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Gothic architecture in Europe was very much influenced by French developments: structural logic, of course, as well as vertical direction. In Germany, there appears to have been some English influence as well, particularly with the single spire, so prevalent in England. Single towers, larger than anywhere, emerged in Germany (we shall see one in Ulm below, which apparently did not receive English influence – it was built prior to such designs in England). Additionally, English vaulting had developed into web-like creations, and that detailing was picked up by the Germans. In some instances (the Frauenkirche in Nuremberg, for example) a completely new design developed in Germany – that of the “hall” church, in which the side aisles rose as tall or nearly as tall as the central nave. But it was Germanic heights achieved – that reaching for the heavens – that surpassed all others.


Early history records the city as being named "oppidum Ubiorum," which means something like "fortified settlement of the Ubier," and was the site of an early instance of military benefits, in that Roman legionnaires serving Rome for 20 years were entitled to receive annuity. They had the choice between a monetary compensation or real estate in the area. This latter was preferred by many soldiers, and resulted in a rich upper class of former Roman legionnaires and their Ubian wives.

The famous Roman general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa upgraded the city, which had hardly been recognizable until then, to the major metropolis of Germania. Agrippa took control of the area known originally as Gallia, to which the Rhineland belonged at the time, in 38 B.C.E. He began building forts and postal services to establish the Romans in the Rhineland. The construction work, however, was of such magnitude that it could not be done by the Romans alone. The Romans cleverly joined forces with the local Teutonic tribe, the Ubier. These local folk were, of course, happy to be paid for their efforts, and a liaison was struck. The Ubier chose Cologne's new city area as the new capital of their tribe and lived peacefully with essentially their Roman conquerors.

According to the Romans, civilization arose with the construction of a Roman bathhouse, the foundations of which lie beneath Groß St. Martin, and can still be visited.

To place Agrippa in some context, it was his granddaughter, Agrippina the Younger (born in the city), who gave Cologne its name. She was married for the first time at the age of thirteen in Rome, and slept her way through the beds of various Romans, before her third marriage to her uncle Emperor Claudius at the age of thirty-four. If you watched the PBS series “I Claudius,” or read the companion book, you might remember the dramatization of her as a shrew, a competitor of the whores of Rome, and probable murderess of her hapless husband Claudius. As a demonstration of her power she leveraged Cologne to the status of a legal Roman colony. In 50 B.C.E. the "fortified settlement of the Ubier" was named "Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium," and served as the capital and trade center of the Roman province. To complete Agrippina the Younger’s bio, she was also the mother of the violinist Nero.

Beginning in 260 C.E., Cologne was almost constantly besieged by the Franks, causing the last Roman governor to leave in 425 C.E.

Another important woman, though of a quite different character, in Cologne's history, was St. Ursula. After a pilgrimage to Rome she returned to Cologne, accompanied by 11.000 virgins (according to the legend), and freed Cologne once and for all from the Huns. In commemoration a church dedicated to her was built, in which beautiful frescoes tell her story. That is the local story. In truth, she appears to have been murdered by the Huns, with the 11,000 virgins. The Confraternity of St. Ursula in Venice commissioned scenes of her life in 1488. Nine large canvasses resulted, and presently hang in the Accademia in Venice. Her name lives on in a Roman Catholic Order for women, devoted to educational work, and is the oldest teaching Order of women.

The withdrawal of the Romans had created a power vacuum, which was subsequently filled by the Catholic Church. In 800 AD Cologne was declared an Archbishopric (seat of an Archbishop) by Carl the Great, in which the power of the Church in the city was manifested.

So we find that there were three major components of Cologne's early history, two of which were a bit unusual. First, the multicultural mix of Romans and Ubiers; second, the female influence, and finally the Catholic Church.


