The Cologne Cathedral – Der Kölner Dom

In 1977 I lived in Cologne for about a year. I was a 21 year old soldier. Many a Saturday afternoon I would walk from my apartment, across the river, into downtown, and on my way I would walk past the awe-inspiring cathedral.


Yes, I looked up. Yes, I was awed, but what I was looking at didn’t really faze my youthful mind much.

After reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, I studied up on cathedral construction, and I was fascinated with what I found out.

Check this link for a nice snapshot.

I didn’t know that for some time, the building was the highest building in the world, until the Washington Monument was constructed.

Construction began in 1248, but by 1560, political changes had taken place, and funds dried up. So all construction stopped until 1842.

There was a massive wooden crane on top of the south tower. There are no reports about its construction, but it can already be seen on the pictures of the Ursula legend which were painted around 1450. So once construction stopped by 1560, it had already been  there a minimum of 110 years.

Without funds, the cathedral remained unfinished and basically at a standstill until 1842, and the crane remained there, perched over the city.

This crane became the symbol of Cologne and it dominated its skyline for 400 years. The timescales are mind-boggling.  Entire generations lived and died, for four centuries, looking up at an idle  construction relic from, even for them, ancient times.

That temporary wooden construction crane was on top of the cathedral more than 50 years before Columbus went on his providential journey, and then it remained there, untouched, for longer than when the first settlers arrived in Jamestown, Virginia until now. I am sure many an altar boy climbed up to see it firsthand over the centuries, only to grow old and never, ever see it move.


Image Credit: Wikipedia

This is the picture you would have seen from 1560 through 1848. Note the crane on the left side on top of the base of what would be the spire.

There are some interesting drawings and descriptions of the crane available at the official site of the Cologne Cathedral.

Then, during WWII, Cologne was almost obliterated. Many bombs hit the cathedral, and it was  severely damaged. It’s a miracle it stood. I have to believe that the bombers tried to protect it (unlike what the Taliban would have done had it had its chance).

I am sure there are people who have spend their lifetimes studying just this one building and its history.

I am a mere passerby.

“Oh, look at the cathedral, isn’t it marvelous?”

“Let me get a picture of you in front of it.”

“Darn, it’s too big, I can’t get you in with the towers in it.”

“Ok, let’s just go and check out these shops down that way.”

The good and comforting thing is: It will still be there, just like this, a thousand years hence, and nobody will remember me, or my ancestors, or my decendants, at that time.

And that is what it means to be a work of art.

12 thoughts on “The Cologne Cathedral – Der Kölner Dom

  1. winterwoman

    Wow. You can imagine what memories that brings to my mind. Narrow winding steps. And Gemischtes Eis… kein Frucht Eis, bitte.

  2. jm

    I was told, when I visited Cologne on my first trip to Germany, staying with someone from the area, that the allied bombers had tried to avoid hitting the Dom. It certainly looks like they did that, since everything surrounding it was pretty much flattened. The man, a German, who worked in his city’s government, told me this as if it were undisputed fact, so I took it as such. Especially considering how hard it was for bombers of this era to actually aim their attacks (they could be off by 50 miles, I’ve read), this was quite a feat. It is a beautiful structure, inside and out. I hope to visit it again one day.

  3. John

    The building of a cathedral is a powerful education in what it took to build the Catholic Church. Twenty centuries of building – and it’s not yet finished. There have been setbacks, some good times, some bad times, but century by century, and millennium after millennium, it gets more and more and more complete. The Cologne story is the story of the Church in miniature. (Just imagine… the story of the Cologne Cathedral, big as the story and the cathedral itself is, being the *miniature* version of something!)

  4. Anne Catherine Tartaglia

    I am the granddaughter of one of those Allied bombers. He was a first generation Italian American, 21 years old. His plane was shot out of the sky over Cologne and he was the sole survivor. Despite being knocked unconscious by the blast, remarkably (my great grandmother was convinced it was an act of God) his parachute opened automatically and he landed in the courtyard in front of the cathedral. He was a POW in a Nazi camp for the duration of the war. Naturally I am very interested in the cathedral and I was surprised to read that the crane had been poised over the unfinished building for so long! It’s a great story. Thanks for the info!

    1. Phil Rose

      I visited Cologne Cathedral in 2006, i was moved by it, it is such a beautiful building. Anne that
      was a lovely story about your grandfather. I am
      glad it survived the bombing. I am visiting Cologne next month, that will be the first
      place i will visit.

  5. Jérôme

    During the war, the bombers didn’t try to protect it because it was such a beautiful cathedral, but because it was a usefull landmark for them, a bit like a “lighthouse”. It happened to many cathedrals, like in Rouen, because they were the highest structures in Europe at that time. Just a military purpose, nothing else.

  6. Mick Marhevka

    Ok, call me a skeptic, but even if the bombers were trying to miss the Dom, they did obliterate the train station about 100 meters away! And, don’t forget, the bomb sites and bomb aerodynamics were great for the time, but they still had to drop tons of bombs to insure they hit their targets when they were over 4 miles in the air. So to hit the train station they would have randomly dropped scores of bombs.
    Maybe the major damage to the city was done at the end of the war when the cities were basically defenseless and the bomber could fly lower. Then you have a chance of deliberately missing a specific building. Or maybe the major damage you see in the 1945 photos were from the incendiary bombs, which were designed spread fire and not pack the same explosive punch as a regular bomb. In that case the building is so massive it may have been able to absorb some “direct hits” without structural failure.
    I’ve been there. They did take out the stained glass windows to protect them, thank heaven. Whatever the answer it is an amazing story and mystery.
    Mick Marhevka

  7. Molly Ullery

    I grew up in Germany, near Koln. Every Christmas my family and I would go to the Christmas market held near the church. What an amazing sight! It was magical with the church as a back drop for hundreds of stands ranging from hand crafted wooden Christmas ornaments to Pommes mit Curry ( french fries), olibollen (fried dough with powdered sugar), cheese and wine stands and of course Glühwein ( typical Christmas drink, hot wine). There is ice scating and singing. What a magical time of year for Köln Germany!!! I miss it, I was raised in Europe for 22 years and it will be an amazing memory forever and a wonderful story to one day share with my children.

  8. Reblogged this on Norbert Haupt and commented:

    The crane that lasted 400 years! I came across a 9-year-old post about the crane on the Cologne cathedral. Check this out and marvel about the crane. That crane was on top of the cathedral for longer than the United States has existed as a nation, for much longer….

Leave a Reply