A Brief History of Strasbourg Cathedral

The imposing facade of Strasbourg Cathedral
The imposing facade of Strasbourg Cathedral | ©Sylvia Edwards Davis

A French city with a German influence, Strasbourg has a cathedral that is a marvel of Gothic design and a symbol of the enduring spirit of its people. Here is a brief history of the building that Victor Hugo referred to as a ‘light and delicate marvel’.

Strasbourg Cathedral is over one thousand years old. Construction of the original, on the exact site of a Roman temple, was initiated in 1015 but later destroyed by a fire. The second wave of construction started in the 12th century, when the Gothic style of architecture had started to develop. Just to give an idea of the scale of the undertaking, it took the entire 13th century to build the nave, and the delicate spire was completed in 1439.

Strasbourg Cathedral

As a building synonymous with the people of Strasbourg – and by extension with the people of France – the cathedral has momentous significance for religious, cultural and symbolic reasons. The magnificent monument therefore bears the scars of each upheaval of history, and there have been many.

Under the Reformation in 1521, the cathedral became a Protestant church, until after the incorporation of Strasburg into France in 1681 when it reverted back to the Catholic faith. Between 1870 and 1945, a relatively short span of its millennial life, Strasbourg Cathedral suffered heavily during three wars, but remained standing.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, projectiles set fire to the roofs of the nave and the choir stalls. During World War I, the Cathedral continued to operate in relative normality, but all bells except the ‘fat’ one, were removed. The Second World War was a difficult one for the building. During the annexation of Strasbourg into the Third Reich, Hitler was considering turning it into a national monument, awhich would have involved dismantling the huge stained-glass windows for safekeeping. The priceless windows disappeared until 1945 when the Americans found them tucked away in a salt mine in Germany.

Treasures of Strasbourg Cathedral down to the smallest details

The building is full of magnificent art, enigmatic secrets and codes left behind by the skilled masons and artisans that built worked on it over the centuries. One example is the mysterious ‘green ray of light’. As is the case with a number of religious buildings, Strasbourg cathedral has a built-in meridian that marks the spring and autumn equinox. A green segment of stained green glass on the foot of Judas lets through a ray of sunlight that precisely illuminates a statue of the Christ from the fifteenth century. Coincidence? Experts think not, because the figure of Judas clearly shows his hand pointing down to his left foot.

The Astronomical Clock

This is a marvel of ingeniuity put together by a team of artists, mathematicians and technicians. The present mechanism dates from 1842, and the world famous clock draws a crowd every day to see the automated figures on parade at exactly at half past midday.

The masterly astronomical clock in Strasbourg Cathedral

Just opposite the cathedral is the Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame, the institution that manages the upkeep of the cathedral. It is well worth a visit, not just to learn more about the history of the monument, but also because it is home to an exquisite collection of sculpture, paintings and stained-glass covering from seven centuries of art in the region.
Opening hours: due to reinforced security until further notice open daily 9:30am to 11:15am and 2pm to 6pm. No visits during services. Astronomical clock from 11:30 to 12:40 daily except Sundays.

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