Highlights of Germany | Gothic Germany

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Highlights of Germany | Gothic Germany

The term Gothic is often used to refer to a turning point and new era of European architecture that is generally seen as starting in the mid 12th century. Gothic architecture was in stunning contrast to Romanesque architecture which emphasised few windows, massive stonework and heavy walls. In comparison, the Gothic style featured stained glass windows, flying buttresses and more light-filled interiors that made use of cavernous spaces.

The beginnings of the Gothic period can be traced back to France around 1140. The Notre-Dame is considered to be an icon of French Gothic architecture and despite being damaged in a fire last year, it remains one of the largest and best-known churches in the world. Its construction began in 1163 and was completed in 1345. Gothic architecture is generally associated with religious architecture, namely the construction of cathedrals.

Gothic architecture soon found its way to Germany, particularly to cities near the French-German border such as Trier and Heidelburg.

Flying buttresses on a Gothic building
Flying buttresses on a Gothic building

Today, there are many traces of German Gothic architecture dotted around the country. While at first, architects adopted the French style, many regional versions of the Gothic style began to develop and German Gothic architecture became known for its enormous towers and spires, that, as a result of their tremendous size, were sometimes left unfinished. Another feature of the German Gothic style is hall-churches. In traditional French Gothic churches, the nave, the long central interior section, was covered by one roof and separated from side aisles with thicker supports and a wall. This style means that the aisle wall height is much shorter, so you get a sense of vertical space only if you stand in the middle of the building. Conversely, a hall-church has a nave and aisles of the same height. Instead of having a lower side wall with small windows it has stained glass windows that run the entire length of the walls allowing for a soaring sense of space.

Here are some examples of German Gothic sites you can visit today.

The Liebfrauenkirche (Church of Our Beloved Lady) in Trier

Liebfrauenkirche, Trier
Liebfrauenkirche, Trier

The Liebfrauenkirche in Trier, a southwestern German city in the Moselle wine region near the Luxembourg border, is considered to be the earliest Gothic church in Germany, alongside the Cathedral of Magdeburg (reportedly begun in 1209, but finished after the Liebfrauenkirche). While the exact dates of the church’s construction are not known, an inscription on a column inside the church reads  ‘The construction of this church was started in 1227 and ended in 1243’. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cathedral of Magdeburg

Magdeburg Cathedral
Magdeburg Cathedral

The Cathedral of Magdeburg is a Protestant cathedral in Magdeburg, a central German city on the Elbe River. It is the oldest Gothic cathedral in Germany and one of the tallest cathedrals in eastern Germany with its steeples being around 100 metres tall. The first church was built in 937 on the location of the current cathedral but burnt down in a fire in 1207. However, the site remains home to the grave of Emperor Otto I the Great, the German King and Holy Roman Emperor.

Today, the cathedral is the principal church of the Evangelical Church in Central German and is rich in Gothic art and sculpture. One of the most distinctive features of the cathedral is the sculptures of the five wise and the five foolish virgins, which are outside of the north entrance to the transept and thought to have been built in 1250.

five wise and the five foolish virgins,
Three of the five Foolish Virgins

Regensburg Cathedral

St Peter's Cathedral, Regensburg
St Peter’s Cathedral, Regensburg

Regensburg Cathedral, also known as St. Peter’s Cathedral, is the only Gothic Cathedral in Bavaria. The architect originally tasked with constructing a new cathedral for Regensburg, after the cathedral Niedermünster burned down in 1273, had been trained in France and this is part of the reason French Gothic architectural themes were incorporated including a central nave that divides into three sections, buttressesvaulting, and two towers over a facade. Construction came to a stop around 1520 but the church was updated and renovated several times over the centuries. Today, the twin spires of Regensburg Cathedral can be seen from all over the city and it is the city’s best known landmark. 

On the cathedral, you will notice sculptures of kings on horseback, gargoyles and foolish virgins and inside you will find over 100 images of St. Peter, to whom the cathedral is dedicated. As well as this, the cathedral is home to the world’s largest hanging organ.

