Cologne Cathedral: Rayonnant Gothic Architecture (2023)

Cologne Cathedral: Rayonnant Gothic Architecture (1)
Flying buttresses and spires of
Cologne Cathedral, Germany.

Cologne Cathedral: Rayonnant Gothic Architecture (2)
Choir and apse of Cologne Cathedral.
One of the most beautiful examples of
German Medieval Art (800-1250).
Notice the soaring verticality of the
Rayonnant Gothic style.

Architect Terminology
For a guide, see:
Architecture Glossary.


Regarded as the greatest expression of German Gothic architecture, Cologne Cathedral - along with Chartres Cathedral and Notre-Dame Cathedral in France - is one of Western Europe's most famous medieval sites of Christian art in all its majesty. Commissioned by Konrad von Hochstaden (1200-61), Archbishop of Cologne from 1238 to 1261, construction on the cathedral began in 1248, halted in 1473, and was only completed in 1880. As well as being the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe, it is also Germany's most popular monument of medieval art, receiving an average of 20,000 visitors a day. Located close to the River Rhine, the cathedral is famous for its architectural statues, steep gables, blind tracery and unifying series of spires, as well as its rare works of religious art, such as the sumptuous Shrine of the Three Kings (1191), the Gero Cross (960) - the oldest major carving of Christ crucified north of the Alps - and the Mailander Madonna (1290). Architecturally, the cathedral exemplifies the Rayonnant Gothic style although its design also includes some elements of extra-decorative Flamboyant Gothic architecture. In 1996, Cologne Cathedral was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List of protected sites. See also: German Gothic Art (1200-1450).


Christian buildings have stood on the site since the 4th century, (for more, see Roman Architecture and Early Christian Art), including a square cathedral built by Maternus, the first Christian bishop of Cologne. (See Carolingian Art.) A second cathedral was completed in 818. This Ottonian Basilica was gutted by fire in 1248, while new building works were underway in preparation for a new cathedral. (See also: Ottonian Art: 900-1050.)

The origins of Colgne Cathedral dated back to 1164, when the Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald of Dassel first obtained the relics of the Three Kings which the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, had stolen from the Basilica of Sant'Eustorgio in Milan. The relics possessed great religious significance and attracted believers from all over Christendom. As a result, church authorities determined that they required a fitting home - hence the decision nearly 90 years later to build a new cathedral in the fashionable Gothic style, modelled on the French cathedral of Amiens. It seems quite probable that the patron, Archbishop Konrad von Hochstaden, a supporter of Louis IX's anti-Swabian policies, wanted the building to reflect the formal elegance of the structures going up in Paris at the time, such as Sainte Chapelle (1241-48).

The cornerstone was duly laid in August 1248, by Archbishop Konrad von Hochstaden and construction proceeded under the direction of architect Master Gerhard and later Master Michael. Although consecrated in 1322 work on the West facade halted in 1473 - during the highpoint of the celebrated Cologne School of painting - leaving the south tower complete up to belfry level. A large crane remained in situ scarring the Cologne skyline for 400 years, until work resumed in 1842. At this point modern building methods (including the use of iron roof girders) were incorporated into the construction plan, which was completed (more or less) in 1880. Its two huge spires - at roughly 157 metres (515 ft) tall, the second-tallest after Ulm Minster - give it the largest facade of any church in the world.

Architecture of Cologne Cathedral

The cathedral is 144.5 metres (474 ft) in length, 84 metres (275 ft) wide, and a window surface area of 10,000 square metres (108,000 sq ft) - roughly three times more stained glass art than Chartres.

Rayonnant forms of Gothic art spread rapidly across the borders of France and were quickly adopted in the leading commercial cities. Cologne, like its contemporary Strasbourg, became one of the principal centres for the elaboration of Rayonnant Gothic, so much so that unlike the majority of similar German buildings, it is difficult to recognize any holdovers of the Germanic tradition.

The plan of the cathedral is in the shape of a Latin Cross, and has two aisles on either side (a feature taken from Paris or Bourges), which support one of the highest Gothic vaults ever built, being almost as tall as that of Beauvais Cathedral, which collapsed in 1284. The general design of the building repeats that of the cathedral of Amiens, but not without variations.

