six years, the centre aisle could, in the year 1848, be furnished with a temporary roof and the side aisles could be arched in. The South aisle was in the meantime provided, by the kindness of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, with beautiful stained glass windows.

From that time forward, the progress made with the building was surprisingly rapid.  At the end of 1849, the entire south facade with its delicate tracery, ornamental finials, and numerous pinnacles, was finished and the work on the north front was very progressive. On the 14th of May 1850, the first stone for the continuation of the north tower of the west front was laid.

The outside walls of the nave and transept were finished in 1854, and on 3rd October 1855, the gable point of the south facade could be surmounted. The roof, made of iron was completed by that time and put on, and the centre tower, also constructed of iron was erected, rising above the ridge of the roof.

In 1863 the north and south entrances, all the flying columns with their pinnacles, and the clerestory with its numerous gables were completed, whilst the north tower was carried up so far that the middle aisle could be permanently roofed in.  The inner partition wall, which had for centuries separated the nave from the choir, was removed in the autumn of 1863 and, on the 15th October of that year, the entire interior of the building was dedicated, to the purposes of divine worship.  The object that had been hoped and longed for centuries was now an accomplished fact, with the exception of the towers.

The entire attention could now be directed to the completion of the towers, and in 1868 the northern tower was brought up to a level with the Southern.

A steam engine, for the purpose of raising building materials and blocks of stone, was erected and, on 2nd October 1869 and the first block of stone was raised, by means of a steam-crane placed on the northern tower.  Year by year the two gigantic steeples visibly grew higher and at the same time, the laborious and difficult work of restoring the weather-beaten south tower and the decorative work of the interior and of the doorways was hurried forward.

At the end of 1871, all the tracery of the Windows and the arches over the four Windows of the third story of the tower, as well as the springings of the arches were completed. Moreover, 22 bronze cannons captured
from the French and weighing 25 tons were handed over to the Building Committee for the purpose of being cast into a large bell, which was accomplished in 1876.

In the year 1873, the progress made in erecting the towers was confined to the completion of the enriched frieze,
finishing the roof and laying the sockets of the octagon of the fourth story.  All these works on the octagon or fourth story of the tower, as well as the ornamental string-course to it, were completed in the years 1875 —1876.

The spires progressed rapidly, and in the spring of 1880, the finials were standing finished at the foot of the towers, awaiting their final placing in position.  On 12th February 1881, the removal of the scaffolding from the spires could be proceeded with.  The building and erection of these colossal Ornaments, the raising of the huge bells, and the construction of the steeples at a height never previously attempted, are of themselves engineering
feats that will permanently connect the name of the last architect, Richard Voigtel with the Cathedral.

Cologne Cathedral

During the months of July and August 1880, the separate blocks composing the finials were hoisted up by means of an iron wire rope and on the 14th of August, the last block was raised.  The Cathedral was finished, 632 years to a day after the laying of the first stone.  By the end of the year 1882, the scaffolding was taken down from the towers. The Cathedral, which so long stood, — an unfinished ruin —  is completed.


  1. Thanks for the interesting article. I went to Cologne about 5 years ago. The Cathedral is absolutely gorgeous.

  2. I might go again to Cologne in February. Never been to the Cathedral, which I really have to during my next trip, after reading your brilliant article!

    • Thank you so much Christina. You should definitely visit and make sure you go inside. It’s very impressive from the inside.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.