Buildings as Dynamic Landscape: The Cologne Cathedral

On the 15th of October in 1880, William Gruenwald, an 11 year old boy from Koln (Cologne) Germany, gathered with nearly everyone else in the city and surrounding countryside to celebrate the completion of the Cologne Cathedral 632 years after the foundation stone was laid in 1248.   At the time it was the tallest human built structure in the world at 157 meters and the pride of a newly united German state.  It is hard to imagine what must have been going through the mind of the young boy looking up at this site to see the completion of a project that had spanned countless generations of his ancestors in that city, and taken on renewed energy in his short lifetime ever since Frederich William IV started the final push to completion less than 40 years earlier as a sign of German unity and ingenuity.  Certainly a pride in his city and his country, a sense of identity that he carried from this changing landscape all the way to the new world of America where he emigrated with his wife 20 years after that celebration and started a family.  Three generations later his great grandson returned with pride to stand before these great towers and marvel at the beauty and determination that made such a great work possible.  There I stood in wonder and awe, much the way my great grandfather would have so many years ago.

IMG_4070We traveled by train under the English Channel to Cologne to visit the cathedral and the home of some of my ancestors (we also traveled to Ireland to visit the landscape of other ancestors later).  If you haven’t seen a picture of the Cologne Cathedral, it is difficult to imagine why someone would want to travel so far just to see a church, but this is not just any ordinary church.  The Cathedral in Cologne is one of the biggest Gothic cathedrals in the world and an incredible story of how a building can grow and change as a landscape feature, perhaps even as a landscape itself.  The inside of the cathedral is a wonder to behold with a nave that stretches on for over the length of a football field and is several stories high.  It is a classic Gothic style cathedral to rival the great cathedrals of France when it was started in 1248.  Although it took over 600 years to complete, there is a uniformity to the space because the original designs created in the 13thC were used even as it was completed in the 19thC.


The view looking back to the entrance of the church from the high altar gives an interesting perspective on the layers of this landscape as they have been added and changed over so long a period of time.  For example, in the image below, the color of the walls changes distinctly (right above the statues on the pillars) from those that were completed in the 16thC and those completed 300 years later.


The part of the cathedral near the front of the church was largely complete by the end of the 15th century and the approach from the river Rhine, on whose banks she sits, would have looked largely as it does today. (Without light poles and CCTV signs, of course).  The spires of Gothic cathedrals are meant to draw your thoughts and gaze upward to the heavens.


The twin entrance towers can be seen from almost anywhere in the city including the riverbanks where this shot is taken.


The Rhine river provides transportation and facilitates trade for a significant part of Western Europe from the Alps to Amsterdam.  Kingdoms rise and fall, wars are won and lost on these very shores in the shadow of the cathedral.


At night the towers are lit up with flood lights that give the appearance of a heavenly city that shines as a light to the world.


Such an image is appropriate for this Cathedral since it was built to house the relics (mortal remains) of the three wise men (kings) who followed the star to Bethlehem to bear witness to all of the world that the Messiah was born.  The feast that celebrates this story in the Catholic faith is called the feast of the Epiphany whose name speaks of giving enlightenment to the whole world.  The remains of the Wise Men or Three Kings as they came to be referred to in Medieval times were brought to this site in 1164 after they had been taken from the city of Milan as spoils of a germanic conquest of that city.  They were soon housed in an elaborate golden ark that was placed behind the high altar of the new church.



The building was literally designed around these relics since a visitation to them quickly became an important part of the network of pilgrimage sites in Medieval Europe.  This was also an important pilgrimage sites for Kings who wished to borrow some legitimacy from the three Kings who met Jesus.  It became an absolute necessity for the Germanic kings to visit this site after their coronation in Aachen Cathedral to west.  The doors of the cathedral were open to these visitors who came to seek the protection of the Magi while always under the watchful gaze of St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers.


They would come to the unfinished cathedral to be close to the Magi (Three Wise men), but also to worship at other important artifacts in the cathedral such as the Gero Crucifix from the 10th century that existed in the prior cathedrals built before this one on the same spot.


