Attracting around 4 million visitors each year, Strasbourg Cathedral is the second most-visited cathedral in France after Notre-Dame de Paris, and well before those of Metz, Reims and Chartres. In 1839, Victor Hugo declared that the cathedral was a “gigantic and delicate marvel”.
About Strasbourg Cathedral
Recognisable from afar thanks to its atypical allure, the Cathedral of Strasbourg is the undisputed emblem of the city, and at times of the whole of Alsace. Whether you take the autoroute from Paris or Mulhouse, its silhouette with the single bell tower surmounted by a spire is visible from afar, heralding the next on-ramp to the Alsatian capital. Its 142 metre-high spire was the highest monument in the world from 1647 until 1874, and its height makes it the second-tallest cathedral in France after that of Rouen. It is a masterpiece of grace and lightness.
History of Strasbourg Cathedral
The current building was erected on the site of a 103 metre long old Romanesque basilica, commissioned in 1015 by the Bishop of Strasbourg, Werner of Habsburg, with the support of Emperor Henri II. This Ottonian style wooden-framed building was destroyed by fire in 1176.
Construction of the current cathedral began at the end of the 12th century, by the Bishop of Strasbourg, Henry of Hasenburg. With the cathedral in Basle having been completed, the new one in Strasbourg was to be even more glorious. The work was spread out over 3 centuries and was completed in 1439.
Sandstone from the Vosges, in either pink or brown (pollution gave the cathedral its pink-grey colour) was used. In German, the sandstone is called Sandstein, which means “stone of sand”, and is known in French as “gré”.
At first glance, the architectural contrast between the chancel and the façade is clearly visible. Indeed, construction began by the chancel and the north transept in Romanesque style. With the arrival in 1225 of the team of a new foreman who was familiar with Chartres and Burgundy, it was decided to continue the works in the innovative gothic style of the time. As such, this style which was already well-established in Ile de France made its appearance in Alsace. The architect of the Cathedral of Strasbourg built the most modern building of his time in the Holy Roman Empire and its forms were largely inspired by the Saint Denis Basilica, which was then a new reference during the 13th century.
The nave, for example, not only followed the Ile de France’s own gothic style (French Gothic), but dared to go even further by adopting the most popular trends of gothic style in France. Unlike in other buildings in Germany, the builders of the Cathedral of Strasbourg did not include architectural elements particular to the region. This was also the case for the magnificent façade, the construction of which was undertaken shortly after the completion of the nave. Here you will find a decoration that is also present on the façade of the Cathedral of Troyes, the “harp strings”, which were particularly well-represented in Strasbourg.
The lack of money for the funding of the cathedral is one of the reasons explaining its slow progress. The Bishop thus had to recourse to indulgences in 1253 to finish the nave.
If the French brought their influence to gothic art (red and blue stained glass windows), the Germanic world knew how to impose its ideas (stained glass windows including the colour green).
The 16th century marked a turning point for Strasbourg and its cathedral, following the eruption of Humanism and the Reformation. In 1518, the Theses of Luther were attached to the cathedral doors, and printing houses – which had a strong presence in the town thanks to Gutenberg – accelerated the propagation of the emerging Protestant faith. From 1524, the town was strongly convinced by the ideas of Reformation and its churches were allocated to the Protestant faith.
Strasbourg, Free City of the Empire, thereby taunted the authority of Emperor Charles V (a Habsburg and faithful Catholic). The cathedral was not returned to the Catholic faith until 1681, following the Wars of Religion of the 17th century and the annexation of the city by Louis XIV.
Over the course of his stay in Strasbourg in 1770-1771, German writer Goethe glorified the cathedral and paved the way for a wave of re-evaluation of gothic art in Europe. In 19th century France, it was Victor Hugo who was known as the instigator of this revival of interest, inspiring the architect Viollet-le-Duc and thus saving Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral from ruin.
Just to make sure that no one is deceived with regards to the Romanesque-style lantern tower at the crossing of the transept: it only dates back to 1878 and is the work of Gustave Klotz. The neo-Romanesque tower, whose form evokes other great Romanesque cathedrals of the Valley of the Rhine (Speyer or Mainz), was severely damaged during the Second World War and its renovation is relatively recent.
