St. Gereon Kirche is unique north of the Alps. The lower levels date to about 350-65. The central structure is oval with semicircular niches that may have once held memorials to early noble families. Some of the stone in the vaults of these niches was recycled from Roman structures. The upper portions of this structure were renovated and extended several times during the past millennium. The visual splendor can only be approximated in photos, but this view of the ceiling gives some idea of what it is like to stand in the center of this remarkable church.
Each of the niches mentioned has a different pieced glass window. Here are a few of them. They are just another indication that modern ideas of unified design did not obtain in the Middle Ages.
A fascinating aspect of these ancient churches is the stories they have to tell about the people who inspired them, built them and worshipped here.
St. Gereon was, according to tradition, one of fifty Roman soldiers from Egypt who were beheaded for refusing to deny their Christian faith. They were thrown into a well on the site of this church. Excavations after WWII failed to locate such a burial, but there are sarcophagi here from Roman times. These same excavations uncovered coins minted after 345, disproving the tradition that the church was founded by St. Helen. However, it is certain that the main oval structure was begun during the 4th century.
This sculpture of Gereon´s head is in the park adjacent to the church. It weighs 8 tonnes and measures about 8 feet from the neck to helmet. An international project in some sense, it was created by a German-Turkish sculptor in Thailand.
Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, who is entombed at Magdeburg, appointed his brother Bruno as Archbishop of Cologne. Bruno found St.Pantaleon in need of repair and began a massive renovation. He died in A.D. 965 and is buried in the crypt. In 972, Otto arranged the marriage of his son, Otto II, with Theophanu, a princess of the Byzantine Empire. After Otto’s early death, Theophanu ruled the empire as regent during the minority of her son, Otto III. She installed her daughter Adelheid as abbess at St. Serviatus, Quedlinburg. She funded the extension of the westwork of St. Pantaleon, and on her death in A.D. 991, was entombed at St. Pantaleon.
Sarcophagus of Archbishop Bruno
Sarcophagus of Theophanu
The church is a quick guide to the history of art and architecture from roman times to the present. Beneath the choir, excavations have uncovered the foundations of a roman villa dating to the 3rd century.
Later this plot of land became a cemetery and a simple chapel was raised on the site in the 7th century. In the 9th century, under Bruno, this was lengthened and remains as the nave of the church. Theophanu’s contribution was the western extension with these bi-color arches that were characteristic of 9th and 10th century Rheinland churches.
In the 12th century, side aisles with groin arches were added, a gothic rood screen followed in the early 16th century with further additions of a gothic apse, stained glass windows and a massive baroque altar (1747-9).
Rood Screen from 1503.
Gothic Apse, 1620, and Baroque altar 1740s.
The central nave was vaulted in the 17th century. But after damage in WWII, it was restored as a coffered ceiling more in line with the original design. The religious symbols etched in the panels are executed in a very 20th century style.
The Wormser Dom or Cathedral of St. Peter is the smallest of the three Kaiserdoms (Mainz, Worms, Speyer), though only by a few meters, and it feels darker, moodier. Its Romanesque core sets the tone, but this church has more dominant gothic additions on the south elevation than the other two.
Most churches in this region suffered structural damage and loss of the original furnishings during various wars and shifts in the boundaries of Catholic and Protestant control. In the case of Worms the restorations extended into the 20th century and were set back again by World War Two. Many different approaches have been taken to restoration. At Worms a limited collection of sculptures have been gathered in the nave and aisles, while the main, eastern chancel has been furnished in the Baroque style.
The view below is toward the west with light falling on statues of St. Joachim and St. Sebastian.
Though each bay of the nave is identical in the first story, the space below the clerestory shows interesting variations. There are several bays with single blind archways above the nave arches, the westernmost bay and the easternmost on the north have only a flat wall. The second bay from the west on the south, opposite the organ has blind double archways. These can be seen below.
The transverse arches above the nave are supported by different pier configurations on the north and south. On the south, the transverse arches spring from half cylinder columns while the smaller diagonal arches and arches over the windows, spring from a rectangular shaft behind the half cylinder. On the north there is a second rectangular shaft behind first that separates the springing of the window arch from that of the diagonal arches. There are also variations in the capitols.
