Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Pillars of the Earth: Cathedrals of Europe - Worms Cathedral

Recently I finished Ken Follet's best seller “Pillars Of The Earth”. It is an enthralling book, with the spine of the story being the erection of a Gothic cathedral. Needless to say, and combined with my recent visits to such monumental buildings in Europe, it sparked a renewed interest in Gothic architecture in me. So I decided to make a series of posts about important cathedrals I have visited. The first one, to make the transition easily from the previous posts, is the Worms cathedral. We are going to have a close look at this impressive church as well as its troubled history that involves Byzantium, European emperors and kings, the Reformation and many wars.

General view of the cathedral - the eastern towers are getting a facelift.

The Cathedral of St Peter (Wormser Dom) is the principal church and most important building of Worms, Germany. Along with Speyer and Mainz, it ranks among the finest Romanesque churches along the Rhine. This magnificent basilica, with four round towers, two large domes, and a choir at each end, has an imposing exterior, though the impression produced by the interior is also one of great dignity and simplicity, heightened by the natural colour of the red sandstone (typical in this part of Germany) of which it is built. The eastern end has an apse, without ambulatory, and the western end has second lower apse, typical of German Romanesque and possibly derived from a free-standing baptistery - that means two altars inside, one at the eastern side (the one all churches have) and one on the western side - where normally a large ceremonial portal should be. The reason for building two chancels is not entirely clear. Many scholars suggest that there is some symbolic significance, such as empire and church, or body and spirit, but no irrefutable evidence for these theories exists. Others claim that the construction has a functional purpose for ceremonial processions. Whatever the original intent of the double chancel, the eastern chancel came to serve as the location for the mass and the western chancel was reserved for the bishop and pontiffs.

The western chancel and towers

The cathedral rises on the highest hill of the urban district, about 100 meters over the sea level. It is 110m long, and 27m wide, or including the
transepts, which are near the west end, 36m (interior measurements). The height in the nave is 26m; under the domes it is 40m. The plan is that of a modified Latin cross with slight projection of the transept. The entrance is through a southern porch. Above the crossing and at the western end are short octagonal towers. There are two taller towers flanking the building at either end. Each has a steeply pointed roof - a projectile, either conical or octagonal. The various sections of the building are massive, clearly-defined units, looking like they were built from a child with a set of building blocks. It creates the sense that the building could be disassembled and rearranged.

Gothic southern portal and Nicolas Chapel

The origins of the Worm’s cathedral can be traced back to early Christian times during the late Roman era. The first officially appointed Worms bishop was Berthulf, appointed in 614AD. The first early Christian cathedral came out from a Roman Basilica, which lay in the midst of the forum, and was built by Dagobert I (625 -639), but much smaller than the existing one . The cathedral's north portal, one of the parts which were frequently changed, followed in a more Frankish style in Merovingian and in Carolingian times. It served as a burial place for the ancestors of the Salian royal family who had a castle in Worms well into the 11th Century. The cathedral reached it's present size under the outstanding bishop Burchard of Worms (1000-1025) , who was fundamental in starting to rebuilt the church since 1005. From this monumental building from late Ottonian- early Salian era, some parts are preserved. A large new building was erected by bishops Burchard II and Konrad II in the 12th century, mainly because of the heavy damages the previous building had suffered. The old building was torn down gradually, while the new one was erected, again a commonplace practise of the era. Still today's cathedral essentially corresponds to the plans of its predecessor.

A metal model of the cathedral on the south lawn.

Burchard’s cathedral was dedicated in 1018, in the presence of emperor Heinrich II. Unfortunately, two years after this event, the western part of the church unexpectedly collapsed: within two years it was rebuilt. The base range of the east choir as well as the bases of the two round east towers are preserved from that era, to be recognized by the relatively small and even sandstone ashlars masonry. This is also present on the south side in the base of the transept. Also the two round western towers are from Burchard's era, one of the northern towers, and three of the southern. The southern tower is called "donkey tower", because, instead of stairs, a ramp with a cobbled surface rises upwards. Burchard’s cathedral was a three-nave Basilica with a transept and a straight closed eastern choir. A semicircular western choir was dedicated to the martyr St. Laurentius, inserted between the towers. The church room had a flat timber ceiling. The wall arrangement corresponded to the Limburg Monastery at Bad Dürkheim or the Speyer cathedral.

Close up of a tower - see how it is divided into sections like being made of separate parts

The ground was laid out with a mosaic from white marble and dark slate. In the nave it lay only scarcely under today's level, as was also the transept and eastern choir. The western choir was even 30 cm higher than today. According to the description in Burchard's biography from around 1030/40, the church was splendidly decorated, mentioning columns with gilded capitals. Four Salian family members were already buried in the altar area of the Frankish cathedral and they were exhumed during Burchard's construction. They got to rest anew in the eastern nave; five more followed up to the year 1046. The sarcophagi stand since the beginning of the 20th Century in an accessible crypt created for them beneath the altar.

The model again - you can see the clean forms of the building very clearly.