The Cologne Cathedral is an excellent case study in the dynamic landscapes that buildings themselves are.  They shape the identity of all those who live around them, visit them, or participate in their construction and destruction.  This building was the worship place of Albert the Great, the Dominican who is largely responsible for bringing the works of Aristotle back into the Western world after he translated them from Arabic where they had been preserved until the Crusades.  Although started and functional from the 13thC, it was largely abandoned as a building project in the 16thC.  A drawing of the Cathedral from 1821 shows the unfinished south tower complete with medieval crane on top which had come to symbolize the city.  The center part of the Cathedral remained covered, but unfinished and only the foundation for the North tower had been laid.

19C Koln Cathedral - turned

Then in 1842 after having liberated Cologne and the surrounding Rhine Valley from the forces of Napoleon, the Germans set out on a conscious effort to build nationalism and loyalty to the idea of a united German state.  The Cathedral represented a great project that would bring all Germans together in a common building effort to complete the Cathedral and thus show the world what can be done when the Germans put their mind to it.  What an impressive change in a few short years as this same angle view appears below today.


The Prussian leaders used this building as a symbolic testimony to German craftsmanship and resolve.  They kept a medieval gothic style to the architecture and artwork to show their legitimacy and continuity with the past. Mosaic tiles were laid into the floor at the base of the high altar in the oldest part of the Cathedral to show that tie from earthly power in Germany to heavenly power.  In the first image, the Kaiser sits surrounded by images of the seven humanities and sanctified by the four great rivers of Europe.  He is the embodiment of the earthly power while right above him in front of the high altar is a parallel image of the pope surrounded by the seven cardinal virtues and sanctified by the four great rivers of heaven.  The parallels are unmistakable and the message is clear, the doctrine of two swords (a medieval concept that supported the Divine Right of Kings) was replayed in the later half of the 19thC for the legitimacy of the new German state (founded only 10 years before the Cathedral was complete).



This was a clear effort to borrow from the legitimacy of the Church to bolster support for the new German state.  The parallels to the glory and legitimacy of the Roman church don’t stop at the tilework before the altar.  Even as you enter the Cathedral your eyes are drawn to the Germanic version of the Pieta located in the same place (to the right of the entryway) as Michelangelo’s Pieta is in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.


The doors of the Cathedral also reveal imagery of the keys of St. Peter who has given legitimacy to earthly rulers for thousands of years.  The church is claiming the right to confer authority with the very symbols imbedded in its doors.


It took 632 years to formally complete this Cathedral, but in some senses it is never really complete.  Like so many churches and other historic landscapes throughout Europe, there is always upkeep and restoration taking place.  You can’t go to any place in Europe and fail to encounter the telltale signs of scaffolding indicating that buildings, like landscapes are dynamic, in need of attention, and important to the identity of those that live near them.  Our guide relayed a local belief that scaffolding is a good sight because the building took so long to build that if work were to ever finish on the building, it might just signal the end of the world.


Even as they work on the building, it is clear that the visual image of the building has become an important part of this urban landscape.  Located directly outside the main entrance to the train station, when scaffolding in necessary for restoration, covers are made to show the building behind the scaffolding that covers it up.


Restoration and renovations are sometimes driven by events in the life of a building landscape rather than simply from age and decay.  For example, in the south transept, the great window was destroyed during bombing raids in WWII.  After the war, the Cathedral engaged the help of the famous German artist, Gerhard Richter to design and install a new window.  He drew from over 60 of the existing colors in the remaining Cathedral glass and then created random patterns of color squares to fill in the window.


Although many complained of the “modern” look to the window, it has become one of the most popular and well known parts of the Cathedral, and it appears as if it could have been there a very long time.  Landscapes have a certain organic, fluid continuity to them as they lose the old and incorporate the new.  Just like the people who have been  attached to this place, the landscape of this building itself is transformed with the passage of time and the persistence of memory.  The artwork and architecture show over 1000 years of connection to this place. William Gruenwald, Paula, Erin and I are but just a few of the participants in this unfolding drama.  I am grateful to participate in the place.


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I am a professor of Political Science at Colorado Mesa University on sabbatical in the fall semester 2018. I study public land policy and a wide variety of other subjects. Currently I am studying about European Landscape Policies while on sabbatical. That is the focus of this blog.

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