The Cathedral of Magdeburg (Magdeburger Dom in German) is officially named the Cathedral of Saints Catherine and Maurice. It was the first Gothic cathedral in Germany and with a height of 104 m, it is the tallest cathedral in former East Germany. The cathedral is also home to the grave of Otto I the Great.
The current cathedral was constructed over the period of 300 years starting from 1209, and the completion of the steeples took place only in 1520. Despite being repeatedly looted, the Cathedral of Magdeburg is rich in art, ranging from antiques to modern art.
History of Magdeburg Cathedral
The first church was founded September 21, 937 at the location of the current cathedral was an abbey called St. Maurice (St. Moritz), dedicated to Saint Maurice and financed by Emperor Otto I the Great. Otto wanted to demonstrate his political power after the successful Battle of Lechfeld in 955, and ordered the construction even before his coronation as Emperor on February 2, 962.
Furthermore, to support his claim as successor of the Emperor of the Weströmisches Reich, he obtained a large number of antiques – for example, pillars to be used for the construction of the church. Many of those antiques were subsequently used for the second church in 1209. The church had most likely one nave with four aisles, a width of 41 meters and a length of 80 meters. The height is estimated as up to 60 meters.
The wife of Otto, Queen Editha, was buried in the church after her death in 946. The church was expanded in 955. Hence, the church became a cathedral. In 968, Emperor Otto I selected Magdeburg as the seat of an archdiocese with Adalbert von Trier as archbishop, even though the city was not centrally located but at the eastern border of his kingdom. He did this because he planned to expand his kingdom, and also Christianity, to the east into what is nowadays Slovakia. This plan, however, failed. Emperor Otto I died soon thereafter in 973 in Memleben and was also buried in the cathedral next to his wife.
The entire cathedral St. Maurice was destroyed on Good Friday in 1207 by a city fire. All but the southern wing of the cloister burned down. Archbishop Albrecht II von Kefernburg decided to pull down the remaining walls and construct a completely new cathedral, against some opposition of the people in Magdeburg. Only the south wall of the cloister is still standing. The exact location of the old church remained unknown for a long time, but the foundations were rediscovered in May 2003, revealing a building 80 m long and 41 m wide. The old crypt has been excavated and can be visited by the public.
The place in front of the cathedral (sometimes called "new marketplace", Neuer Markt) was occupied by an imperial palace (Kaiserpfalz), which was destroyed in the fire of 1207. The stones of the ruin served for building the cathedral. The presumptive remains of the palace were excavated in the 1960s.
Archbishop Albrecht II von Kefernburg decided to construct a completely new cathedral. Since Albrecht was very educated for his time and studied in France and Italy, he knew about the new Gothic architecture developed in France, but yet completely unknown in Germany. Subsequently he decided to build the new cathedral in the modern French style. Yet the craftsmen did not know the style, and only slowly learned the gothic style.
The construction of the choir started in 1209, only two years after the fire that destroyed the previous church, but this choir is still in a very Romanesque style, initially still using romanesque groin vaults, combined with a gothic center stone, which however is not needed for Romanesque groin vaults.
The Gothic influence increased especially between 1235 and 1260 under Archbishop Wilbrand. As the construction was supervised by different people in the span of 300 years, lots of changes were made to the original plan, and the cathedral size expanded greatly. The people of Magdeburg were not always happy with this, since they had to pay for the construction. In some cases already constructed walls and pillars were torn down to suit the wishes of the current supervisor.
Construction stopped after 1274. In 1325, Archbishop Burchard III von Schraplau was killed by the people of Magdeburg because of extreme taxes. Folklore says that especially the beer tax increase caused much anger. Afterwards Magdeburg was under a ban, and only after the donation of five atonement altars did the construction of the cathedral continue under Archbishop Otto von Hessen. Otto was also able to complete the interior construction, and formally opened the dome in 1363 in a week-long festival. At this time the cathedral was dedicated not only to St Maurice as before, but also to Saint Catherine.
In 1360 the construction stopped again after the uncompleted parts have been covered provisionally. Only in 1477 did the construction start again under Archbishop Ernst von Sachsen, including the two towers. The towers were constructed by master builder Bastian Binder, the only master builder of the cathedral known by name. The construction of the cathedral was completed in 1520 with the placement of the ornamental cross on the north tower.
On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, starting the Protestant reformation. Luther also preached in Magdeburg in 1524. Some smaller churches in Magdeburg changed to Protestantism soon thereafter. The unpopularity of Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg also furthered the reformation, and after his death in 1545 in Mainz there was no successor. Magdeburg became a leader in the Protestant reformation, and was outlawed by the emperor. The Catholic church stored the cathedral treasure in Aschaffenburg for safekeeping, but the treasure was later lost to the Swedes in the Thirty Years' War. The priests of the cathedral also changed to Protestantism, and on the first advent Sunday in 1567, the first Protestant mass was held in the cathedral.
