Founded in 1010, Hildesheim Cathedral is famed for its astounding collection of early medieval art treasures, which include bronze doors carved with biblical scenes, a bronze column with scenes from the life of Christ, and two grand candalabra.
History of Hildesheim Cathedral
The cathedral was likely established by the imperial assembly in 815, but the legend seems to be accurate in attributing the first church on the site to Ludwig the Pious. The walls of his ancient chapel were excavated under the side walls of the crypt after World War II; the foundations of a rotunda discovered in the cloister courtyard may also belong to it.
The architectural history of the cathedral described in detail in the 11th-century Fundatio document has been shown to be accurate by archaeological investigations. The first cathedral on the site was built by Bishop Altfried (851-75). This Carolingian building had a transept, a choir and an ambulatory crypt.
The west part of the cathedral was rebuilt in the time of Bishop St. Gotthard (1022-38) and a new project in the same area was begun and then abandoned due to structural problems by Bishop Azelin (1044-54).
The cathedral's nave was rebuilt by Bishop Hezilo (1054-1079), incorporating the west end rebuilt by Gotthard and significant portions of the 9th-century transept and choir into the new building. The Romanesque architecture of the new nave was probably based on that of St. Michael's Church, which was dedicated in 1022.
The present crypt under the crossing was also added at this time, to allow pilgrim access to the increasingly revered tomb of Bishop Gotthard. This replaced the 9th-century ambulatory crypt, which was not restored.
The apse was added several decades later under Bishop Berthold (1118-30), who also enlarged the crypt. The cloisters were added shortly thereafter. Finally, in the late 12th century Bishop Bernhard built a new crossing tower and may also have modified the west end of the cathedral.
In the 14th century, the nave received the Gothic treatment with the addition of side chapels along the aisles of the nave. The Chapel of St. Anne was added to the cloister courtyard in the early part of the century to host funerary services. In 1412, the "north paradise" narthex was built next to the north transept. The cloister and its surrounding buildings were radically altered in the later Middle Ages.
Like most other German churches, Hildesheim Cathedral was fully baroqued in the 17th and 18th centuries. The crossing tower was replaced with a new one in the early 18th century and in 1720 the interior was transformed into a Baroque hall decorated with stucco and painting.
In the 19th century, Baroque was out of fashion and there was a new interest in medievalism. However, the idea of the medieval was often romanticized with little concern for authenticity. In 1840, the west tower was declared to be dilapidated and was demolished, to be replaced by a historicist facade with double towers. Near the end of the century, the crypt was restored and its Baroque decorations were removed.
Tragically, Hildesheim Cathedral was gutted by Allied bombs on March 22, 1945. All that remained was a burnt-out ruin, with the roof and north side of the nave entirely lost. Fortunately, however, the cathedral's many art treasures were safely stored at the onset of the war.
Rebuilding of the cathedral began in 1950 and was completed in 1960. Hildesheim Cathedral will celebrate its 1200th anniversary in 2015.
Myth and Mystery
According to legend, written down in the late 11th century in the Fundatio Ecclesiae Hildensemensis, Hildesheim Cathedral was founded by the will of the Virgin Mary herself. Charlemagne's son Ludwig the Pious was out hunting one day from his court at nearby Elze when he said mass on the forested site of the present cathedral. He had brought some relics of the Virgin Mary from the royal chapel for this purpose, which he hung on a tree.
Somehow, the relics were forgotten and left behind. The imperial chaplain was sent out from Elze to retrieve them, but to his surprise he found he could not budge the reliquary from its place in the tree.
Ludwig interpreted this as a sign of God's will that they should build a church dedicated to Mary on the site. He also declared that from then on, the cathedral of the diocese should be located in Hildesheim instead of with the court in Elze.
What to See at Hildesheim Cathedral
The reconstructed exterior of Hildesheim Cathedral primarily reflects the late medieval version of the building, with a Romanesque core and Gothic additions. It is a three-aisled basilica with a crossing transept, north paradise, choir bay and east apse enclosed by a cloister. The octagonal crossing tower represents the age of the prince bishops in the 18th century.
