The temptation to make another interstellar battlefleet from the medieval Imperium is too great, although it is hardly straightforward. Yet it’s another interesting exercise in telling a history of medieval architecture purely through a single medieval state’s episcopal buildings, as has been done for England through countless books of highly variable merit. Can it be done for medieval Germany and its associated lands? What even IS the Holy Roman Empire?
It has been said by some joker that it was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. Though one wonders what else one is supposed to call an elective monarchy under an emperor traditionally crowned in Rome by the Pope. The Empire included Kingdoms of Germany and Bohemia, Duchies of Saxony and Bavaria, as well as a massive array of counties, lordships and Free Imperial Cities.
But particularly pertinent to the “Holy” and our interests were the Prince-Bishops: who as well as heading a diocese also controlled secular properties. This bent certainly makes the Empire’s cathedrals worth looking at as a group, although their novelty and ambition broadly declines after 1250, and there was also much Baroquing that obscures some of their medieval features completely.
However, defining the Empire’s borders is hardly a simple task. Although the Kingdom of Italy retained an association with the Empire – particularly the bishopric of Trento – I have chosen to omit primarily because of the architectural traditions are quite separate from over the Alps but also because it’s all too tied up with the Patriarchate of Aquileia and the Italian republics. The Kingdom of Burgundy already was put into the French fleet, but Besançon (now in France) appears again to command Basel and Lausanne.
The cities are also given their modern name, so what often is referred to in German literature as “Breslauer Dom” I call Wrocław, as it is now in Poland. The archiepiscopal church of Gniezno is included for context, but it was firmly in the Kingdom of Poland, and indeed was embroiled in a tugging contest with Magdeburg archdiocese over Kamienska (German: Kamień Pomorski). But because there was a lot less Roman settlement in Germania, despite its size, this area is not overburdened with medieval dioceses like France.
Origins from 800 AD and the Carolingian architectural revival
The first Holy Roman Emperor was Charlemagne, crowned by the Pope in Old St Peter’s Basilica, Rome on one of the easiest days in history to remember: 25 December 800. His control of mainland Europe from the Pyrenees to the Baltic was the first era of political stability since the end of the Western Roman Empire four centuries before, and allowed centres to consolidate to cultivate the development of learning, art and architecture. At the Palace at his imperial capital of Aachen, the aula regia – built after the model of something like the surviving hall of Constantine in nearby Trier – was easily the largest building constructed in Western Europe since the late 5th century. The famous chapel, on a centralised plan like Constantine’s Holy Sepulchre rotunda in Jerusalem and Emperor Justinian’s Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, had a Gothic choir added in the second half of the 14th century and became a cathedral in 1801. Yet as a Palace Chapel, Aachen remains an axiomatic building for the beginnings of the Romanesque style. And at least it survives, unlike so much else from the 9th century.
Even if a lot of the buildings themselves have vanished, the the early post-Roman revival of monumental masonry construction in Europe shapes the Empire’s cathedrals. Another great building around the year 800 was the Abbey church of Fulda, which in its plan of a west-facing apse with a continuous transept, consciously mimicked Old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome in order to accentuate the tomb of St Boniface as the “Apostle of the Germans”. Although it was not a cathedral with its own bishop until 1752, from 1221 its heads had the title of Prince-Abbot, and were exempt from archdiocesan control. Large columnar basilicas were also built for the cathedrals of Hildesheim and Cologne. Cologne was of course completely replaced from the late 13th century, but at least an echo of Carolingian Hildesheim can be felt in the 11th-century rebuild on largely the initial plan.
The Ottonian and Salian periods from the tenth to the twelfth century
Although the Carolingian dynasty faded after the division of the Empire in 843, the Ottonian dynasty continued its tradition, particularly the cathedral of Magdeburg c. 955, their new capital, which was of similar size to the current Gothic building. But the most spectacular phase of German cathedral architecture comes with the Salian dynasty taking over in 1024. Emperor Conrad II chose the Roman town of Speyer near Aachen for his new capital, which ushered in a new epic mode of architectural that accentuated the Empire as the most powerful state in Europe, the heir to Charlemagne and the Romans. However, Conrad’s Speyer Cathedral was so ambitious (one might say over-ambitious, erected with “too little caution” by the Rhine) within twenty years of its completion in 1060, it was repaired and souped up as Speyer II (Speyer Harder), including the addition of exceptionally ambitious masonry high vaults. The use of the double bay to support a high masonry vault continued in the cathedral of Worms in the 1130s-60s.
When we get to the era of the supremacy of the pointed arch and rib-vault, the Empire loses its way somewhat as a world-leader in church building design. The big-bay engineering continues into the Gothic builds of Bamberg and Münster, but here it seems rather ponderous and conservative. Münster even has the bizarre decision of putting what look like triforium openings in the spandrels of the arcade, as some sort of lazy attempt to accentuate a middle storey. Essentially, the buildings of the Imperial Romanesque phase of the early 11th century, were comprised of segmented, compact spaces rather than the grand unified interiors of Anglo-Norman buildings of the 1070s and later, and much more difficult to amalgamate with the emerging Gothic style.
The replacement of the Ottonian Cathedral at Magdeburg in Saxony is slightly more successful, but there is a little bit of a stand-off between the sense of tubey French verticality and decorative fussiness that is never really resolved. Nevertheless Magdeburg is the only early 13th-century German cathedral with radiating chapels, absolutely conventional in France by this period, even if they are exceptionally small by their standards.