“The more I contemplate the façade of the cathedral, the more I am convinced of my first impression that its loftiness is linked to beauty”.
The best position to get an overall view of the magnificent façade is from Rue Mercière. Visitors are struck by the richly decorated work by artisan masons. The most successful example – and unique in France – is the “curtain” made of stone harps, fixed in front of the load-bearing walls.
The tympana of its three doors, surmounted by a double gable, are dedicated to the life of Christ.
The central Portal
This is the façade’s most richly decorated portal. The statues of the prophets of the Old Testament are represented here in the five arches of the portal. These characters are supposed to be the link between ancient and modern times and, as such, are guarantors of the accurate unfolding of history.
In the four historiated registers you can read scenes from the Old and New Testament, with the Passion of Christ as the central theme at the centre of the collection, and a statue of the Virgin With Child personifies Universal Wisdom (Sophia of the Greeks), the axis around which everything is ordered. Another statue of the Virgin is located above the tympanum, which itself is surmounted by a statue of Christ, King and Judge, whose throne is surrounded by musical lions.
The left Portal
The arches of the north portal are decorated with majestic and graceful 14th century statues representing the virtues and striking down the vices and, around the tympanum, by angels and other biblical characters. The subject of the register of the tympanum is the Childhood of Christ (his birth, fleeing to Egypt, and Presentation at the Temple).
The right Portal
This illustrates the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Five Wise Virgins each carry a lamp and the open Table of Law and beside them is the ideal husband. As for the five Foolish Virgins, they are holding their lamps upside down, clutching the Tablet of Law closed and beside them is the Tempter holding the apple of temptation and with reptiles on his back. From a logical standpoint, the register of the tympanum depicts the Last Judgement.
The great Rose Window and the Gallery of Kings
Above the tympana, the Rose Window by Erwin von Steinbach demands attention and constitutes the central point of the façade. This piece of work at 15 metres in diameter is unique of its kind because, contrary to the gothic tradition of being composed of saints, it instead features ears of wheat, symbolising the commercial power of the city in the Middle Ages.
Above the rose window, the Gallery of Apostles is the point of honour of the rich statuary that characterises the façade. During the Revolution, all the statues were ordered to be destroyed. More than 230 were destroyed, but this number could have been much higher if an administrator of public property had not managed to hide 67 of them!
In the niches of the first and second floor galleries you can see equestrian statues of twenty monarchs, from Clovis I until Louis XIV. Not surprisingly, these statues were the first to suffer the torments of the Revolution and were destroyed, before being replaced in the 19th century.
The cathedral’s single bell tower and its magnificent spire have symbolised the city of Strasbourg for several centuries. As mentioned above, the spire extends to 142 metres in height and still remains Europe’s tallest medieval structure, because even though the height of the cathedrals of Cologne (157m) and Ulm (161m) in Germany, and that of Rouen (151m) in France exceed the record held by Strasbourg from 1647 to 1874, the construction of their towers only dates back to the 19th century.
In comparison, the towers of Notre-Dame in Paris reach 69m and the spire of the crossing of the transept, built by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century stands at 96m high.
The cathedral’s unusual silhouette is due to several changes of plan in the history of its construction.
There were several project plans, of which 4 diagrams – A, B, C and D – were worked on by the cathedral’s famous architect, Erwin von Steinbach.
Project A is one of the oldest preserved architecture designs in the Western World, dating from the 1260s.
Project B is modelled on the façade of the Cathedral of Troyes (2 towers, 3 portals and a second storey with a central rose) and finished by clearly surpassing it in the new and opulent elaboration of gothic forms.
The original plan of its façade by Edwin von Steinbach consisted of only two storeys and two spire-topped towers.
Master Gerlach continued the works between 1355 and 1365 and completed the third level of the bell tower. However, the anticipated edification of the spires was abandoned, for several reasons. In 1356, the city of Basle and the Sundgau (South of Alsace) were destroyed by an earthquake, which may have reduced the builders’ and some traumatised inhabitants’ enthusiasm for the project. What’s more, the Great Plague of 1349 caused enormous human loss and financial difficulties for the city.