Frankfurt Cathedral

St Bartholomew, Frankfurt
St Bartholomew, Frankfurt

Officially named the Emperor’s Cathedral of St. Bartholomew, Frankfurt’s main church is a Roman Catholic Gothic church located in the centre of the city. Despite its name, it is not technically a cathedral having never been a bishop’s church. The current church is the fifth iteration of the structure known to exist at this location. In 1876, the church was badly damaged in a major fire and architect Franz Joseph Denzinger led its Neo-Gothic restoration. Only with the restoration was the church’s spire built, despite plans being drawn up for the spire by the cathedral master builder  Madern Gerthener in 1415.

Although not a cathedral, it is still considered an significant religious site due to its importance as a former election and coronation church of the Holy Roman Empire. From 1356 onwards, kings were elected here and between 1562 and 1792 ten monarchs were crowned emperor here in front of the coronation altar. For this reason, it holds a special place in German imperial history and was seen as a symbol for national unity in Germany, especially during the 19th century.

Ulm Minster

Ulm Minster
Ulm Minster

Ulm Minster is a Lutheran church located in Ulm, a city in the south German state of Baden-Württemberg. Until the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is completed, it remains the tallest church in the world. With a steeple measuring 161.5 metres high, it is also the fifth tallest structure built before the 20th century.

Like Frankfurt Cathedral, Ulm Minster is sometimes referred to as a cathedral given its size but it has never been the seat of a bishop. While construction of the church begun in the Gothic era and it features many Gothic elements, such as a nave and flying buttresses, it was not finished until the 19th century.

Visitors to the Ulm Minster can climb the 768 steps to the top of its spire, from which one has a panaromic view of Ulm and the neighbouring town of Neu-Ulm. In clear weather, one can also spy the Alps from Santis to Zugsptize. The church remains a prime example of Gothic art and architecture and contains many examples of medieval culture. The pews are oak with busts carved by Jörg Syrlin the Elder, a famous German sculptor and the pulpit canopy was created by his son (Jörg Syrlin the Younger), also a well known sculptor. The organ was the largest in the world for a time and was played by Amadeus Mozart.

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Cologne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Germany’s most visited landmark, attracting around 20,000 visitors per day. It is the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, the tallest twin-spired church in the world (at 157 metres tall), the largest facade of any church in the world and the choir has the largest height to width ratio of any medieval church.

The foundation stone of the Cologne Cathedral was laid on 15 August 1248 on the celebration of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Construction was halted in 1473 and did not start up again until the 19th century. It was badly damaged in WW2 and still to this day, repair and maintenance work is constantly being carried out in one or another section of the building and the edifice is rarely free of scaffolding. The design of the cathedral is thought to have been based on that of Amiens Cathedral.

The most celebrated piece of art in the cathedral is the Shrine of the Three Kings, a large reliquary in the shape of a basilican church, made of bronze and silver. It was commissioned by the Archbishop of Cologne, Phillip von Heinsberg, and created by Nicholas Verdun. It is traditionally believed to hold the remains of the Three Wise Men.

The Shrine of the Three Kings
The Shrine of the Three Kings

Gothic architecture is an important and defining part of Germany’s architectural history and the painting and sculpture that accompany these Gothic buildings often provide an important insight into the medieval period. These are just some of the sights scattered around the country that are worth a visit for those interested in the Gothic era.

Our tours featuring Germany include:

  • Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle: For lovers of Wagner’s music, this tour gives you the opportunity to see four performances of his music in his home city, Leipzig.
  • Bach, the man and his music: Another tour for classical music fans. This cultural tour is based around the Bach Music Festival in Leipzig, but includes visits to other cities lived in by Bach.
  • The European Ballet: This tour includes nine wonderful performances in five European cities. You will experience six ballets, plus modern dance and two operas performed in beautiful opera houses.
  • Contemporary Germany: This tour captures the diversity of contemporary Germany, ranging from north to south, and taking in Germany’s most important cities: Munich, Dresden, Berlin and Cologne.

Articles about Germany published by Odyssey Traveller:

A history of Berlin for Tourists

The Oberammergau Passion Play 

The Bauhaus Movement

Destination: Germany

Ten books to read about Berlin

Ten of the best art galleries in Europe

Must See Sights in Berlin

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Germany:

13 Things to know before visiting Germany

The Telegraph: Thirty reasons why we love Germany

A Rhine Romance: Following the Mighty River

Lonely Planet: 48 Hours in Hamburg

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