The Speyer Cathedral is considered to be the greatest romanesque church in the World. It stand majestically at the end of the main street of Speyer and is a must see if you are around.
A little bit of History
First a little bit of History
The construction of the first Speyer Cathedral started in 1030 and lasted until 1061 when it was consecrated. In 1090 the Cathedral was reconstructed and enlarged and the works lasted until 1106.
Despite being today the seat of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Speyer, the Cathedral was regarded, in the past, as a symbol of imperial power. That was during a time where relationships between German Emperors and the Vatican were tumultuous.
The Speyer Cathedral was badly damaged several times, including by the French troops of Louis XIV (end of 17th century) and Napoléon Bonaparte (early 19th century).
Renovation works were done, after WWII and continue to present days.
In 1981, the Speyer Cathedral was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.
And a few words on the Speyer Cathedral Architecture
Despite having been built, rebuilt, enlarged… modified several times and despite all the renovation works, the Speyer Cathedral has maintained the overall form and dimensions of the 11th century structure and therefore, represent today, one of the most unified and preserved Romanesque building.
The Speyer Cathedral has all the usual attributes of romanesque buildings: a massive look, thick walls, rounded arches and groin vaults supported by sturdy pillars.
It also has some unique features like the earliest example in Germany of a dwarf gallery going around the entire building (the colonnades just below the roofline).
You may notice that they are no stained glass in the Speyer Cathedral as those became popular only later, with the Gothic style.
The Speyer Cathedral measures 134m (439 ft) in length and 38m wide (124 ft). The nave inside is 14m high (46 ft).
If you are used to the Gothic style Cathedral like Notre Dame or Reims, you might find the Speyer Cathedral a bit boring.
Keep on reading to learn about the architecture symbolism behind Romanesque churches…
The Symbols hidden in plain Sight
The Romanesque Architecture combined features of ancient Roman and Byzantine styles and preceded Gothic Architecture. As such, many of the codes used in Romanesque Architecture were kept during the following centuries and especially in the construction of churches and cathedrals.
- The West entrance: As we all know, churches are usually oriented West to East. The West represents the darkness and the East represents the light. As you enter the church, you are directed in a sole direction, to the East, toward the Christ, or the light, leaving behind you, all illness and evil.
- The 3 doors: You’ve probably noticed that most churches have 3 entrance doors on their West portal. As the number 3 usually represents the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, it is easy to understand why 3. But considering many other buildings including Roman temples also had 3 doors, this feature might have just been an architectural style. Some say that the 3 doors represent Faith, Hope and Charity.
- The 5 figures above the central portal: the number 5 represent God’s grace and is often found in architecture details.
- The portal above the center door, the most important one, usually depicts either sceneries of Jesus life, of the New testament or more commonly the Last Judgment. As the pilgrim is being reminded of the origin and perfection of the salvation, he may enter the church.
- Above the main portal, there is a rose window which is to be seen as a symbol of the Divine and the salvation. Architecturally this central round window descend from the Roman oculus and resemble a 3rd eye. It grew in size until reaching incredible dimension and complexity in the Gothic Cathedrals. Originally, the rose doesn’t really have a biblical sense. But it has been transformed into a masterpiece of complexity by using its perfect geometry.
- Despite having 3 doors, most people can only enter the church by one of the narrow side door as the center one only opens for important ceremonies. Entering by the side, means pilgrims only enter one by one and it is like passing through the narrow portal to Heaven.
- 12 steps: you probably didn’t noticed but there are 12 steps to climb to enter the Cathedral. 12 is a symbol of perfection. Numerous example can be found in the Bible of the use of the number 12, including the obvious 12 disciples.
- Talking about the number 12, notice the 12 pillars: As you enter the Cathedral, you are reminded of perfection by the 12 pillars and the 6 vaults which represents Heaven. The 6 vaults also represents the 6 days of Creation when the Cupola represents the 7th day, the day of rest.
- The Cupola is given an octogonal shape (hard to see) as the number 8 represent the completion of the Creation.
- The cross shape: the floor plan of cathedrals is often in cross shape, the choir represent the head of the Christ, and the transept and nave, his body. The light flows through his head to animate his body as the light enters the Cathedral by the choir, the ultimate destination, the source of light.
Those are just some of the symbols that can be found in most churches and cathedrals. As early Christians adapted Roman motifs, symbols and architectural codes by giving them new meanings, numerous pagan symbols can be found in Catholic churches.
Other things to see
The Speyer Cathedral crypt is beautifully symmetrical and clear. The tombs of the German Emperors can be admired as well as the tombs of some of the Speyer diocese’s bishops. There are no relics of Saint in the Speyer Cathedral.
The mount Olives, located outside the Cathedral was the counterpoint sculpture of the Cathedral’s cloister which has been destroyed in the 17th century.
The Cathedral bowl which now stands on the plaza in front of the Cathedral, played an important role in the justice system of the 14th century. The bowl marked the border between the sovereign territories of the bishop and the city and as such whoever was able to flee to the bowl was protected from state law!
The Technical bits:
The official city website: www.speyer.de
The official website of the cathedral: www.dom-speyer.de (German only)
A really cool site: www.kaiserdom-virtuell.de where you can see the Speyer Cathedral under all angles! Check it out.
If you are feeling a bit lost, do check my mini architecture guides, they will help you with all the technical words.
And they are completely free!