Roman settlements and local folk mingled freely with each other. Christianity came to Cologne with the Roman soldiers and traders. When the Ripuarian Franks took possession of the country in the fifth century, it became the residence of their king. Ripuarian, incidentally, may have come from the Latin word “ripa,” meaning “river bank,” or in this case people who lived near Cologne on the banks of the Rhine, which flows through the city. In the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Cologne attained great prosperity. The basis of this prosperity was the commercial activity of the city, which placed it in relation not only with Northern Europe, but also with Hungary, Venice, and Genoa. The city's main source of income was its status as the "Rome of the North" and its unique "Stapelrecht." The "Stapelrecht" obliged all ships traveling the Rhine to store their merchandise in Cologne. Cologne's citizens then had the preemptive right on those goods. Sounds like a modern-day script from the “Sopranos.”

The local crafts also flourished: the spinners, weavers, and dyers, the woolen-drapers, goldsmiths, sword-cutlers, and armor-makers of Cologne were especially celebrated. The ecclesiastical importance of the city was equally great; no city north of the Alps was so rich in great churches, sanctuaries, relics, and religious communities (monasteries and schools). Cologne, as mentioned above, was known as the "German Rome," and because of this categorization was annually visited by pilgrims, especially after Rainald of Dassel, Archbishop of Cologne (1159-67), brought the remains of the Three Magi from Milan. Cologne thereby received another attraction for pilgrims, leading to the founding of the Cathedral in 1248.

Among the churches of Cologne, the foremost is the Cathedral, described by the Catholic Encyclopaedia as “the greatest monument of Gothic architecture in Germany.” Archbishop Conrad of Hostaden laid its cornerstone, August 14, 1248; the sanctuary was dedicated in 1322; the nave made ready for religious services in 1388; and the southern tower was built to a height of about 55 meters (180') in 1447. Due to a dwindling number of pilgrims and a general recession in the city, the construction of the cathedral was stopped in 1560 for the next 282 years.

In the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century Cologne remained true to Catholic doctrine, thanks chiefly to the activity of the university, where such men as Cochlaeus, Ortwin Gratianus, Jacob of Hoogstraeten, and others taught. Under their influence, the city council held fast to Catholic tradition and energetically opposed the new doctrines of the Reformation. Cologne remained a stronghold of the old beliefs, and gave active support to the Counter-Reformation, which found earnest champions in Johannes Gropper, the Jesuits, Saint Peter Canisius, and others.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were a time of decadence for the city. Its importance diminished especially after the Thirty Years War (1618-48), in which it was loyal to the emperor and the empire, and was never captured. The university eventually lost its prestige, because through over-caution it opposed the most justifiable reforms. Trade was diverted to other channels; only its ecclesiastical glory remained, which was governed by a narrow-minded class of tradesmen and often suffered from the dissensions between council and citizens (in 1679-86) and the bloody troubles caused by Nicholas Guelich.

The outbreak of the French Revolution eventually led to Napoleonic expansionism, and the French seized the city in 1794. The French encountered desolation in Cologne. The glamour the city had once possessed was gone. The Catholic Church owned two thirds of the land, the Roman sewerage system was gone, and most of the population lived in poverty. The French took “drastic” measures. The source for this vocabulary has eluded me, but it boggles the mind that there are those who consider it to have been “drastic” to allow the immigration of Protestants and Jews. The Catholic Church was expropriated, street lighting, sewage and waste disposal established and a hospital opened. During the occupation, however, the French stored hay inside the Cathedral, seemingly and solely as an act of degradation.

In 1815 France turned Cologne over to Prussia. Under Prussian rule the cathedral building was resumed, thanks above all to the efforts of Sulpice Boisseree, who caught the interest of the then Crown Prince, afterwards King Frederick William IV, for the completion of the work. Restoration was begun in 1823; in 1842 the Cathedral Building Society was founded, and generous contributions from all parts of Germany resulted. The interior was completed October 15, 1863, and opened for services. On October 15, 1880, the German Emperor was invited to celebrate the completion of the entire Dom.

In the Second World War, seventy-two percent of the city was destroyed. Apparently because of its proximity to a major rail line and station, Allied bombs did fall on the Cathedral. See the illustration below. The bombs, eight to eleven in number, apparently pierced the roof, fell through, but failed to explode. As much destruction as did occur, a number of historical and religious structures were untouched by bombing – the Allies did consider such cultural and historical valuesFrankfurt Cathedral is a prime example of a single edifice remaining amid acres of rubble. A view of Frankfurt’s center in models on exhibit in a museum just off the Rohmer reveals similar preservation of major works of architecture: the Cathedral and another church stood, while the city surrounding them was in total ruin.