Because the floor level of the transept and the eastern choir stands out over six meters from the soil, one must assume that a crypt (Unterkirche) was present at that particular site, however so far there is still no possibility for the appropriate search and excavations to begin. There are early references to the relic of St. Nicolas, which allegedly was brought over and donated by empress Theophano
(niece of Byzantine emperor Ioannis Tzimiskes) from Byzantium on the occasion of her wedding with emperor Otto II in the year 972 AD. Although by this time Bishop Nicolas was still entombed n Myra in Asia Minor (in 1087 his remains were transferred to Bari in Italy), the story helped spread the worship of St. Nicolas in the West, particularly on the Rhine area from Cologne to Worms.

St. Nicolas reliquary - the original was brought by Empress Theophano from Byzantium.

In the year 1058 during the tenure of Bishop Arnold, a small St. Nicolas chapel was erected and dedicated to the southern side nave within the range of the 3rd and 4th bay. Between 1280 and 1315 today's substantially larger St. Nicolas chapel was made in Gothic style. The dedicating inscription of 1058 is still there, immured within the niche along with the new St. Nicolas reliquary, procured at the end of the 20th century. The original reliquary was lost because of the destruction during the Palatinate succession war. The chapel serves now as the Baptistery of the cathedral. The outstanding late Gothic Baptism stone (around 1480) comes from the Johanneskirche, the ten-sided Roman original Baptistery and since the Middle Ages parish church on the area south of the cathedral (formerly a cemetery). The building was auctioneered after the abolition of the diocese in the course of the secularization during the French occupation and cleared away completely.

The baroque styled pulpit.

The cathedral of the 12th century was built on the existing plans from the east to the west, in three sections. After the results of carbon-14 dating, which do not contradict any stylistic comparisons or written documents, the eastern parts (thus choir, transept with the cupola at the crossing, eastern towers up to the next to last projectile and beginning of the nave) were established approximately in the period of 1125/30 and 1144. The next section of the nave followed between 1160 and 1170. The third and last section followed directly afterwards. It contained the increased western choir with dome tower and the completion of the towers. Into this building phase belong the new building of the Johanneskirche and the completion of the cathedral cloister, which was already begun together with the southern side nave. More buildings were also built in the three storied cloister complex. In the first third of the 19th century, the threadbare remains of the cloister could be reconstructed at the external wall of the southern side of the nave.

The western chancel. Notice the lovely windows.

On 2 May 1181 the solemn cathedral dedication ceremony took place, with numerous bishops present. One can hardly assume all construction phases were already finished at this time, as it was common practise to dedicate a church as soon as it was possible to hold a mass in one of its parts. In 1184 the north portal in the nave was already changed again, so that emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa could declare the special privileges given to the city of Worms and its citizens, making the cathedral a Kaiserdom (Imperial Cathedral). This also happened in Speyer and Mainz in a similar manner.

The northern portal with the Barbarossa inscription above it.

The cathedral is decorated in all its parts with high-quality building materials. Numerous designs of fearsome figures, that are intriguingly appalling, depict those that had the mischief of being expelled by the church and also show the fight between good and evil. There are also representations referring to the Apocalypse of St. John. On the parapet wall of the eastern choir windows, lions are to be seen and in addition a female bear with her cub and a ram. Over it in the colonnaded gallery is a column with a man carrying an ape on the shoulder, thought to be the building master. The cornices at the eastern towers are decorated with grimacing faces. The outstanding ornamental decoration of the pilaster strips inside the choir area (not accessible for visitors) is remarkable. Here one can see a rare representation of St. Juliana, who hauls off a bound devil. In the nave the portals with their tympana are also important.

A closer look of the western chancel - check out the ornamental decoration of the pilaster strips.

The southern portal was changed around 1300 in the Gothic style influenced by the recently finished Strasbourg Cathedral, but the Romanesque tympanum was preserved and placed at the interior. Christ is surrounded by saints and bishops. Also at this portal are the lion sculptures: in the St. Anne Chapel there is a representation of Daniel in the lion pit. The portal, which led from the side of the nave into the Roman St. Nicolas Chapel, shows a portrait of Bishop Nicolas in the tympanum as a teacher, surrounded by his pupils. The writings in his opened up book are puzzling. Also at the northern portal, the bishop and emperor portal, the tympanum was turned inwards, when in 1184 the privileges given by Friedrich I Barbarossa to the citizens of the city were attached to the exterior. In the western choir, predominantly outside of the colonnaded gallery, monstrous figures like fire demons emerge again.

The Gothic southern portal. The women statues decorating it are particularly interesting as they are sculpted from the back (invisible to the passers-by) to show demons - a sign of the low place women held in medieval Europe and in church in particular.

The cathedral was richly painted inside: meagre remainders of these murals are still preserved. The oversize large representation of St. Christopher is most important at the east wall of the northern transept, from around 1200 A.D. Later additions enriched the appearance of the cathedral. Under Bishop Johann von Dalberg (1482 - 1503) the cathedral cloister was again established in late Gothic forms and decorated with sandstone relief, which show scenes from the life of Jesus. In early 19th Century the cloister was eliminated, the relief decorating now the northern side of the nave of the cathedral

A better view of the southern portal. This is used as the main entrance of the church.

