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Cologne Cathedral: Empire of Light


I've been to a lot of cathedrals, and every one of them was impressive in some way, for its age, its history, its art, its size. And so, too, is Cologne Cathedral, or to be more formal and German, the Hohe Domkirche Sankt Petrus, or Cathedral Church of Saint Peter.


I'll even list some of its 'mosts' further down, and stick to only one here: It is Germany's most-visited landmark, with over 20,000 visitors a day. And I think, subject to the world telling me I'm wrong, that what brings many of them there is not its size or its history but the way light plays in it, inside and out.


I was there earlier this year on a sadly short visit, and I fell a little in love. My mental image going in was of a place that was vertical, huge, and at a glance, mostly black.


But even a quick glance, and probably some 20th-century housecleaning, shows how light much of the exterior is, and how much of the darkness comes not from dark stone but from shadowed recesses. Compare the view up the tower above with the next images to see what I mean.


And that's just the exterior. The next bright light came from a greeter at the door, who flashed everyone a bright smile, and didn't make it too obvious that she was wearing a collection box inscribed, in German, 'For the Cathedral.'

P1030718Inside, light again seemed the dominant characteristic, in two forms: colored light passing through an incredible array of gorgeous stained glass, and white light filling spaces created by the building's monotone columns and screens.


While those are some of the most apparent light plays, they're certainly not all: Gold plays a role as well, both in installations like this altar screen, and in objects displayed in the sanctuary.


A modern organ adds a warm tone to the cooler stone.


The floor is a fooler: My first impression was that the mosaics lying underfoot were medieval in origin, but no. They date to the last stages of the Cathedral's construction and were finished in 1899. Construction of the church started in 1248. Almost 75 years later, enough of the choir was complete that it could be sealed off and used during construction.


But in 1473, with the south tower complete up to belfry level, work stopped, and for the next 400 years, the real landmark of Cologne was the construction crane sitting atop the tower. In the 1840s, the long-lost original plans were found, and 19th-century romantic enthusiasm for the Middle Ages led to a new start of construction, but using modern methods, including iron girders. The official completion was celebrated in 1880, with the Emperor in attendance.


So this may be the place for some of the mosts and bests. For a start, when it was completed, the cathedral was briefly the world's tallest building, until the Washington Monument passed it four years later. It is still the tallest twin-towered church in the world.


You can slice tallest a lot of ways, apparently. Cologne's cathedral still comes in second among churches in Europe (after the one-spired cathedral in Ulm), and is the third tallest church in the world. (In case you're wondering, number 2 is a 1989 church in the Ivory Coast).


Even Ulm's title is only temporary; when the last pieces fall in place for Barcelona's Sagrada Familia (whenever that will be) it will take the crown. For anyone who cares to chase it further, there is, of course, a Wikipedia page devoted to a List of Tallest Church Buildings.


Two titles Cologne is not likely to lose: with all the width and height of the two towers, it has by far the largest facade of any church anywhere, and among medieval buildings, its choir has the largest height-to-width ratio, 3.6:1.


But with all that size and glory, inside or out, sometimes a cathedral is only a place to sit and reflect, or mourn, or prepare for times ahead.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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