The rebuilt west tower takes the Romanesque form that was demolished in 1840. An imposing westwerk, it includes a porch with round portal (patterned after Minden Cathedral and lower than the original) and is topped with sharply sloping roofs.
The facade of the north paradise, which faces the city, is dominated by figures of the cathedral's patrons: Virgin Mary, St. Epiphanius and St. Gotthard. The northwest porch blends in with the north chapels but is distinguished by its figurative sculptures.
The rebuilt nave of the cathedral is based on the 11th-century Romanesque version, but with some elements (like plain white walls) that are typical of the 1950s when it was rebuilt.
Amazingly, numerous architectural elements have survived from the Middle Ages, despite multiple changes in taste and the devastating bombing of 1945. The following are early medieval originals:
To better serve the cathedral's modern congregation, the high altar was moved from the east apse to a more accessible position in the crossing and the choir was shifted to the east.
One of many remarkable medieval treasures in Hildesheim Cathedral, Bernward's Door (Bernwardstüren) is the first set of bronze doors since Roman times to be decorated with sculpture. Dated by its inscription to 1015, the door was commissioned by Abbot Bernward for St. Michael's Church, but later moved here.
Bernward's Door is one of the largest medieval bronze doors (at 4.72m tall) and is unique in that each of the two panels were cast as one piece. The panels depict eight scenes from the Old Testament on the left and eight scenes from the New Testament on the right (eight is the symbolic number of regeneration).
Many of the parallel scenes complement each other in telling the message of salvation. The Old Testament stories are arranged chronologically from top to bottom, while the New Testament scenes are read from bottom to top. The subjects of the sculptures are as follows:
Like Bernward's Door, the "Christ Column" (Christussäule) dates from about 1015 AD and was originally intended for St. Michael's Church. It stood there until the 18th century, but had been much neglected since the church became Protestant in 1542.
In 1810, the column was in danger of being melted down, but local history buffs saved it by exhibiting it in the cathedral courtyard. It was later moved inside to protect it from the elements.
The design of this unique object is based on Trajan's Column in Rome, replacing the scenes of military victory with "triumphant" episodes from the life of Christ, primarily miracles. There are 24 scenes in all, beginning at the bottom with Christ's baptism in the Jordan River and ending with his Triumphal Entry at the top.
The capital is a 19th-century free copy. Originally, the column was topped with a cross, but that was melted down in 1543 after the Reformation.
The elegant bronze baptismal font dates from c.1225. Personifications of the four rivers of paradise decorate the base, while personifications of the four virtues, four evangelists and eight prophets appear in an orderly pattern. The remainder of the font is covered with biblical scenes illustrating complex symbolic meanings.
All the elements appear in groups of four and eight, because eight is the number of regeneration and therefore of baptism. The subjects are laid out as follows:
The high altar at the east end of the cathedral is a red marble slab, under which is the kept the Epiphany Shrine, a medieval gold shrine containing the relics of the cathedral's patron saints. Made in the first half of the 12th century, the shrine is richly decorated with gold figures.
The short ends bear portraits of six patron saints, including Cosmas, Damian and Epiphanius. The long sides depict the New Testament parables of the wise and foolish virgins and of the talents, which represent the good lives of the saints.
Suspended above the altar is another notable medieval treasure: the huge, wheel-shaped Hezilo Chandelier, donated by Bishop Hezilo when he restored the cathedral. Dating from 1061 and measuring over 6m (almost 20 ft) in diameter, it is both the oldest and largest of only four such chandeliers to survive.
Hildesheim Cathedral has two of the surviving four: the other is in a cloister chapel. The remaining two are in Aachen Cathedral (Barbarossa's Chandelier) and Grosscomburg Castle. Like the others, the Hezilo Chandelier is a visual representation of the the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21, where God's people will live in peace.