In 1975, after long and intensive reconstruction work of the entire city, Cologne counted one million inhabitants for the first time in its history.


Let us cut to the chase on this one. As stated many times above, in my opinion, the world of art and architectural historians revolves around Paris and Athens; all else is “sacrilegious,” “pagan,” and/or “outside the realm of sophisticated discussion.” A typical comment involves the Cathedral of Cologne: “adoption of style but not of spirit.” You have but to go to Cologne, and from wherever your first glimpse occurs, and regardless of your religious affiliation, or lack thereof, you will sense a soaring spirit of man’s will to escape the earth and seek the heavens, an awe-inspiring intense reaching for those heavens. Or, to repeat Kahn's interpretation of the expression "form evokes function": “If a student could walk past the chapel, not enter it or even stroll through the cloistered area, just walk past and wink at the building, and feel as though he or she had been involved in a religious experience, then the architect had succeeded in evoking the function of the chapel.“ Well, obviously, a person passing this building could receive quite a jolt. We report, you decide.

Our first glimpse of the Cathedral is of the twin towers peeking at us between trees along the riverbank. It is a rare sight to see two basically identical towers on a Late Gothic church.

Cruising on the Rhine itself, the towers appear once more.

Here we see the entire Cathedral, with the eastern end projecting towards us.

The rather jagged edges of the buildings to the south of the Cathedral (on the left) echo the rather indefinite shape of the church, and are rather empathetic in that regard. The building is the Romisch-Germanisches Museum, and the roof angles reflect the north-facing skylights. We shall enter the cultural area as soon as we disembark.

The cascading stairs will take us to the Cathedral, and past the Philharmonic Hall, as well as the museum complex. Hills, as well as any change in elevation, if developed properly, can create a sense of movement as well as direction and enclosure. This eastern end, according to Sir Bannister Fletcher, was seemingly inspired by the eastern half of Amiens in both plan and dimensions. A clear comparison can serve as a small research project.

The strong horizontal seen just under the towers is the roofline of the north and south transepts. The width at the transepts is 86 meters (282'), close to the length of an American football field: 91 meters (300').

Glancing back towards the Rhine, we see how beautifully and sensitively the planners have developed the area – from textured and colored groundwork, spacious landings in what is essentially a staircase, to the trees, which direct our vision and circulation to the river. Notice that the path to and from the Rhine is not direct, but ambles in a rather leisurely way. Remember our concept of “serial vision.”

We are purposely going to bypass the direct route to the Cathedral, and ply another route – this one through a crowded pedestrian zone. Merchants in the United States are quick to oppose the closing of center city streets, citing loss of business due to an inability on the part of shoppers to park immediately adjacent to their store; also cited is the loss of delivery at the front door. Well, in some parts of the world people actually walk a bit, and there are usually rear doors, as well as the ability to deliver at one hour while shoppers arrive at another. This street does not seem to be lacking in customers. Weirdly, complainers about parking (the ones who will hold an entire line of vehicles hostage while waiting for the closest spot), forget that once inside the gigantic “big box store,” they will probably walk at least a mile doing their shopping.

It is so pleasant to walk past flower shops, with their merchandise displayed out of doors. Notice, too, seating just across the way. I might have mentioned it previously, but in any event: I have not encountered a single German city or town or village which does not have a traffic-free pedestrian zone for shoppers.

Suddenly we come upon the south side of the Cathedral. The fifty-story towers are really too tall to fit in one photograph, so we will gradually ascend, visually. The roof ridge over the nave measures 61 meters (200') in height, equal in height to a twenty-story building. The interior vault height is 45.7 meters (150'), just about the height of Beauvais, the tallest Gothic nave in the world, which measures 48 meters (158').

Turning around, we see an image of the south transept portal reflected in a storefront, with the German name for “cathedral.” Both transepts (north and south) have entrances into the Dom.

More of the southwest tower. Do notice how verticals dominate.