Most German cathedrals are hardly famous and none became benchmarks for any sort of great German Gothic episcopal style. The closest the Empire got to its own High Gothic mode was the hall church – where the aisles were almost the same height as the central vessel, and there basically is no arcade elevation to speak of. The hall church came from Romanesque archetypes, but may not have been seen as seemly for an episcopal church before the collapse of centralised power in the Empire with the death of Emperor Frederick in 1250. After this, the prince-bishops found they could greater exercise their secular power as princes rather than bishops, and the burgher parish churches’ ambition started to equal and exceed that of the Imperial cathedral builds. Late 13th-century Verden and Meissen show an early acceptance of the type for a cathedral, the latter evidentially a switch from the intended classic aisled basilica.
French Rayonnant in the Empire in the late thirteenth century
Strasbourg and Cologne, were the exceptions in this period of the decline in episcopal ambition. Ironically with all the eulogies spun about them by Goethe and Caspar David Friedrich, they are essentially French in their designs. Strasbourg’s nave was a straightforward adaptation of St-Denis’ influential Rayonnant rebuilding in the 1230s – enormous bar-traceried clerestory windows above a glazed triforium – by French-born masons. Cologne was an pretty blatant attempt to transplant Amiens’ hyper-massive mode into the largest city in the Empire. In Cologne, in order to outdo the other twelve Romanesque churches in the city, the dilapidated late-Carolingian Romanesque cathedral sorely needed to make an absolutely epic statement: Kingmaker Archbishop Conrad von Hochstaden being the man to organise one. The Middle Ages eventually gave up on the mammoth project, and it took the confidence of the German state heading towards unification in 1871 to complete it to the original design (with a little help from structural wrought iron).
Die Sondergotik in the later 14th century and beyond
Strasbourg and Cologne however, both show in their extraordinary facades, that German Gothic would eventually blossom through linear decoration rather than spatial engineering. Indeed, many of the more famous great Gothic “cathedrals” in the Empire, such as Antwerp, were only initially parish or collegiate churches. Other “burgher cathedrals” such as Ulm Minster and St Peter, Leuven, which became world-beating in their proportions until the 19th century, were not built as cathedrals and have never been the seat of a bishop.
When King Charles of Bohemia became Holy Roman Emperor in 1346, the capital of the Empire moved to Prague, which became an archbishopric. The cathedral was rebuilt with a French-style chevet under the master-mason Matthias of Arras from 1344-52, and given an exceptionally innovative superstructure and net-vault under Peter Parler from 1356. The net-vault, originally developed in England as a way of applying pattern to the surface of vaults, whether Parler had visited Britain or not, was certainly brought over to the Empire by the means of the increasingly common practice of architectural drafting and measured drawings on parchment.
Net vaults subsequently make an appearance in the nave of Vienna, a hall-church which was only raised to cathedral rank in 1469 at the behest of Emperor Frederick III. In the rest of Austria, the tendency of the Habsburgs had for displaying their power through the Italian Baroque has made it slightly difficult to appreciate this corner of the medieval Empire. The archiepiscopal cathedral in Salzburg had a catastrophic fire in 1598, and subsequently Prince-Bishop Wolf Dietrich Raitenau managed to get it all demolished and cleared for a brand-new structure in 1606, built 1614-28 to the designs of Santino Solari. The plan of the Romanesque basilica before the disaster is known from excavation.
To varying degrees some medieval cathedrals in Austria – Brixen, Freising and Passau – were partially rebuilt and remodelled into the Austrian Baroque style, as was Würzburg in Germany. Hildesheim Cathedral was also heavily baroqued, but this was removed during rebuilding after the building’s partial destruction by Allied bombing in March 1945.
Only two medieval Imperial cathedrals were demolished in revolutionary fervour: Hamburg (Alter Mariendom) and Liège (St. Lambert). Hamburg was a kinda vanilla hall church as you’d expect up towards the Baltic, but Liége, being between Cologne and Cambrai, was clearly quite an essay in French Rayonnant in many of its parts. Both sites are unbuilt on and clearly marked out.
So that’s all my preamble for this, really. The Holy Roman Empire’s Cathedral churches north of the Alps. In spaaaace.
As usual, if you would like this in MEGA HI-RES!!! (8k pixels across) then visit my Ko-Fi store. As Ko-Fi continues to expand its services I can offer you this (as it didn’t really take me terribly long compared to France and England) for the bargain price of ONE ENGLISH POUND! Yes, give me a reusable token for a shopping trolley, and you can have a png of German medieval cathedrals in spaaaaaace! That’s not all though, I will also throw in a version with a white background and the cloisters left on* that you can manipulate as you wish! Wow! What a deal.
* claustral and conventual areas can not be guaranteed for their veracity in vaulting and consistency like the churches. Use at own risk.
Also thanks to Christian Opitz who not only pointed me to the medieval plan of Salzburg, but also supplied the Dehio plan of the tiny Austrian cathedral of Lavant, which I am pretty sure is not otherwise on the Internet because I spent hours looking for it and even started drawing my own version of it. And cheers to everyone who uploaded 360s of these cathedrals to Google that’s allowed me to virtually visit them over the past week or so: I’ve made sure to not crop out the identification credit from the screenshots.