It’s because of the Three Kings, or Wise Men, that Cologne exists at all in the modern world. The Shrine of the Three Kings, said to contain the bones of the three Wise Men from the Bible, brought pilgrims to the town in the Middle Ages, and it was decided that a cathedral should be built to house the shrine properly. Every January 6 (Epiphany in the church calendar), members of the public are allowed to process alongside the ossuary (bone box) and pay their respects.
Building churches takes a while for two reasons. The first is that most of them were built before electricity or steam power, so all those massive stones had to be lifted, carved and affixed using simple tools. The second reason is that church building is expensive. Cologne Cathedral is a case in point: work began in 1248 and was not completed until the two big towers were added in 1880.
Even with 600 years of careful measuring, things didn’t work exactly right. The North Tower, (the one closest to the train station) clocks in at 157.38 metres (516.33 feet), while the South Tower is 7 centimetres (2.75 inches) higher.
Cologne Cathedral has had its own workshop for about 800 years – all that stone and wood doesn’t carve itself. In 1290, the workshop produced an elegant wooden sculpture of Mary and the Christ Child that is now known as the Madonna of Milan. This high gothic statue is associated with miracles and has attracted pilgrims to Cologne for centuries.
Choir stalls were a major feature of medieval churches, and having an ornately carved one was a real coup for any church. Nothing is done by half measures in Cologne, so there are 104 carved oak seats surrounded by frescoed walls, painted statues and stained glass.
During World War II, Cologne Cathedral was hit by 14 bombs, but the building did not fall. Repairs to the damaged parts were finally finished in 1956, though some sections were deliberately left unprepared as a memorial to what had happened.
Like most cathedrals, the Kölner Dom has a set of bells, the largest of which is called St Peter’s Bell, or Dicke Pitter (‘Fat Peter’) in Kölsch, the local dialect. Since there’s no carillon at the Dom, the eight existing bells ring the chimes. Peter is reserved for special occasions like Christmas and New Year; weighing in at 24 tons, he’s not someone to mess with.
On Cologne’s many (many, many) grey afternoons, the dark hulk of the Dom can be quite forbidding. At night, when it is floodlit, it is even more dramatic. The church wasn’t built with black stone, though, it’s just dirty, thanks to the way that sandstone reacts with the sulphuric acid that is in our polluted rain. Workers clean the façade almost constantly. Once they make their way around to where they started, the first parts needs cleaning again.