The two spires at last, with a multitude of crockets, which almost cause the outline of those towers to be blurred, or to become indefinite.

We actually had to walk three blocks away to be able to sketch the towers in their entirety. The top of the spires reaches 157.3 meters (516'). The actual base of the spires, to which one can climb, is approximately 100.6 meters (330'). Next to the Cathedral of Ulm (see below) it is the highest one can climb in a European cathedral.

An open space in Germany is a “platz”, or “place” (spelled just that way in France). To repeat from previous discussion: we have the “praka” in Greece, a “piazza” in Italy, and a “plaza” in Spain. Here we are in Franken Platz, where an artist has taken up residency, just in front of the Dom. As the chief house of God in a region, the cathedral church was called the Domus Dei, and from this name the Germanic Dom (prefix for church) is derived, and also the Italian Duomo.

These are pastels, and the chalk is applied by hand, on the granite surface, as you can see. Unfortunately, there are now expeditious artists who work on paper, which they roll and unroll. It is not the same.

The three portals of the western façade. Though there are five aisles inside the church, this number of portals is rather typical. It is often mentioned that the number of entrances reflects the number of aisles within, but three portals is typical of large churches. The width of this façade is 61 meters (200'). The overall length of the cathedral is 142.64 meters (468'), providing approximately 8,454 square meters (91,000 sq.ft) of area. It is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. Compare these figures with the Cathedral of Seville, the largest Medieval cathedral, in area: 18,395 square meters (198,000 sq.ft.), and the second largest, the Cathedral of Milan: 13,984 square meters (125,856 sq.ft.). For whatever reason, Bannister Fletcher cites Cologne as being the largest northern Gothic church, although it can be argued that Milan is relatively in the north; perhaps Italy is considered a “southern” country and, perhaps, rightly so.

Approaching the central portal.

The central portal. The tympanum is composed of duplicated pointed arches containing figures and ornamentation. This tympanum represents, in depth, the actual thickness of the walls of the Cathedral.

The figures in Gothic churches usually represent biblical figures, saints, or local dignitaries involved in the construction or ecclesiastical management. The figures stand on pedestals and are surmounted by canopies, creating an illusion of their being carved out of the tympanum construction, furthering the concept of the integration of art with architecture.

A close-up of those figures.

The tympanum just above those canopies. Notice how every bit of wall surface is carved. As with stained glass, much of the artwork in these Gothic churches depicted biblical episodes graphically for a populace that was basically illiterate.

The pointed Gothic peak of the tympanum. While it has not been mentioned, do realize that the pointed arch, so necessary in construction, also serves to carry the eye upward, as opposed to the Romanesque semi-circular arch, which allows the eye to curve up, over, around and down.

Details in which each figure has a story to tell. This is where James Michener would excel. As an example, he analyzed each carving in every choir stall in the Cathedral of Toledo to determine its biblical connotation. Of course he was steeped in biblical knowledge. I would refer you to his book The Source, a fictionalized, but highly researched, account of the common origins of the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic faiths.

More details. It can be assumed that some pieces have fallen out or been destroyed over time and during war.

Peaks above the portals, all accentuating the feeling of verticality, taking the eye ever upward.

There is no rose window here, but the number of windows is exceptional, with one source reporting that there are 10,000 square meters (107,639 sq.ft.) of glass in this Dom. Despite outside criticism mentioned earlier, this Cathedral manifests a sense of lightness, of airiness, and presents a lithe nature to the observer. It is in motionupwards.

Looking straight up at the twin towers. Perhaps now you can understand why it was necessary to back off three city blocks to grasp their entirety.

We enter, and stand in awe as the nave vaults present themselves 45.72 meters (150') above us. Again, the beauty of Gothic development in such construction – and, indeed, its goal – is that the eye can flow uninterrupted from narthex to apse because of the pointed arches all reaching their pinnacles at the same height. The central line or crease is of uniform height, and here that height is second only to the incomplete Cathedral of Beauvais in France, as mentioned above.

Looking east to the altar and apse.

There is a gallery space and clerestory windows above. Note the ribs, which are all traceable as they rise from the piers and go straight up to the roof above, curve to the sides of the nave arcade, or enter to support the side aisle.

