Strasbourg Cathedral millennium | DW Travel | DW | 23.06.2015
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Strasbourg Cathedral millennium

The first stone of the Strasbourg Cathedral was laid 1,000 years ago. Yet new evidence shows that baptisms were performed here even earlier, in Late Antiquity.

Bishop Werner von Habsburg got one thing right: He backed the right horse - or rather the right duke, when the struggle for the imperial German throne between the victorious Henry II of Bavaria and the defeated Herman II, Duke of Swabia spread as far as Strasbourg. However, the battle cost him a cathedral, which, according to writings of the year 1002, was ransacked and burned to the ground as an act of vengeance by Herman II on what he called "the accursed Alemanic hoards."

Events to mark the anniversary

In 1015, Werner eventually laid the first stone of a cathedral on the present site of the Strasbourg Cathedral. Declaring this year to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the cathedral is nevertheless arbitrary, as only the foundation of that construction has survived to this day.

Before the construction of the cathedral, several churches were built on this spot, at least as far back as the year 728. A recently discovered four-by-four-meter (13 x 13 ft)baptismal font is new evidence that christenings took place here in ancient times and records list a bishop of Strasbourg, called Ansualdus, in the year 614.

The current cathedral actually dates back to 1190. After several fires, the last one being in 1176, the church was built from scratch. The cathedral is therefore strictly speaking only 825 years old, and not 1,000, but in the Alsace region, like elsewhere, any excuse for a celebration is good enough.

Several commemorative events began already last September. The celebrations will culminate this summer with one highlight being the "light and sound" display that will take place every evening from July 4 until September 20. With special effects and a clever use of color, the west façade of the cathedral will be brought to life and shown in a very different light.

Like the strings of a harp

Strasbourg Cathedral Copyright: dpa

Inside the cathedral

The sandstone from the Vosges used in the building gives the cathedral its characteristic pink hue. It was the construction of the nave that turned it into a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Although the initial intention was to create a cathedral reaching up to the sky, the overall impression is undermined by the massive, dark and cave-like altar which was built earlier.

The West front, created between 1277 and 1439, is a true work of art. The figures in the richly decorated portal could fill story books.

Even more impressive is the Rosetta window on the west façade, covering a 15-meter (49-foot) diameter and consisting of 16 double rose petals. Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel called the façade a "stone harp." The decorative fine sandstone columns actually do look like the strings of a harp.

At 142 meters (466 feet), it was the world's tallest building in the Middle Ages, from 1647 to 1874, until it was surpassed by St. Nikolai's Church in Hamburg. Today, it is the sixth-tallest church in the world and the highest extant structure built entirely in the Middle Ages, even though the south spire was never completed.

Other attractions include an 18-meter (59-foot) astronomical clock dating from 1574, one of the largest in the world, located in the cathedral's south transept, as well as the unique three-story high "Angel's Column" depicting the Last Judgment.

Eventful German-French relations

Young poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, having climbed the spire in 1770, stated in his writings "On German Architecture" (1773) that only a German virtuoso architect like Erwin von Steinbach was able to create this "sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God." In his view, the French or the Italians were still imitating old architectural forms.

Strasbourg and its cathedral underwent many years of upheaval and strife between Germany and France. In 1524, the Catholic Cathedral was assigned to the Protestant faith. After the annexation of the city by Louis XIV of France in 1681, the Cathedral was returned to the Catholics.

During the height of the French Revolution, there were even plans to tear the spire down on the grounds that it hurt the principle of equality. The tower was saved, however, when in May of the same year citizens of Strasbourg crowned it with a giant tin Phrygian cap, the kind of hat popular in Revolutionary France.

After the First World War, Alsace once again became part of France – only to be invaded by German troops during the Second World War. Adolf Hitler wanted to make the cathedral a German "National Shrine." The cathedral sustained bombing damage in 1944 during British and US air raids.

Ultimately, despite all the historical upheaval, like the city of Strasbourg, the cathedral connects Germany and France, right in the middle of Europe.