A Visit to Speyer Cathedral

Walking down Maximillianstrasse in Speyer for the first time is dangerous. The eye is drawn so powerfully to the massive block of the west face of the Cathedral (Dom) that one is apt to collide with an oncoming pedestrian or bicycle. The alternating courses of red and yellow sandstone make the broad front seem even wider than it is. There is symmetry, rhythm and balance to the main face of the church. But the weathered roughness of two plain, red towers and a cupola rises behind, photo-bombing the finer detail of the main face.

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I suppose that is why so many writers complain of the west front which was re-built in the 1800s. There is nothing wrong with it in itself, IMHO, but it conflicts with the 1000 year old feel of the rest of the church.

It is not the case however that the rest has survived unaltered. In 1689 the church burned, the western half nearly leveled, and it was not restored until about 70 years later. That first reconstruction though was fairly true to the original building and it takes a close look to find the boundary between the 11th/12th century original and the 18th century repairs.

Circumambulating the church, one is impressed by the length, 134m, the long rows of windows and arcades and the essential unity of style. Even the copper roof complements the red sandstone. Surrounded by parkland, it is relaxing to take some time doing this. Apart from the sacristy on the southeast corner, Speyer did not acquire the gothic additions that its siblings at Mainz and Worms did. Or rather, those it did acquire perished in the 1689 fire. Thus there is a stronger sense of unity and integrity here.

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The square towers at the east end are the oldest structures, dating to the early 11th century. They are constructed of smaller, rougher stone than the rest of the church.

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We enter from the west. The nave is very well lit. When the clerestory was updated in about 1125, the windows were unusually large and only superseded in size and luminance by Gothic construction. Also unusual for a Romanesque church are the tall half cylinder columns that were added in the early 12th century to support the vaults. They create a strong vertical element that draws the eye upward as effectively as the long arcade draws the eye toward the sanctuary.

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There is a large-scale rhythm created by the twelve lower level arches, triforium level paintings, clerestory and vaults. As you move around the church, into the aisles and even to the crypt, the regular division of space and round arches create a harmonious whole. In the images above, taken to the east and west respectively, one can identify the demarcation between the original work and the 18th century reconstruction. On the left, the nearest transverse arch is entirely pink stone indicating it is part of the reconstruction while the farther arches alternate yellow and pink. On the right the closest several piers are mostly yellow stone from the early building while the farther pink sections in the west are from the reconstruction. The organ was installed in 2011.

The exterior of the eastern apse is built of  finely finished ashlars, but the interior is built of rougher stone and the courses are not quite level. I suspect the reason was that it was easier and cheaper to build with small stones and not finish them smoothly if they intended to plaster and paint the wall. It could represent an economic decision rather than a skill deficit on the part of the early builders.

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The crypt is the largest Romanesque crypt in the world. There are seven altars, a chapel and tombs of 8 German emperors from the 11th through 13th centuries, including Rudolf I, the first king of the Habsburg dynasty.

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All visitors should climb the tower, where I received a bit of unexpected cultural education. A young guide was happy to chat about the view, cathedral, town and historical events. I asked him about the French invasion of 1689, the attendant fire and destruction. He earnestly responded that “we don’t say French, we just say foreign army. We are all friends now.” Message received. He does not want anyone to think he holds any modern person responsible for something that happened in the past.

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The prospect from the top is spectacular. One can see the roof and towers up close with the backdrop of the Rhine on the east and a view over the town with the mountains of the Palatine Forest to the west.

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There is much more that could be said about this special place but that will have to wait for another time.

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