The presence of a deep westwork, which shortens the nave and creates a feeling of centrality, is perhaps a holdover of local traditions. The medieval choir has a very tall arcade, a narrow triforium gallery (with detailed tracery) lit by windows, while the clerestory windows are tall with some of the original stained glass in the lower sections. The vault is composed of a plain quadripartite arrangement. The 'modern' aspects of Cologne are its abandonment of the engaged column derived from Chartres to adopt instead a clustered arcade pier, a group of shafts that rise straight up without interruption to the springers of the vaults, and its luminous glazed triforium, similar to an elegant work of filigree thanks to the elimination of the small arches from the pendentives.

Externally the outward and downward thrust of the vault is absorbed and channelled by flying buttresses in the French manner. Indeed its exterior is famous for its extravagant use of tracery, flying buttresses, stone sculpture, pinnacles and lofty porticos.

Works of Art

A major treasure of the cathedral is its High Altar, installed in 1322. Made out of black marble, with a single slab 4.6 metres (15 ft) in length forming the top, its front and side surfaces are faced with white marble niches decorated with relief sculpture, illustrating religious scenes such as the Coronation of the Virgin, a popular Gothic motif.

The most significant work of art at Cologne is the Shrine of the Three Kings (1191), a large gilt sarcophagus in the shape of a basilican church. Located behind the high altar, it was commissioned by Philip von Heinsberg, Archbishop of Cologne (1167-1191) and created by Nicholas of Verdun (c.1156–1232). A superb example of medieval goldsmithing and Romanesque sculpture, it is reputed to be the largest reliquary in the western world, and supposedly contains the remains of the Three Wise Men, whose relics were seized by Frederick Barbarossa during his conquest of Milan in 1164.

Near the sacristy is the Gero Cross (965–70) a large wood carving of the crucified Christ, originally gilded and painted. Created about 960 for Archbishop Gero (900-976), Archbishop of Cologne (969-976), this exquisite piece of Biblical art is believed to be the earliest-known large-scale crucifix north of the Alps.

Located in the Sacrament Chapel, is the wooden Mailander Madonna (1290) an example of Marian Gothic sculpture depicting the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus.

The most controversial work of art in the cathedral is probably the huge 113-square-metre stained glass window created by the postmodernist German artist Gerhard Richter (b.1932). Consisting of 11,500 identically sized pieces of coloured glass, arranged at random by computer, it triggered a protest from the archbishop of the cathedral Cardinal Joachim Meisner (b.1933), who favoured a more appropriate figurative depiction of 20th-century Catholic martyrs. See also: .

More Articles about Medieval Gothic Art

• Medieval Artists (1100-1450)

• German Gothic Sculpture (1150-1400)

• English Gothic Sculpture (1150-1250)

• Gothic Illuminated Manuscripts (1150-1350)


Is the Cologne Cathedral Gothic architecture? ›

It is the seat of the Archbishop of Cologne and of the administration of the Archdiocese of Cologne. It is a renowned monument of German Catholicism and Gothic architecture and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1996.

What is Rayonnant Gothic style of architecture? ›

Rayonnant style, French building style (13th century) that represents the height of Gothic architecture. During this period architects became less interested in achieving great size than in decoration, which took such forms as pinnacles, moldings, and especially window tracery.

Why is the Cologne Cathedral Gothic architecture? ›

The site of Cologne Cathedral has been occupied by Christian churches since about the 4th century. An older cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1248, and immediately thereafter work began on the present cathedral, which was designed in the Gothic style in emulation of French church architecture.

What are the three defining features of Gothic cathedral architecture? ›

Gothic Architecture: Definition

It is characterized by long pointed arches, exterior buttresses, and ribbed vaults.

What were the characteristics of Gothic cathedral architecture? ›

The defining design element of Gothic architecture is the pointed or ogival arch. The use of the pointed arch in turn led to the development of the pointed rib vault and flying buttresses, combined with elaborate tracery and stained glass windows.

What are the characteristics of Rayonnant style? ›

Prominent features of Rayonnant include development of the rose window; more windows in the upper-level clerestory; the reduction of the importance of the transept; and larger openings on the ground floor to establish greater communication between the central vessel and the side aisles.

