On my first trip to Germany, I concentrated on the gorgeous state of Bavaria to see its castles and palaces. On my second, two decades later, I made a seven-day run around seven different cities to go to more than 20 Christmas markets. In between all that activity, I made sure to stop and admire the country’s outstanding churches. These magnificent buildings not only stand the test of time as architectural monuments that house irreplaceable artwork, they also tell histories that can span many centuries. These are my favorites.
#1 Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) (Cologne)
The image of Cologne that has resonated most with me is the aerial shot of the devastated Old Town, a victim of Allied bombing during World War II: Amid the wrecked shells of thousands of buildings and the collapsed bridges that were now piles of debris blocking the Rhine River, the Cologne Cathedral remained standing despite taking 14 hits by aerial bombs. This formidable building took more than 600 years to complete, and I had to see the structure (fully repaired by 1956) that miraculously survived such an onslaught. The Cologne hauptbahnhof opens onto the same platz as one side of the church, and I was immediately awed by its size and astounding beauty as soon as I emerged from the train station. Begun in 1248 and not completed until 1880 after a long work halt (miraculously maintaining the original medieval plan), it remains the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe, has its second-tallest spires (reaching up 515’), ranks as the third-tallest church in the world and the second-tallest building in the city, and claims to have the largest façade of any church in the world. At 474’ long and 283’ wide, the building takes up 85,186 square feet. The façade is a riot of Gothic-arched windows and a dozen portals, parades of crockets on the spires and pinnacles, flying buttresses, and an abundance of unique statues in the archivolts.
Inside, the sheer verticality of the cathedral is practically overwhelming—you’d need binoculars to really appreciate what’s so far above you. More than 107,000 square feet of gorgeous windows—including stained glass from as far back as 1265, one that ranks among the world’s top five depictions of St. Stephen, and five humongous windows donated by King Ludwig I in 1848—let in streams of light. The brick high altar, clad in white Carrara marble, from 1322, is the largest single stone in the cathedral. Small statuettes and groups of figures stand in its delicate arches. There’s also a ton of sculptures created in a wide variety of materials (marble, sandstone, wood, limestone, you name it), including the colored figure of St. Christopher, toting the Christ child on his shoulders; made of tuff stone in 1470, it stands at more than 12’ tall, the largest sculpture in the cathedral. The absolutely gorgeous mosaic floor—the largest work of art in the cathedral, covering more than 14,000 square feet—depicts, in meticulous details, figures of the pope, the archbishop, the artist, and the farmer; the four elements; allegorical figures of time and day; and so much more. They’re so stunning that I was reluctant to walk on them. With 104 seats, the oak choir stall is the largest in Germany and one of the largest medieval choir stalls in the world. Adorned with sculpted foliage and figures, the stall also features sculpted misericords on the seats’ undersides. You’ll find tombs and epitaphs for archbishops and counts as well as the oldest known large crucifix, from 976. The Shrine of the Three Kings, finished in around 1220, is one of the cathedral’s greatest holdings. Not only is it a remarkable work of art, it’s also notable for what it contains: relics of the three Magi. Although I spent a full 90 minutes here before I moved on to the city’s Christmas markets, I knew it was absolutely nowhere near enough time to absorb all the treasures of the most beautiful church in Germany.
#2 St. Sebaldus Church (Sebalduskirche) (Nuremberg)
One of the city’s oldest and most important churches, and one of the most beautiful buildings in Nuremberg, St. Sebaldus Church has been soaring over the city since its initial completion in 1275. Construction didn’t end there, though: Subsequent additions and reconfigurations included the widening of side aisles, addition of towers and galleries, heightening of steeples, and conversion of the interior from a Romanesque style to Baroque, all of which lasted through the 17th century. Then, all was peaceful—until World War II and the virtual obliteration of the church. The archival photos of the church and its near complete destruction that I found inside provided fascinating snapshots of how badly this church suffered—but you’d never know it by looking at it today, thanks to a meticulous reconstruction completed in 1957. Named for the city’s patron saint, an eighth-century hermit and missionary, St. Sebaldus sports a formidable stone façade, complete with twin towers capped by verdigris-green spires, pinnacles, and some wonderful stone details, like the Palm Sunday panel and the statue of St. Christopher toting the Christ child on his shoulders by the entrance. I headed inside, where I was surprised by the unexpectedly bright interior, warmed by flickering candles on altars and in Advent wreaths for the Christmas season. Soaring cluster columns support the high groin-vault ceiling. Painted statues of saints standing on little shelves abound, and a wide painting tells the whole story of Adam and Eve in one of the world’s best depictions of the original man and woman. The very vertical windows combine stained and plain glass. The most notable feature is the Shrine of St. Sebaldus, which survived the World War II bombings. This extremely ornate tomb, adorned with figures ranging from religious personae and angels to mice and snails, houses a silver reliquary casket that contains the bones of the church’s eponymous saint.