There is apparently no documentation as to why or how this occurred. Such variation in many cathedrals is due to changes in technique or style over long periods of time, but the nave here was built between 1160-1170, so time does not seem to be the main factor. My pet theory is that the bishop was nearsighted and the architect took advantage of this to experiment with different techniques.
To my eye, the view toward the west is most pleasing. That is to say the western chancel seems more consistent with the clean lines of the nave, yet it still provides an attractive focal point.
The eastern chancel is filled with gilded Baroque furniture and is quite eye catching, but it strikes me as clashing with the building as a whole.
The north aisle wall preserves a number of sculpture panels that were moved here when the adjacent monastery was demolished. The windows above them are modern and the rectangular designs clash a bit with the ancient setting.
The south aisle was augmented with a number of gothic chapels in the 14th century. The strong red and blue of the windows in the large Nicholas Chapel lends a sense of quiet solitude.
Variation in design is to be found outside as well as inside. The lower levels of the four staircase towers are similar, but the upper stories vary in height and windows design. This is the west elevation showing different height and window placement in each of the five upper stories. (Renovation seems to be a ‘way of life’ for these buildings, but I do wish they had not placed the containers directly in front.)
The north elevation once had an elaborate imperial entrance and a cloister that were destroyed, apparently in 1689. The western retains the outlines of damaged stone around the present doorway. In a couple places a rough patch or perhaps the rubble fill of the main wall is exposed. The eastern doorway which had been the imperial entrance was refurbished.
The Mainzer Dom or Cathedral of St. Martin looms over the relatively small city of Mainz. The staircase towers on the east, shown below, date to 1009. The east choir and nave were complete by about 1137.
Though the building has too often suffered from fire, neglect, war and now the ravages of modern civilization, it remains in use as a center of Christian worship. As a point of comparison, by the time the Roman monuments were 1000 years old, they were ancient ruins, looted for their stone and their original purposes of little interest to the new residents of Rome. In addition to its age, the size of the building is hard to grasp. It is 109m (357ft) long and the nave is 28m (98ft) high. With the aisles the church is 32m (104ft) wide. Though a bit smaller than its Gothic successors, it till whelms the senses.
The core of the building is in the Romanesque style, marked by round arches and heavy, thick, flat walls. The windows are small, letting in but little light. The overall effect has been considered gloomy, but I’m not sure that gives proper credit to where this style fits in the development of architecture. If one had never seen a gothic church, with its skeletal frame and glass walls, this would seem spacious and light enough.
The blind arcade between the nave arches and the clerestory windows, which is adorned with paintings from the Gospels, was an innovation at the time.
The original building had a flat ceiling. The ribbed vaulting was installed in the late 12th century. This innovation seems to have come late to the Rhine churches. Such vaulting was already in use as early as the 11th century in England. The half-cylinder columns added to the inside of the rectangular columns support the vaults.
A number of german churches built in this time period had chancels/apses on both the west and east ends. In the case of Mainz the more elaborate chancel, is in the west and the pews face that direction.
The Romanesque core has been obscured somewhat by later accretions. Numerous monuments and decorative additions come from the high gothic and baroque ages. The transepts especially have numerous memorials in later styles (note also the early 21st century push-broom resting against the column in the background).
Chapels, funded by noble patrons who wanted to memorialize themselves, were added in the 13th century with large gothic windows, seen from the cloister in the image below, but many of these are shaded by buildings around the cathedral and do not add much light to the interior. This issue of patronage also gives one pause to consider the mixed personal and religious motives of donors.
Still today there are further additions, including a number of modern colored glass windows that to my eye clash a bit with the older elements.
Most other large churches from this age in western Europe were replaced at one time or another with newer, gothic structures. Together with Speyer and Worms, this church is a special representative of an important architectural style and a testament to the faith of those who built and rebuilt it.
Ernst Gall, Cathedrals and Abbey Churches of the Rhine, NY, Abrams, 1963
St. Martin’s Cathedral, Mainz, ISBN 978-3-7954-4383-5