All grand churches, whether St. Peter’s in Rome or the Frauenkirche in Dresden, have a history; Cologne Cathedral has a career. Begun in the Middle Ages, the building stayed unfinished for centuries. Its facade remained without any real relationship to the chancel, and even after the bells were installed in 1437 the South Tower was still just a stump that – augmented by a crooked building crane – formed an eccentric urban landmark right through into the nineteenth century. Not until the Romantic rediscovery of Gothic and the Middle Ages did this torso become a magnet for patriotic yearnings and religious raptures. These – and Kaiser Wilhelm I too – we have to thank for the completion of the Gothic cathedral in its historic style, which was finally brought to an end in 1880. In this simulated perfection the cathedral became the symbol of German unification, and this is where the building’s career began. Cologne Cathedral – picture-postcard-perfect World Cultural Heritage – stands beside the Rhine, the German river, and as such it has come, especially for foreigners, to be the object that is identified most with German art and culture, comparable only with Schloss Neuschwanstein.
The sharp breaks and changing expectations of the cathedral’s history need to be mentioned, because it has now been enriched by a new and unexpected chapter that promises a career of a different kind: Gerhard Richter’s new window for the South Transept.
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