Cathedrals in Germany: Masterpieces Inside and Out

View of the Aachen Cathedral from Katschhof Square

Photos courtesy German National Tourist Office

Cathedrals, monasteries, walled fortresses and abbeys are a distinct part of Germany’s culture and landscape. Every town, city and countryside has a beautiful church or abbey, including many masterpieces.

Aachen’s cathedral, the Church of St. Mary, was founded as Charlemagne’s chapel and is where 30 kings were crowned. The immensely beautiful Romanesque cathedral of Speyer, only one hour south of Frankfurt, became the burial place for the Salian emperors, and its size is on par with the Cologne Cathedral. The Cologne Cathedral is Germany’s most visited tourism site and was at one time the biggest building in the world. Its high Gothic style is pronounced and the Dom is home to sacred relics and precious artwork. In Hildesheim, 45 minutes outside of Hannover, St. Mary’s Cathedral and St. Michael’s Church are outstanding examples of Romanesque architecture.

Sculpture inside Aachen Cathedral

The Church of St. Mary, originally built as the chapel of Charlemagne’s imperial palace in Aachen in 786 AD, was part of the emperor’s dream of creating a “new Rome.” With this building he laid the foundations of one of the most important architectural monuments in Europe. The cathedral’s appearance reflects more than 1,000 years of history. Charlemagne’s palatine chapel forms the core of the cathedral. The single-nave chancel was consecrated on the 600th anniversary of his death and the bold architecture of the “glass house” is as impressive today as it was then.

During the 600 years from 936 to 1531, 30 German kings were crowned in Aachen Cathedral. Today, the cathedral has lost nothing of the splendor of centuries past. The first ensemble of historical and architectural importance in Germany to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1978, this is a building of outstanding significance.

Speyer Cathedral
Speyer’s St. Mary Cathedral at dusk

The magnificent Romanesque imperial cathedral in Speyer is the town’s best-known and most prominent landmark. Built by emperors, the cathedral was a symbol of their power and served as their final resting place. Construction began around 1030 under the Salian Emperor Conrad II and the church was consecrated in 1061. Speyer’s imperial cathedral, laid out in the form of a Latin cross, is one of Germany’s largest and most important Romanesque buildings. The Salian emperors chose it to be their burial site.

Its huge triple-naved vaulted basilica is the central element of a design that greatly influenced Romanesque architecture in the 11th and 12th centuries. The hallmarks of the cathedral are the balanced distribution of its dimensions to the east and the west and the symmetrical layout of the structure, consisting of a nave and transept with four towers on the corners.

Cologne Cathedral
Night view across the Rhine to its western bank with Cologne Cathedral, Hohenzollern Bridge and Great St. Martin’s Church to the left.

Building first began in 1248 on what eventually became one of the finest ecclesiastical edifices in the world, and the epitome of high-Gothic cathedral architecture in its purest possible form. The scale of Cologne Cathedral is evident from its two mighty towers. Completed in 1880, they dominate both the city and the surrounding region. At the time of its completion in the 19th century, the cathedral was the biggest building in the world.

The design of the west side was truly groundbreaking. It has the largest exterior surface of any church in the world, said to be around 23,000 square feet, and is flanked by two huge towers, each rising to a height of 515 feet. The cathedral houses a wealth of important art treasures, including colorful stained glass windows that bathe the church interior in a mysterious light; the Ottonian Gero Cross (around 980 AD), the oldest large-scale sculpture in the western world; the shrine housing the relics of the Three Kings (1190-1225), an outstanding example of Rhenish goldwork; the altar of the patron saints of Cologne by Stefan Lochner (around 1450), a masterpiece of the Cologne school.

Cologne Cathedral by the Rhine
Cologne Cathedral detail

Hildesheim Cathedral
Hildesheim Cathedral exterior

Hildesheim Cathedral interior

St. Mary’s Cathedral and St. Michael’s Church are outstanding examples of early-Romanesque architecture. Both World Heritage churches exemplify the skill of Bishop Bernward (993 to 1022) and contain exceptional artworks.

The main attraction in St. Michael’s Church is the painted 13th century wooden ceiling depicting the Tree of Jesse. Germany’s only flat church ceiling, it is a fascinating example of monumental Romanesque painting. The spectacular cathedral treasure, Column of Christ and Bernward doors are characteristic of the Bernwardian period. The cathedral is being renovated for the anniversary of the diocese in 2015 and is closed until August 2014. Many of its treasures, including the huge bronze castings, can instead be seen at different places around Hildesheim until 2014.

The Column of Christ featuring scenes from the Old and New Testaments is on loan to St. Michael’s Church. The pair of two 16-ft. Bernward doors were cast in one piece—an achievement never mastered before—and are currently displayed at the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim.

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