More than once I’ve been told by fellow travelers not to bother visiting the city of Cologne, Germany. “Don’t waste your time,” they said. “The only thing to see is the cathedral.” So when I realized that Cologne was the first German city to be visited on my Viking River Grand European Tour, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.
We began our walking tour in front of the Kölner Dom, as the cathedral is known in German, a UNESCO World Heritage Site said to be the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. My first impression was disappointment at the sooty facade, which has been blackened by a combination of natural oxidation and the smoke from steam locomotives that used to pull into the train station next door. But soon, details began to emerge: pointed arches dressed with elaborate geometric decorations, twin towers that soar to a height of 515 feet, an entrance lavish with 19th century statuary, and the flying buttresses that allowed medieval builders to build such a cavernous structure.
Unfortunately, we had arrived on a Sunday, and the cathedral was closed for services. Our guide assured us we would have free time after the tour and could return later to see the interior, then led us away to see the rest of Cologne. In front of the Romano-German museum, we viewed the remains of a Roman Dionysus mosaic, then proceeded to Fishmarket Square, which was built 2000 years ago atop what was a Roman warehouse. We strolled through Old Market Square to Haymarket Square, stopping at 4711, home of the Original Eau de Cologne. It was a pretty enough town, but I was itching to get back to the cathedral, and when the church bells rang high noon I was waiting at the door.
Inside I paused, allowing my eyes to adjust to the gloom. It is said the goal of Gothic architecture is to draw the eyes upward, toward heaven, and the Cologne Cathedral achieves that goal with jaw-dropping magnificence. Sunlight streamed through soaring stained glass windows, suffusing the interior in warm golden hues. Lofty granite columns were adorned with precious sculptures. Marble sarcophagi containing the remains of former bishops reposed in chapels carved into the apse of the church. Even the mosaic floor was spectacular; created from millions of pieces of ceramic tesserae, it measures 1,350 square meters and is the largest work of art in the cathedral.
For more than two hours I circumnavigated the cross-shaped floor plan, perusing exquisite artworks, some of which of which date back to the tenth century. Even the Stations of the Cross were magnificent. Sculpted from sandstone between 1893 until 1898 by Utrecht-based artist Wilhelm Mengelberg, twelve of them hang in medieval altar niches in the nave, while the 13th and 14th are located on the ground floor of the south and north towers.
Madonna sculptures abounded, but two stood out. The first, created around 1420, depicts Madonna and Child standing on the bust of an angel. Affixed to a massive granite column, they look down benignly on worshipers, as they have been doing for almost 600 years.
The Gothic Carving known as the Milan Madonna (upper right, in the photo below), made in the cathedral workshop around 1280-1290, is said to have miraculous powers. From her lofty perch, she seems to guard the Altar-piece of the city’s patron saints, painted sometime around 1442 by the Cologne-based artist Stefan Lochner. Today this a triptych is considered to be the most significant example of the Late Gothic Cologne school of painting.
Yet another triptych, the St Agilulfus altar-piece, is one of the most important of all Antwerp carved altar-pieces. Created around 1520, this multiple-winged polychrome features scenes from the Passion of Christ as well as life stories of the two bishops St. Anno and St. Agilulfus.
With sailing time fast approaching, I made one last round, concentrating on the stained glass windows that had struck me with such awe when I first entered the cathedral. The statues, artworks, mosaics, though impressive, all paled in comparison to these leaded glass masterpieces. I paused in front of a pair that caught my fancy, perhaps due to their vivid colors. The Görres window, made in the Royal Stained Glass Manufactory in Munich and installed in 1856, depicts Joseph Görres kneeling before Mary and the Christ Child. The St Peter window was donated in 1870 by the Rhenish Railroad Company and installed in 1876. The main scene shows the Council of Jerusalem with Saint Peter in the middle. Above, God gives St. Peter the keys of heaven and Pope Pius IX is shown with the Bull of Convocation for the First Vatican Council.
I smiled as left the cathedral, remembering what my friends had said about skipping Cologne. Not only do I disagree, I would go so far as to say that when in Germany, one must visit Cologne, especially to see its magnificent cathedral.
Note: I was a guest of Viking River Cruises during my Grand European Tour, however, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items or services will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Viking offers itineraries on the great rivers of the world, including destinations in Europe, Egypt, China, Southeast Asia, Russia, and soon, in the U.S.