What is Rayonnant Gothic style examples? ›

Other important examples of Rayonnant Gothic include the west front of the Church of St Nicaise, Reims (begun 1231); the nave of the Abbey Church of St Denis (1230s); and the facade of the Church of St Urbain, Troyes (1262-86).

What did Gothic architecture symbolize? ›

The gothic may be a gamut of disparate architectural styles, but what ties it together is its sacred purpose. The majority of gothic buildings that have survived were built to the glory of God.

What was the purpose of the Gothic style of architecture? ›

Gothic designs were actually created to bring more sunlight into spaces, mainly churches, and led to the design and construction of some of the world's most iconic buildings.

How does the Gothic cathedral represent the style? ›

The style represented giant steps away from the previous, relatively basic building systems that had prevailed. The Gothic grew out of the Romanesque architectural style, when both prosperity and relative peace allowed for several centuries of cultural development and great building schemes.

What features of the cathedral exemplify high Gothic style? ›

Gothic churches could achieve new heights with a lightness and a gracefulness often absent from sturdy Romanesque structures. Some of the key architectural components integral to the Gothic form are pointed arches, flying buttresses, tri-portal west façades, rib vaults, and of course, rose windows.

What are the two main structural features used for Gothic cathedrals? ›

The two main structural innovations of Gothic architecture were pointed arches and ogival or ribbed vaulting (Bony 1983). By the 12th century, architects realized the superiority of the groined vault compared to the barrel vault and started to add ribs, which were used to support the weight of the vault.

What are some key architectural features of a cathedral? ›

The most common features of Gothic architecture are the pointed arches and vaults, the large amounts of glass in the walls, and an overall feeling of great height. Nave: The central area of a church where the congregation usually stands. Rib: The stone arch that supports and strengthens the vault.

What was distinctive about Gothic cathedrals? ›

Gothic cathedrals and churches are religious buildings created in Europe between the mid-12th century and the beginning of the 16th century. The cathedrals are notable particularly for their great height and their extensive use of stained glass to fill the interiors with light.

What are the three 3 main characteristic of Gothic art? ›

Classic Elements. While the Gothic style can vary according to location, age, and type of building, it is often characterized by 5 key architectural elements: large stained glass windows, pointed arches, rib vaults, flying buttresses, and ornate decoration.

What are the three types of Gothic architecture? ›

The evolution of Gothic architecture can be divided into Early Gothic or Lancet style (12-13th century), Decorated or Rayonnant Gothic (around 14th century), Perpendicular or International Gothic (15th century), and late Gothic (16th century).

What did Gothic cathedrals emphasize? ›

In Gothic, everything emphasizes verticality. Long, spender columns and elongated arches draw the eyes up to the soaring vaults. The vaults are higher, but the architecture is also designed to make you look up, and that emphasizes their height even more.

What characteristics do mainly distinguish the Rayonnant style from early Gothic architecture? ›

1230-1350) The difference between High Gothic and Rayonnant is mainly decoration. In particular, tracery became much more plentiful and elaborate in this phase. In fact, it's the radiating (rayonner in French), wheel-like tracery in Rayonnant rose windows that gives the style its name.

How do you differentiate Rayonnant and Flamboyant style in Gothic architecture? ›

One differentiates the Rayonnant and Flamboyant churches primarily by examining the window tracery. Rayonnant style has a linear focus, building large circular windows with the tracery of a rose. In contrast, the Flamboyant style has curvilinear tracery that intersects with each other, creating elaborate nets of flame.

What are the key elements of French Gothic architecture? ›

French Gothic cathedrals were characterized by lighter construction and large windows. Defining architectural feature of Gothic construction include pointed arches and a height enhanced by both the architectural features and the decoration of the building.

What is the most famous example of Gothic architecture? ›

One of the most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, the Notre Dame of Paris, France is distinguished for its size, antiquity, and architectural interest. It was consecrated to the Virgin Mary, with its name meaning Our Lady of Paris.

What are the 4 Gothic elements? ›

This genre is dark, eerie, and mysterious, often containing elements of terror, horror, and the macabre and the bizarre. Common themes and motifs of the Gothic include power, confinement, and isolation.

