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Cologne Cathedral

A Most Popular Pilgrimage Destination

The largest Gothic church in Northern Europe, Cologne Cathedral features twin towers that stand 157 m tall. Construction started in 1248, and in 1322 the choir was consecrated. Works came to a halt around 1520 because of a lack of funds, and then stalled for three centuries, with a large wooden crane left standing at the belfry level of the south tower. Between 1842 & 1880, the cathedral was completed according to its original plan, thanks to the Gothic Revival of the 19th century. At the time of its completion, it was believed to be the world’s tallest building, a distinction it held until 1890, when the Ulm Minster was finished. Allied air raids caused serious damage to the cathedral in 1944, but its medieval windows survived the war because they had been removed beforehand. By 1956 the church was restored and in regular use again. A wildly popular pilgrimage destination since the Middle Ages, the cathedral receives some six million visitors a year.

Cologne Cathedral
Gerhard Richter’s stained-glass window in the south transept

The most celebrated work of art in the cathedral is the Shrine of the Magi, a masterpiece of medieval goldwork, begun in 1182 by the famous goldsmith Nicholas of Verdun, and completed around 1220. Other notable objects are the large Gero Crucifix (c. 970) and the Milan Madonna (c. 1290). The cathedral houses a number of splendid altarpieces; the most significant is a triptych depicting Cologne’s patron saints (c. 1445) by Stefan Lochner, one of the outstanding painters of the Cologne school. Of the neo-Gothic additions I like the 1,350 m² mosaic floor (1887) in the choir best, designed by August von Essenwein & executed in ceramic tiles made by Villeroy & Boch. The latest embellishment is a modern window (2007) by Gerhard Richter, consisting of 11,263 square glass panels in 72 colours, too abstract for the city’s archbishop at the time, who felt that it insufficiently reflected the Catholic faith. But when you believe in l’art pour l’art, it’s really good.

Reader comments


It was the Reformation of 1517 & beyond that sent the building works into the doldrums. For centuries, the relics of the Magi had drawn large numbers of pilgrims to Cologne, but thanks to Martin Luther & his fellow heretics, relics were no longer venerated, and the revenue from the sale of indulgences plunged. In 1560 the cathedral chapter decided to leave the church unfinished, also because the Gothic style no longer met the taste of the time.


Cologne Cathedral was badly damaged indeed in 1944, but in the end it stood intact amidst the destruction caused by the Allied air raids. The cathedral was never bombed, at least not deliberately, because its twin spires provided the RAF pilots with an easy navigational aid.


In 2020, three stained-glass windows by Gerhard Richter were inaugurated at Tholey Abbey. Richter was 88 years old at the time, and he declared them to be his last major work. Characterized as ‘a professed atheist with a strong leaning toward Catholicism’, Richter said in an interview that his work doth not magnify the Lord, but that the windows are meant to comfort the beholder. (The abbey’s monks conceive this as a deeply Christian notion.)