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Cologne's proud cathedral only stands thanks to a Prussian king

For Catholic Rhinelanders it is still a trauma in the 21st century: Ironically, the marvel of European high Gothic, the Cologne Cathedral, stands as it was planned around 1250, only thanks to a Protestant king.

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Cologne's proud cathedral only stands thanks to a Prussian king

For Catholic Rhinelanders it is still a trauma in the 21st century: Ironically, the marvel of European high Gothic, the Cologne Cathedral, stands as it was planned around 1250, only thanks to a Protestant king. For three centuries, probably since 1528, the construction work was interrupted, only the completed chancel and the stump of the south tower stood. It was not until 1842 that Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia laid the foundation stone for the further construction of the church. In 1863 the nave was completed, in 1880 the western work with its skyward towers was completed.

In contrast to the first construction phase between 1248 and 1528, there are numerous reliable documents from the decades of completion under Prussian leadership, namely photographs. The current master builder Peter Füssenich and his predecessor, Barbara Schock-Werner, head of the Dombau-Hütte for many years, have now compiled an impressive selection of these in an illustrated book about the Cologne Cathedral in photography ("Der Dom". Greven Verlag Köln 2022. 210 p., 38 euros).

"Without a doubt, the Cologne Cathedral is one of the most frequently photographed buildings in the world," write Schock-Werner and Füssenich: "After all, it has always been one of the most popular and most-visited buildings in Germany." Pilgrims from all over Europe were already visiting in the High and Late Middle Ages flocked to the Rhine to visit the relics of the three kings. At that time, the church was a torso, a shadow of its world-famous shape today.

However, the church was already fully designed, as shown by the more than four meter high "façade plan F", which was drawn in the late 13th or 14th century. It captures the complete west facade of the cathedral with its skyward towers and stone tracery - exactly as they were completed in 1880.

The draft, which consists of 20 sheets of parchment glued together, disappeared in the turmoil of the French Revolution, which also reached Cologne. The facade tear was rediscovered in two parts: the piece with the north tower was found in 1814 in the attic of the inn "Zur Traube" in Darmstadt, the one with the portal and the south tower two years later at an antiquarian in Paris.

This rediscovery became the starting point for the idea of ​​actually completing the Cologne Cathedral according to historical ideas after a break of almost three centuries. However, it remains controversial whether Plan F was actually to be implemented like an architect's design - or whether it was more of a fantasy to impress builders and financiers.

If the latter was the case, the rediscovery had an amazing effect. Because now a (supposed) "primary meter" was available, which promoted the romantic ideas of neo-Gothic. Since 1823 there was again a cathedral building hut, and 19 years later, after security and repair work, further construction began.

Coincidentally in the same years, the new medium of photography developed into practicality. The long exposure times that were still necessary in the first decades ensured that early photographs either did not show any people or only if they held themselves stock still.

The Belgian-born Johann Franz Michiels was one of the early “photographers” in Central Europe. His first known recordings from around 1848 already showed his talent for the new technology. Four years later, the Cologne art publisher Franz Carl Eisen commissioned him to photograph the new window glass paintings in Cologne Cathedral. Afterwards, Michiels also took pictures of the further construction of the Cologne Cathedral.

On June 29, 1853, a photo was taken that has since been regarded as the "incunabula of cathedral photography". In the photograph taken by Michiels from the tower of the former monastery church of Groß St. Martin in the Roman Rhine port that has been silted up, the southern aisle is already complete, the walls of the nave and the southern portal are under construction. The late medieval slewing crane still stands on the stump of the south tower, as it has for centuries.

A photo from 1868 and 1877 is just as fascinating: an unknown photographer photographed the cathedral bridge, which was only completed a few years ago, from the east bank of the Rhine, with the cathedral in the background. It is clear to see that the transept is finished, as is the crossing tower. On the other hand, the mighty towers of the westwork are completely missing, the height of which had not yet reached the ridge of the ship's roof.

Nine years later, Theodor Creefels photographed the now more advanced cathedral from almost exactly the same spot. Now the west towers, which are more than half their height, clearly tower over the ridge of the transept, but not yet the finial of the crossing tower at a height of around 110 meters. Nevertheless, the 157 meter high twin towers were completed in 1880.

The photo book by Peter Füssenich and Barbara Schock-Werner opens up fascinating perspectives on a fascinating building. Cologne Cathedral has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996 as a "European masterpiece of Gothic architecture". The fact that almost the entire west facade, the transept and almost the entire nave are neo-Gothic does not bother. On the contrary: the long interrupted construction period makes this building even more exciting.

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