However, during the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) Magdeburg was raided, and only a small group of 4000 citizens survived the murdering, raping, and looting (known as the sack of Magdeburg) by seeking refugee in the cathedral. The head priest, Reinhard Bakes, begged on his knees for the lives of his people before Johan Tzerclaes, Count of Tilly.
The cathedral survived the fires in the city, and was dedicated again to the Catholic religion. However, as Tilly's catholic forces left Magdeburg, the cathedral was completely looted, and the colorful windows were shot out. 20,000 people of Magdeburg died during the war, and at the end of the war Magdeburg had a population of only 400. Magdeburg became part of Brandenburg, and was transformed into a large fortress.
In 1806 Magdeburg was given to Napoleon, and the cathedral was used for storage, and also as a horse barn and sheep pen. The occupation ended in 1814, and between 1826 and 1834 Frederick William III of Prussia financed the much needed repairs and reconstruction of the cathedral. The glass windows were all replaced in 1900.
The cathedral survived World War I without damage, but the frequent Allied bombings of World War II completely destroyed the windows of the cathedral. During the heaviest firebombing on January 16, 1945, one bomb hit the dome on the west side, destroying the wall, the organ, and some other parts of the building. Fortunately, the fire brigades were able to extinguish the flames on the roof structures in time, so damage to the cathedral was only moderate. The cathedral was opened again in 1955, and a new, smaller organ was installed at a different location in 1969.
With the establishment of the communist-led German Democratic Republic in 1949, Magdeburg fell under Soviet occupation. Communist leaders tried to suppress religion as a potential threat to communist doctrine, thus being active in church was a social disadvantage. However, weekly peace prayers were held in the cathedral beginning in 1983 in front of the Magdeburger Ehrenmal, a sculpture by Ernst Barlach. This led to the famous Monday demonstrations of 1989 in Leipzig and Magdeburg, which played a significant role in German reunification.
The cathedral is currently undergoing a reconstruction phase that began in 1983 under the East German Government. In 1990, a number of solar cells were installed on the roof, marking the first solar cell installation on a church in East Germany. The solar cells provide energy for use in the church, with excess energy being added to the regional power network. The maximum output was 418 watts. In 2004, a funding drive started in 1997 for a new organ was completed, collecting €2 million. The new organ has been ordered from a company near Potsdam and will be a 36 ton instrument with 93 registers and approximately 5000 pipes. Construction is scheduled to be completed in 2007, and the new organ will hopefully be used for the first time in 2008.
What to See at Magdeburg Cathedral
The current cathedral was constructed over a period of 300 years starting from 1209, and the completion of the steeples took place only in 1520. As the Gothic architecture style was developed in the 12th century in France, there were no previous examples of Gothic architecture in Germany, and German craftsmen were still very unfamiliar with the style at the start of the construction. Their progress can be seen in small architectural changes over the construction periods, which started with the sanctuary in the east side of the church near the river Elbe and ended with the top of the towers.
This sanctuary shows a strong Romanesque architecture influence. Different from other French gothic cathedrals, Magdeburg cathedral does not have flying buttresses for support of the walls.
The building has an inside length of 120 meters, and a height to the ceiling of 32 meters. The towers rise to 104 meters, and are the highest church towers in eastern Germany. The layout of the cathedral consists of one nave and two aisles, with one transept crossing the nave and aisles. Each side of the transept has an entrance, the south entrance leading into the cloister.
The ceiling in the nave is higher than in the aisles, allowing for clerestory windows to give light to the nave. There is a separate narthex (entrance area) in the west. The presbytery in the east is separated from the nave by a stone wall, serving the same function as a rood screen. The sanctuary and the apse follow the presbytery. The apse is also surrounded by an ambulatory.
A secondary building around a large non-rectangular cloister is connected to the south side of the cathedral. The cloister, whose south wall survived the fire of 1207 and is still from the original church, was parallel to the original church. Yet, the current church was constructed at a different angle, and hence the cloister is at an odd angle with the church.
The ground around the Elbe river in Magdeburg is soft, and it is difficult to construct tall buildings, except for one large rock. Hence the cathedral was constructed on top of this rock, called Domfelsen in German, which means Cathedral Rock. At low water levels, this rock is visible in the Elbe. As in old times low water meant a small harvest, this rock is also called Hungerfelsen, meaning starvation rock. In any case, the rock was not big enough for the cathedral, and on the west end only the north tower could be placed on a solid rock foundation, whereas the south tower stands on soft ground. To reduce weight the south tower is therefore only an empty shell with no interior or stairs, and all the heavy bells are in the north tower with a solid rock foundation. However, the south tower is slightly higher than the north tower, which is optically corrected by adding an ornamental cross on the north tower.
Despite the looting and plundering, the Cathedral of Magdeburg is rich in art, ranging from antiques to modern art. The following list is not complete and only a summary of the most significant pieces. The list is roughly sorted by the time of creation.
Quick Facts on Magdeburg Cathedral
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- Wikipedia - text used under GFDL
- Photos of Magdeburg Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Magdeburg Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Magdeburg 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.