Behind the altar are modern artworks that continue the theme of Revelation: an apse mosaic of a flaming cross and a stained glass window depicting the Virgin Mary as mother of the church (Revelation 12).
The primary patron of the cathedral, Mary is also honored with a Gothic statue on the southwest crossing pier next to the choir. The "Inkpot Madonna," showing the Virgin and Child holding a pen and inkpot, dates from the early 1400s. It was formerly kept in the chapter house.
The pulpit is modern and bears bronze reliefs of seven Old Testament events that symbolize the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. On the lectern is a replica of a 13th-century bronze eagle (original in the cathedral museum).
The crypt of Hildesheim Cathedral was a major place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, thanks to its relics of St. Gotthard. Entered via either transept, the crypt is enclosed behind beautiful wrought-iron lattice gates dating from the last third of the 14th century.
The magnificent Gotthard Shrine was returned to the west end of the crypt on top of the saint's tomb in 1972. A glittering gold casket dating from before 1140, the shrine is one of the oldest in Europe. It is protected behind a modern lattice gate made by Ludwig Baur.
For stylistic reasons, the shrine probably came from the goldsmiths' workshop of Roger von Helmarshausen, one of the leading manufacturers of gold objects in that period. One end shows Christ in Majesty flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.
The twelve apostles sit enthroned along the sides and the other end bears a portrait of St. Gotthard, joined by Bishop Bernhard (who led the canonization effort) and a priest who is probably Canon Hermann of Thuringia (who also contributed to the veneration of the saint).
At the east end of the crypt is a modern block altar with a tabernacle made in 1960 by Sister Lioba Munz of Fulda. A modern interpretation of the medieval shrines, the golden tabernacle is decorated with precious stones and cloisonné enamel.
As if all these historic treasures were not enough to dazzle visitors, there is a cathedral museum displays still more priceless artworks. The collection includes religious objects made from gold, cast bronze, and stone, as well as silks and manuscripts. There is an admission fee and photography is not allowed inside.
The north transept leads out to the dark and atmospheric cloister (first half of 12th century), whose corridors have cozy low ceilings with groin vaults and an upper gallery. Its three wings envelop the east end of the church, leaving the apse protruding into the courtyard.
Climbing the apse of the cathedral in the courtyard is Hildesheim's famous 1000-year-old rose, said to be the oldest in the world. It is a symbol of the city and its prosperity - legend has it that Hildesheim will never decline as long as the rose keeps blooming.
Its mystical qualities seemed to be confirmed during World War II - the rose not only survived the bomb attacks in 1945 that destroyed the cathedral, but it grew new shoots just a few weeks later. The shoots are marked with the years in which they grew.
The courtyard was long used for burials of the cathedral chapter and there are many old tombstones scattered about. The oldest, dating from the early Middle Ages, can be found in the north section next to the entrance. The Gothic St. Anne's Chapel (Annenkapelle) in the center was built in 1321 to host funeral services for these burials.
Quick Facts on Hildesheim Cathedral
|Names:||Dom St. Maria · Dom zu Hildesheim · Hildesheim Cathedral · Mariensdom Hildsheim · St. Mary's Cathedral|
|Categories:||cathedrals; World Heritage Sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||52.149034° N, 9.947283° E|
|Phone:||+49 5121 17916-40|
|Hours:||Nov 1-Mar 15: Mon-Sat 10-4:30, Sun 12-5|
Mar 16-Oct 31: Mon-Sat 9:30-5, Sun 12-5
|Lodging:||View hotels near Hildesheim Cathedral|
- Personal visit (March 2, 2008).
- Dom zu Hildesheim, 1st English ed. (Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, 2000). (Pamphlet sold at the church.)
- St Mary's Cathedral and St Michael's Church at Hildesheim - UNESCO World Heritage List
- UNESCO World Heritage Hildesheim
- Photos of Hildesheim Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Hildesheim Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Hildesheim Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.