The span of vaulting in the nave is increased at the crossing, where the nave meets the transepts. The vaults are all quadripartite.

A carved inscription can be seen (with a little zooming) in the cementing of the stonework of a vault. It is from such meticulous efforts that so much of the history of German construction in this period is known. It would be interesting to research the subject of masonic symbols and inscriptions. I would assume the author Dan Brown has already pursued this course.

A look into the south side aisles (there are two side aisles on each side of the nave). Ribs flare off in a most organic manner. Think of a waiter or waitress holding a serving tray with fingers spread. Think, too, how the weight of the dishes on that tray is distributed, not to just the hand, but spread out through the fingers down into the arm (the arm being equivalent to the columns shown), thus diffusing weight more effectively.

Now a view from the nave through the side aisles to the south transept. Clerestory windows light this area most effectively.

Looking into the apse from the nave. Main vertical ribs rise unimpeded by any horizontalsthe true mark of developed Gothic architecture.

The stained glass windows of the apse, with a silhouetted crucifixion centered in front of the windows.

The focus of the south side aisle area is a triptych and the altar of the Magi. The work was created by Stephan Lochner about 1445, and is dedicated to the Three Kings, the patrons of Köln. The Shrine of the Three Kings is located on the main altar in the nave, and is said to hold the relics (actually the remains) of the Magi, as mentioned above.

A closer look at the Altar of the Magi.

One more view of the crossing vault (the extra large square construction). It is in this place that Renaissance domes came into being – the Cathedral of Florence being the first major dome construction in such a place.

The apse. Verticality is magnificently expressed and revealed.

Just below our last scene – in the floor of the apse – is a mosaic tile depiction of the floor plan of the Dom. Would that more buildings had such integrated artwork –it would make exploration as well as explanation so much easier. It should be obvious that the floor plan is in the shape of a crucifix. Exactly when this first happened, whether by design or by happenstance, is never discussed; it would, obviously, make an excellent research project.

Looking to the western side from the alter.

As in most, if not all, Gothic houses of worship, the play of light through the colors of the stained glass evoke a spiritual feeling transcending ordinary life.  Here a burst of sunlight does just that.

These stone spiral steps will take us up to about the 61 meter (200') level, as we ascend the south spire, located in the southwest corner of the Dom. We are looking down at the steps, but they do go up.

This multi-ton bell reminds us that the towers of all churches were built to contain bells, with which to summon worshippers to prayer and, undoubtedly, during the Middle Ages, to warn against impending attack.

The vaulting above the bell is actually a dome, constructed of ribs soaring to meet a compression ring, containing space, completing the enclosure. This is exactly the method used by Filippo Brunelleschi in his dome for the Cathedral of Florence, mentioned just above. Serious research would tell us if this particular model existed prior to Brunelleschi’s creation in 1425.

No more spiral stone stairs. Now we must ascend a steel staircase.

The open steel stair becomes an enclosed cage, one would assume for safety reasons.

It is difficult to know what did exist before, because all such structures, just about everywhere, have had access for maintenance purposes.

This is going to take us through the vault, in essence through the type of compression ring spoken of earlier.

This is the spot of passage through the ring.

The open stonework of the spire greets us. It took 509 steps to get to this level. By contrast, climbing to the limit of the western towers in Notre Dame, Paris took only 368 steps.

Looking straight up into the open stone spire of the south tower; a most unique view.

Stepping outside (there is a walkway) and looking at the spire, we see stone quatrefoil designs. We are about 100 meters (330') above the ground. Compare this, again, to Notre Dame, Paris, where the highest walkable point is a mere 69 meters (226') above the ground.

Now looking all the way to the top of this spire, the tip of which is 157.4 meters (516') high, or about 56.7meters (186') above where we are standing. That is like another eighteen stories above us! Just try to begin to imagine the architecture, engineering, scaffolding, and construction methods employed in its time.

The caged walkway will allow us to capture additional details of the Dom, as well as afford views of the city below.

Looking across at a small stone spire, part of the massing of verticals, which makes up the assemblage of the twin towers. Notice the crockets, which minimize the solidity to which they are attached.

