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Köln Cathedral

I was not much impressed by the cathedral until scaling its south tower. The attention to detail of the 19th century masters is difficult to believe. 100 meters above street level, the stone is still chiseled at the centimeter scale. Statutes surround the towers on all sides, even where they could not possibly be seen from below. The vaults below the towers are some of the most beautiful, quintessential Gothic I’ve seen, and they were never meant to be viewed by anyone but the construction crew. The cathedral really seems like perfection for perfection’s sake. Appropriately, the cathedral owns itself as a legal person.

I walked up the tower to the sound of the bells tolling. I never saw them, but the sound was almost deafening, so loud that with each chime the doors they were behind vibrate. The gradually intensifying sound makes an excellent backdrop for the ascent.

In some ways, the building reflects what is best in romanticism. A surprisingly large part of it was only built in the 1800s, including almost all of the facade. I wonder if the extreme perfectionism arose from the interval between creating and executing the design. When it was made, people did not accept (understand?) it was impossible. By the time it was executed, it represented a spirit of the past that had to be respected, and the edge of the possible had moved out dramatically.

When touring the foundations (through which you must go to scale the tower; the basalt stones and mortar that make it up have been cut clean through, beautiful idea) I learned that pieces of the pre-13th century cathedral had to be dismantled to finish building the Gothic edifice. I think the 19th century Germans made the right call here. I also can’t imagine anyone taking apart a five hundred year old church today, even (especially?) to realize an unfinished design from the 1200s. Then again, this is the country where Bonn was officially called the “provisional” capital for five decades, and was promptly abandoned when its time had passed.

I wonder to what extent the causes of the 16th century work stoppage were political: the Free City of Köln became independent of the Prince-Archbishop (one of the Electors!) at some point during the construction.

The cathedral is in constant renovation. You can tell which parts have been installed in the last couple of decades, because they’re white; the 19th century masonry is pitch-black. (Only in parts: recessed vertical surfaces remain quite light. The pre-1500 choir is uniform in color, though. I can’t say the overall aesthetic effect is a success.) Many of the new parts are pinnacles of spires which have fallen off over the decades. While touring the nearby Römisch-Germanisches Museum I overheard the guide mention that 20 years ago some of the replaced stonework had been treated with a special paint that prevents the darkening, but the effect was not popular with the Colonians: too much like Disneyland, they said. Nowadays such dramatic renovations are no longer attempted, though the clean surface finish is considered an ongoing experiment.

In front of the cathedral stand two flag posts. One flies the flag of the papacy, white and yellow. The other, the flag of the archbishopric, a black cross on a white background. No secular flag is in sight.

The Cathedral as an Ecosystem: moss grows only on the lower parties, on the North side. Pigeons nest in the artificial rock formations of the spires. Would be a good title for a book, which might even be interesting if it connected the ecosystem to the way humans use the building.