The most important religious event however had little to do with the architecture of the cathedral: In April 1521 Martin Luther, appeared before emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, in the bishop's palace (the area of today's Heylshof garden), and had to answer for his new teachings. He refused to recall his writings, and of course we all know that this led to the Reformation and changed the course of Western civilization.

Close look of the sculptures decorating the church on the outside.

The next centuries left visible traces to the cathedral. It was strongly damaged during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) by the Swedish troops. Forty years later, in the course of the city devastation during the Palatinate succession war, the cathedral interior was totally destroyed by fire after a failed attempt to blow up the building; the buildings in the surrounding area were also heavily damaged. The bishop residence, which had also served as accommodation for the kings and emperors of the Middle Ages coming to Worms, was obliterated.

The nave towards the eastern chancel - see the baroque altar at the far end.

In the following decades, new interior decoration with a baroque altar and quire were made. The altar was made by Balthasar Neumann, from 1738 to 1742 and implemented by Johann Wolfgang of the Auwera. It ranks among the highest quality altars of this time. The side altars of Johann Peter Jäger were developed between 1751 and 1759, and from 1755 - 1759 the Quire was remade by Franz Anton Hermann in the Rococo style. In 1792 Worms was conquered by the French revolution troops. The cathedral served them as stables and barracks. One can only imagine the damages suffered. Only in 1886 a first thorough renovation of the cathedral began. The western choir had to be renewed down to the foundation walls. The process was considered finished in 1935. But the additions were not finished yet.

Closer to the altar.

The interestingly coloured stained glass windows come from the second half of the 20th Century. Of special interest are the 1992 windows finished by Heinz Hindorf (1986-1988), the windows of the Mary Chapel, formerly St. Ägidien Chapel, with the life of Mary. In 20 scenes based on persons and important personalities, the diocese of Worms and its urban history are represented, from the earliest mentioned Bishop Victor at 345A.D. up to the destruction of the city at the end of World War II in 1945. And the process of restoration of course never ends.

The current organ was installed in 1985.

Together with Mainz and Speyer, the three Roman emperor cathedrals on the northern upper Rhine form a unique constellation of medieval sacred buildings. For the city of Worms, the cathedral has been for over 1000 years its landmark. The cathedral is the work of many generations. A joint work, which cannot at first sight be understood completely. Bishops, emperors and kings, workers, building people and stone-cutters, financial backers - and also the faithful - contributed to its building. They created a singular church from Roman and Gothic architectural styles.

Close up of the organ, perched high in the church nave - the oldest recorded organ was installed here in 1259 A.D.

P.S I. For every one to follow easily the architectural terms used in this and previous posts , some simple plans to explain the layout of a cathedral:

First we see the Amiens cathedral plan with a very clear explanation of all major parts of it. Click on the image to enlarge it and see the details better.

Here is the nave:

Then the aisles:

The transepts:

I hope this helps!

P.S II. Apart from wikipedia, invaluable help was this site (only in German).


  1. Κάπως έτσι φαντάζουν τα κάστρα μας my Baron

    υ.γ1. μου αρέσει αυτό το κλίμα...μείνε...εξάλλου είμαστε πλέον και οι δύο σε καιρό ειρήνης)

    υ.γ2. το γράψιμο όμως με τραβάει από τα αυτιά...

  2. Παιδί μου, πού τα βρισκεις όλα αυτα τα υπέροχα πράγματα ; Σκετος θησαυρός είσαι.
    σε φιλω

  3. @elafini: thank you my liege...

    @ritsmas: Ευχαριστώ και ανταποδίδω το φιλί!

  4. This is wonderful, I really enjoyed this post. Also I just added you to my hollymaus.blogspot.com blogroll since you are a European blogger. I remember seeing your comments on decor8 awhile ago too. I love this blog! I also really like your fashion doll blog. I have some nice Barbie dolls that are limited edition and 3 Blythe dolls. :)

  5. Thanks Holly, that is a real honour coming from you!!! I consider your blog one of the best out there in design and decorating!

    Keep watching the doll blog, more stuff is coming there as well!

  6. I'm not a man of God, but these buildings should all host One!

  7. Πω πω πω πρέπει να έκανες φοβερές εργασίες στη σχολή!
    πολύ δουλειά ε? μπράβο!

  8. @driver - they are really impressive - whether a god lives in them or not!

    @α, μπα? - ευχαριστώ πολύ! Είχε πολύ δουλειά αλλά είναι ωραία δουλειά!

  9. Anonymous10:38 pm

    I just left the Cathedral a few days ago. Unfortunately, I was unable to spend the time necessary to obtain the names of the stained glass within each chapel. Do you know of a resource that I could peruse to obtain that information. Thank you very much.

  10. Dear Hazii other than the cathedral's website, I do not know how you could find what you're looking for. There should be a contact e-mail there to help you. Thanks for visiting my blog.