#3 St. Lawrence Church (Lorenzkirche) (Nuremberg)
Although it’s a bit newer than St. Sebaldus Church, St. Lawrence Church (another of Nuremberg’s most beautiful buildings) followed a similar historical path: completion, expansion, and additions, severe damage during World War II, and reconstruction. I stared up at the two massive towers, with their gargoyles and finials, and two different, spiky spires. The central space between them is filled in by a wonderful rose window encircled by outstanding tracery, and by a highly ornamented portal with dozens of figures representing everything from the birth of Jesus to His crucifixion to Judgment Day, with a disturbing scene of corpses breaking out of coffins. Completed in 1477 and switched to a Lutheran church during the Reformation, the Gothic three-aisle church was spared the destructive iconoclasm by the city council and wealthy citizens who had paid for it in the first place, but it couldn’t emerge unscathed from the destruction of the Second World War. On the feast day of the church’s namesake, August 10, Allied bombs struck the building for the first time, in 1943, followed by another bombing in 1945. By the end, much of the church was completely destroyed and the towers badly damaged, but most of the art survived, having been removed prior to the war and safely stored in art bunkers. Removal of all the rubble and reconstruction lasted for years, completed in 1952. Like St. Sebaldus, the interior is extremely vertical, with tall cluster columns and arches leading up to a high, groin-vault ceiling above the nave. Throughout, I kept coming across wonderful features and details, thankful for the foresight of those who stowed away the church’s treasures before the bombs fell. The stained-glass windows, the small human heads on the wood choir stalls, the finely sculpted pulpit with depictions of the four evangelists, a gorgeous raised platform swathed in tracery and human and animal figures that rests on the shoulders of three kneeling men, and wonderful centuries’-old wooden sculptures, including a particularly fine Last Supper, all survived and make you almost question whether a war ever took place here at all.
#4 Freiburg Cathedral (Freiburg Münster) (Freiburg)
I knew virtually nothing about the 33rd-largest city in Germany before I arrived there to attend its Christmas markets. But as soon as I entered the Old Town, I immediately fell in love. Anchoring the whole city is the huge and gorgeous Freiburg Cathedral, an awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral completed in 1510 after about 300 years of construction that miraculously survived the bombings during World War II. Sitting in the center of the cobblestone Münsterplatz, the cathedral and its 380’-tall tower, with 16 bells, colorful single-hand clocks, and open lattice spire, soars over everything around it. The exterior is a visual feast, embellished with flying buttresses, pinnacles, statues, and eerie gargoyles with tortured, screaming mouths meant to keep evil demons away. When I stepped inside through the doors set in a Gothic archivolt, an organist was practicing, lending a wonderful atmosphere. Four organs contain 11,000 pipes, and all four can be played from the main console. Running a length of about 413’, the cathedral invites you in deeper and deeper. I took in the pointed-arch arcades, the mighty clustered pillars with statues standing on little platforms under canopies, the wonderful pulpit with the winding staircase, and the 11-panel altarpiece. The oldest work of art in the entire cathedral hangs over the high altar—a monumental silver crucifix made around 1200. The vibrant stained-glass windows, the oldest of which dates from 1220, include those in the nave, donated by the craft guilds around 1330. These bear symbols characteristic of the individual guild—a boot for the shoemakers, for instance, and a scissors for the tailors. There’s also a side chapel that houses one of the best Last Suppers in the world, in which 13 dark polychromed carved wooden figures gather around three sides of a spartan table. It captures the moment after Jesus made his predictions of a betrayer and a denier. The apostles are thrown into a state of despair, and their individual reactions range from shock to dismay to sorrow to a struggle to comprehend His pronouncements—except for Judas, who, clutching his satchel of blood money, looks directly at Jesus with scorn and contempt. Don’t miss it—you’ll be forever impressed by the artistry of the sculpting, from the veins in their hands, to the waves in their hair and beards, to the folds in their robes.
#5 St. Andrew’s Church (Andreaskirche) (Düsseldorf)
On my way to the Christmas markets in Düsseldorf, St. Andrew’s Church, one of the most beautiful buildings in Düsseldorf, was the first building to catch my eye, what with its putty and cheerful yellow façade, twin towers, and arched and porthole windows. I was puzzled by its understated frontispiece, given the church’s pedigree—a South German baroque house of worship completed in 1629 after only seven years of construction for the Jesuits (and now the priory church for the local Dominican friars). A Sunday morning service was letting out, so I decided to pop in for a peek, and I was shocked and utterly delighted by the grandeur belied by the exterior. With its fine life-size sculptures of the apostles and of saints of the Society Jesus standing on consoles of different designs; wonderful organ; ornate pulpit encrusted with sculpted figures, angels, fruits, and nuts; and a high altar built in 1960 after the old one was destroyed during the Second World War (and which doesn’t really blend in well), St. Andrew’s was proving a veritable feast for my eyes. But it’s the church’s incredible stucco work that makes it so unforgettable. White stucco sculpting that looks like rich, delicate meringue frosts the church’s surfaces, from the ceiling down, to the pendentives and the different paterae in the soffits of the arches, to the winged angel heads above the statues. Gold leaf, used sparingly, shows up in little flashes, like the trim of an apostle’s robe or a shooting star. Dozens of religious figures are sculpted into triangular panels, and I spent a fair amount of time hunting for my favorites—St. Stephen on his knees in supplication, holding one of the stones that killed him; St. Mark hard at work writing his gospel, accompanied by his symbolic lion; St. George slaying the dragon with a lance through the beast’s eye. This luscious craftsmanship remains unmatched in the city.
- Cathedral of Our Lady (Frauenkirche) (1524; Munich)
- Theatine Church of St. Cajetan and Adelaid (Theatinerkirche St. Kajetan und Adelheid) (1768; Munich)
- Frankfurt Cathedral (Frankfurter Dom) (1550; Frankfurt)
- St. Michael’s Church (Michaelskirche) (1597; Munich)
- St. Egidien’s Church (Egidienkirche) (1718; Nuremberg)
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