Intricately carved stonework literally covers the entire building. Notice the crockets again, and the elimination of anything that could be described as a wall or solid surface, thus creating an ephemeral, airy, soft-surface building. We can state, as with Gothic beginnings in France, that this building also tends to lose its solidity, and becomes intangible, mystical, and spiritual.

Here we have a young student intently focusing on the city below. A good time to introduce my partner and colleague in this venture: my eldest son Gilon, who actually began his European odysseys at the age of five; here he is at thirteen.

I will attempt to thrash out some vocabulary. We are looking through some stone carving to the top of an adjacent spire. What we see in this view can be called a pinnacle, the very top of which can be described as a finial. The ornamentation of the finial seems to consist of a cross topped with a knob or ball with projecting spikes. Aside from integrating even more ornamentation into the structure, such finials further aid in the merging of the building with the surrounding sky.

Looking down we can see some of the pedestrian zones in the heart of the city.

Zooming in we see trees, sitting areas, shelters for sellers of merchandise, and attention to detail in the form of sidewalk patterns. These patterns, so typical in Europe, change material, color, and texture. It is the combination as well as the multiplication of these sense-related factors, which create interest and enjoyment; not just a simple change of material, or of color, or of just texture, but often all three combined.

Strong color is added for even additional stimulation, though things in Europe tend to be a bit more conservative, color-wise; this is unusual.

Looking towards the Rhine. St. Martin’s church (Kirche Groß St. Martin) rises above the Alter Markt (Old Market, sometimes called the Fish Market here). The church is Romanesque and dates from the 12th century. Apparently most, if not all, of the surrounding houses and shops were rebuilt after World War II, but to original designs, providing a medieval character to a rather rousing restaurant/bar/outdoor strolling/dining area. What makes the area so attractive? Comfort and pleasure for the senses. We are not talking hedonism here, but merely simple necessities and amenities of civilized life. One can have dinner, drinks, and other forms of entertainment just by walking from one spot to another, and all of that preceded or followed by a stroll along the Rhine. In addition, automobile traffic is very restricted, with some streets allowing only taxis and buses.

This is a view to the east, showing the proximity of the railroad tracks leading into the city, crossing the Rhine. Obviously in a position of extreme strategic importance during the War, it is remarkable that the Dom survived adjacent Allied bombing. As mentioned above, some bombs did fall into the church. It is said that between eight and eleven bombs hit the church, and locals say that none exploded. The survival, however, is an attestation to the care given by the Allies to preserve edifices such as the Dom. The few bombs that did fall strayed off their target, which was literally a few meters (or feet) away from the tracks, and this in the time before “precision bombing.”

Arriving at platz level, a look back and upwards reveals flying buttresses. These are graceful, light, open in their neutral axis (usually the center of beams and other horizontal or near-horizontal structural members. Louis Kahn pioneered the practice of treating exposed beams and penetrating pipes and ductwork in an aesthetic manner. Gothic architecture can be a prototype for those who will but see its value. Unfortunately, some see and copy. A tragic example is the Chicago Tribune Building. Its design team of J.M. Howells and Raymond Hood won a competition in 1922. That design featured a steel skyscraper covered with stone, and as Sir Banister Fletcher tersely describes it: “In the Gothic style….”. It laughingly has “flying buttresses” atop its construction in what Saturday Night Live would present as a parody of architecture. Here it is:

Interestingly, historians began to comment that the second place design by Eliel Saarinen (known in his own right, but also as the father of Eero) was far more descriptive of what contemporary construction and design should look like, at least in the 20th century. It had no flying buttresses because they are not necessary in modern day buildings. The steel supports itself, whereas stone, used centuries ago, often requires some form of buttressing, and the architects, masons, and master builders of the Gothic period seemed – by trial and error and/or instinct - to pinpoint specifically necessary spots of buttressing. Sadly, the building still stands at a critical turn in the Chicago River, there for the world to see, and for nautical tour guides to describe. Though it had fallen out of favor for any semblance of intellectual honesty, Post-Modernists took it to their perverted bosoms for reasons not fathomable here.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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