© KölnTourismus GmbH, Andreas Möltgen

Construction history

It was the highest building in the world in 1880, after 632 years of construction

Stand in front of the Cathedral and look up to let the great height affect you. All that you see, the mighty building, the dizzyingly tall towers, the countless figures, the numerous decorations: everything is handmade and the result of centuries of work. It is the result of a project that spanned generations.

This imposing Gothic masterpiece was completed in 1880; the construction itself began around 1248. In between lie more than 600 years of exciting construction history with many challenges, setbacks and a long break. Thus, the question “When was Cologne Cathedral built?” or “How old is it?” is not so easy to answer. It is best to start from the beginning with the history of the Cathedral’s construction.

© KölnTourismus GmbH, Dieter Jacobi

A cathedral for the Three Wise Men from the East

It all began when the Archbishop of Cologne, Reinald von Dassel, brought the supposed bones of the Three Wise Men from Milan to Cologne in 1164. Between 1190 and 1225, a valuable shrine with gold figures, stone trimmings and a pictorial history was made for these bones. You can view this shrine, which is a historical attraction, in the interior of the Cathedral.

At a stroke, the modest Old Cathedral became one of the most important pilgrimage churches in Europe, for which a more worthy architecture was necessary — the placement of the bones in a precious shrine was not enough for the flow of pilgrims to some of the most precious relics of Christianity. It required the construction of a new, Gothic cathedral. This occurred in the year 1164.

1248: Laying of the foundation stone of Cologne Cathedral according to plans by Master Gerhard

Master Gerhard was the first master builder of Cologne Cathedral and he probably worked only a few years on the planning and the ground plan. The Cathedral was designed according to the northern French model and the most modern architectural style of the time: the Gothic style. The foundation stone was laid in 1248 by Archbishop Konrad von Hochstaden. However, it took more than 600 years for the Cathedral to be completed.

632 years in fast motion: A brief overview of the Cathedral’s construction

Work on the Cathedral continued in the decades thereafter, although there were repeated interruptions due to war and financial difficulties. Construction of the choir was completed in the 14th century, and the foundation for the south tower was laid in 1360. In 1448/49 the two bells Pretiosa and Speciosa were cast, which are still part of the Cathedral’s set of bells. In the later 15th century, construction work continued on the transept, the side aisles and the north tower.

© Andre Hünseler, KölnTourismus GmbH

Finally finished after more than 300 years

In the 16th century, however, work on the cathedral was interrupted due to the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War and was not resumed until the 19th century, when Prussia annexed the Rhineland and the city of Cologne became part of the Prussian state. The break in construction lasted more than 300 years.

Under the direction of the architect Ernst Friedrich Zwirner, extensive restoration work was carried out from 1842 by the Dombauhütte, during which work also began on the reconstruction of the north tower, which had collapsed in the 18th century. The Cathedral’s interior was consecrated in 1848.

Work on Cologne Cathedral was finally finished in 1880. At that time, the Cathedral had a height of 157 metres, making it the tallest building in the world — after a total of 632 years of construction. And except for a few centimetres, the two towers are even the same height.

Cologne Cathedral: God’s eternal construction site

But even after its completion, the work on the Cathedral never really ends. Once work has finished in one place, it continues directly in the next in order to preserve Cologne’s hallmark. The Cathedral can generally only be seen without any scaffolding on Spekulatius biscuits, souvenirs and similar items.