Visit: 17th January 2015 & 23rd August 2015
Cologne Cathedral is one of the most important Gothic church buildings in all of Europe, notable for its grandeur and its relics. It took a long time to build: 632 years to be exact, having been started in 1248 and finished in 1880. It survived repeated Allied aerial bombardments of the city in the Second World War, including the RAF’s first ‘thousand bomber raid’, making it the German counterpart of St Paul’s in London, which miraculously escaped the Blitz.
I travelled to Cologne for a one-night stay with Natalie and her friend Kirsty. We flew on Germanwings from Heathrow, which was convenient because they live so close to the airport. It was my first time on this airline, and I was pretty pleased with it. It is a subsidiary of Lufthansa, and the parent airline has recently outsourced all of its non-hub flying operations to Germanwings. This means that if you book a Lufthansa flight to any German airport other than Frankfurt or Munich you will be flying on a Germanwings aircraft. It is a low-cost carrier, meaning that on the cheapo fares there is no food and drink service, but that wasn’t a problem since it was such a short flight. Cologne/Bonn airport, as it is known, used to serve West Germany’s capital before the Iron Curtain came down, but since 1989 Bonn has faded in terms of significance. Cologne is a €2.80, 18 minute train ride away.
The cathedral is the second tallest church building in Europe (after the lesser-know Ulm Minster, also in Germany). It was in fact the tallest building in the world from 1880-1884 – the penultimate building in Europe to hold that title (soon after Ulm took Cologne’s mantle America embarked on the skyscraper age and religious buildings ceased to be contenders).
Inside, the cathedral contains the 10th century Crucifix of Bishop Gero, which unfortunately we missed. It is the oldest known large crucifix in the world. Another important artifact is the Shrine of the Three Kings, a basilica-shaped sarcophagus held to contain the remains of the Magi who visited the Christ child on Christmas Day.
The remains of the Wise Men are supposed to have lain in Constantinople until they were entrusted by Constantine to the Bishop of Milan in 314. Following his great expansion of the Holy Roman Empire, the relic was gifted to Cologne in 1164 by Barbarossa.
The facade of the cathedral is the largest of any church in the world, and intricately detailed. It is inscribed as a WHS because it is a testament to the ‘enduring strength of European Christianity”. This is demonstrated by the fact that over its six century gestation period, generations of builders stayed true to its original design. That a building inspired by religious belief can take so long to put up and yet end up just as its designers intended shows how consistent that religious belief was.
The 14th century stained glass windows relate scenes from the gospels. Though they are extensive and historic, there is a 21st century addition that caught our interest. Since being bombed out in the Second World War, the south transept windows had been filled with plain glass, but in 2007 a modernist replacement was installed, designed to resemble pixels.
After seeing the cathedral we went to take in some of the other experiences Cologne has to offer. It is a compact cite centre, and only a five minute walk away is the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne’s flagship fine art gallery. We went there expecting to see a small museum that I knew had a Rembrandt and a Dürer, but not much else. To our surprise it spans four floors, respectively dedicated to medieval art, the Baroque, 19th Century art and an exhibition floor. The medieval floor was filled with early paintings, mostly by unknown masters. We were given a bit of a fright by one painting which had 3D wooden heads jutting out from it! The Baroque floor features a Rembrandt self-portrait, which was particularly relevant for Natalie and me, as we had only the day before been to the late-Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The 19th century floor was the one that surprised most positively. I haven’t yet got onto Impressionism in my recreational study of the history of art, but I was nonetheless very impressed by the range of names they had on display. Purely in terms of aesthetics, my favourites included two pretty abstract pieces by Monet, some Pointillist works by Signac and the single painting by Edvard Munch, Four Girls on the Bridge, which to my untrained eye contains clear similarities to his famous Scream.
The evening and following day we spent in bars, drinking the local brew, Kölsch, and eating German cuisine (pork, potatoes and saurkraut in various combinations). German bar snacks, it seems, leave something to be desired – or perhaps I just need to be a little more adventurous with what I eat – but raw minced pork and onion on a bread roll is not going to be displacing crisps in my mind any time soon.
In August later that year Natalie and I returned (without Kirsty, sadly) on our way between Zollverein and Brühl. This time I made sure to see the one item in the Cathedral that I missed last time: the Crucifix of Archbishop Gero.
It is the oldest large sculpture of Christ on the Cross in northern Europe, and has been in Cologne Cathedral – without ever leaving – for over a thousand years.