What influenced Gothic architecture? ›

The architecture that informed the Gothic period drew upon a number of influences, including Romanesque, Byzantine, and Middle Eastern.

What does Gothic style mean? ›

Gothic fashion is a clothing style marked by dark, mysterious, antiquated, homogenous, and often genderless features. It is worn by members of the Goth subculture. Dress, typical gothic fashion includes dyed black hair, exotic hairstyles, dark lipstick and dark clothing.

What type of architecture is the Cologne Cathedral? ›

Cologne Cathedral is a High Gothic five-aisled basilica (144.5 m long), with a projecting transept (86.25 m wide) and a tower façade (157.22 m high). The nave is 43.58 m high and the side-aisles 19.80 m.

Is St Paul's cathedral Gothic architecture? ›

Saint Paul's Cathedral, Cathedral of the Church of England in London. The present building is a domed church of great openness designed in a restrained style that combines elements of Neoclassical, Gothic, and Baroque architecture. It was designed by Christopher Wren and constructed (1675–1710) of Portland stone.

Is Cologne Cathedral a Romanesque? ›

Cologne has twelve large Romanesque churches, which are set in a semi-circle around the city centre. These structures are without parallel anywhere else in the world and were built between 1150 and 1250. Examples of these monuments of cultural history include Groß St. Martin (Great St.

Is the cathedral of Notre Dame Gothic? ›

Notre-Dame de Paris is the cathedral of the Catholic Archdiocese of Paris, located on the Île de la Cité. It is widely regarded as one of the finest monuments of Gothic French architecture. Its sculptures and stained glass contrast with the Romanesque style.

What style is Gothic cathedral? ›

Romanesque architecture was introduced during the first part of the Middle Ages, between the 6th and 10th centuries. It featured massive structures, slit windows, semicircular arches and very thick walls. Gothic evolved from this style, becoming much more decorative and refined.

What are the three major characteristics of Gothic cathedrals exemplified by this Cologne Cathedral in Germany? ›

Indeed its exterior is famous for its extravagant use of tracery, flying buttresses, stone sculpture, pinnacles and lofty porticos.

What city has Gothic architecture? ›

What is this? Some notable examples of Gothic architecture include: Notre Dame de Paris (France), Cologne Cathedral (Germany), Burgos Cathedral (Spain), Rouen Cathedral (France), Zagreb Cathedral (Croatia), Milan Cathedral (Italy), Prague Castle (Czech Republic), Edinburgh Castle (Scotland), and more.

What city did Gothic architecture originate? ›

The Gothic style originated in 12th-century CE France in a suburb north of Paris, conceived of by Abbot Suger (1081-1151 CE), a powerful figure in French history and the mastermind behind the first-ever Gothic cathedral, the Basilica of Saint-Denis.

What is the difference the Romanesque and Gothic cathedral building? ›

Romanesque architecture is characterized by heavy masonry walls, rounded arches supported by piers, and barrel vaults. Gothic architecture has much thinner walls supported by flying buttresses, pointed arches, and stained glass windows.

Why is the Cologne Cathedral significant? ›

Christians began to celebrate religious services at the location of today's Cologne Cathedral in Roman times. After Archbishop Rainald von Dassel brought the relics of the Three Wise Men to Cologne in 1164, the Cathedral became one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Europe and required a new architecture.

What is Cologne Cathedral known for? ›

The Cologne Cathedral is famous for holding the shrine of The Three Wise Men, a holy relic brought by Archbishop Rainald von Dassel back in the mid-12th century.

Is Notre-Dame an example of Gothic architecture? ›

Notre Dame Cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture in France. Its construction spanned two hundred years, beginning in the middle of the 12th century, with modifications made in the 18th century and a major restoration project carried out in the 19th century.

Is Notre-Dame Early Gothic or high Gothic? ›

Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the most important examples of Gothic architecture, being built at the very end of the Early Gothic period, before a transition into High Gothic architecture.

Is Notre-Dame is an example of Gothic art? ›

Notre Dame, Paris

Today considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic artwork and architecture, it is renowned for its pioneering use of the rib vault and flying buttress, its enormous and colorful rose windows, as well as naturalism and abundance of its sculptural decoration.

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