So in 1365, the cathedral’s silhouette strangely resembled that of Notre-Dame in Paris, and its towers, at a height of 66 metres, were 3 metres shorter. Towards 1383, following Gerlach’s death, his successor Michael of Fribourg decided to fill in the space between the towers. The Chief Magistrate of Strasbourg did not like the cathedral’s new silhouette, entrusting Ulrich of Ensingen with the task of erecting an octagonal-shaped 34 metre high bell tower at the base of the North Tower. The tower strangely resembled that of the Cathedral of Ulm in Germany (the tallest in the world), which the architect had also worked on. The newly bell tower-topped cathedral now reached a height of 100 metres.
Ulrich of Ensingen had planned to cap the tower with a relatively simple spire. But Johannes Hültz of Cologne, resuming the task of the works, completely changed the project and created a very complex and graceful spire.
Each edge of the octagonal tower has a succession of six small hexagonal spiral staircases. These are followed by four more twisted staircases within four huge pinnacles that are fitted on four corners of the tower and are clearly visible from the outside. The construction of the spire, at a height of 42 metres, was not completed until much later, in 1439. At this time, the Chief Magistrate had reason to be satisfied with the work, because the Strasbourgeois considered the building as a symbol of the power and greatness of their city.
On several occasion, the plan of a second twin spire was addressed. So in 1490, architect Hans Hammer designed the plan for a second spire, but his project was not carried out. This was perhaps a sign that gothic art had gone out of fashion (the Renaissance was already flourishing in Italy) or, more rationally, that the townsfolk were too poor to undertake such a task. Other specialists believed instead that the construction of a second tower on a renowned unstable ground could destabilise the building and cause serious damage. Later in the 19th century, German architects entertained the idea of a twin spire, without success… the symbol of the single-spire cathedral was already fixed in the hearts of the Strasbourgeois, in which they saw the power of the Republic of the Free City of Strasbourg in the Middle Ages.
The Panoramic terrace and the different levels of the belfry
The first platform, at 66 metres high, is accessible to the public daring to climb its 330 steps. The view over the city of Strasbourg here is spectacular and on a clear day you can see the Alsace Plain, the Vosges, and the Black Forest (Germany). It is no longer possible to climb the extra steps of the North Tower from here.
The second platform is that of the large tower, at a height of 100 metres. It marks the end of the tower and the start of the spire.
It is by climbing to this platform that you can admire the flamboyant series of bells which have one of the greatest chimes in France, and, according to experts in campanology, one of the most perfect in Europe. This volley of bells is called the Torglocke or Zehnerlock (ten o’clock bell).
As for the largest clock in Strasbourg – the Great Bell – it is not located in the tower but rather above the Great Rose Window. The Totenglocke (its name in German which means the clock of the dead) was cast in 1427 by master craftsman Hans Gremp of Strasbourg and weighs close to 9 tonnes. In 1982, the famous clock was listed as a historical monument object.
At 132 metres high, the platform of the spire marks the end of the spire and the start of the peak. It can only accommodate a small dozen people at any one time. Finally, at 136 metres high, the miniscule – and final – hexagonal platform of the peak ends this ascension towards the sky. In 1794, a Strasbourgeois capped the spire with a huge Phrygian bonnet in tinplate. For some ardent revolutionaries – the Jacobins, – the spire symbolised inequality and thus should have been pulled down. This was one of the ruses of protectors of the cathedral who, under the pretext of taunting the Germanic enemy by brandishing a symbol of the Revolution, avoided its destruction. For the lucky ones who can gain permission to reach it, the view here is without any doubt fantastic.
The Transept (exterior)
The South lateral Portal of the Transept
The south lateral portal of the transept is one of the oldest visible parts of Romanesque style in the cathedral. It is flanked by three statues representing from left to right: the Church (majestic and crowned), King Solomon (above two other small statues of children evoking his famous judgement), and the Synagogue (eyes blindfolded, a sign of the refusal of true faith by the Jewish religion). As for the two Romanesque tympana, they depict the Dormition and the Crowning of the Virgin.
This portal acquired its nickname of “Judgement Door” in part thanks to the representation of Solomon, but also because it was in this place that the Bishop of Strasbourg held his tribunal. The very popular and henceforth famous “Marché de Noël” (Christmas Market) originally took place in this location.
The North lateral Portal of the Transept
The portal of the north transept, of late Flemish gothic style, is more recent than the south portal. Carried out by Johannes of Aachen, it is dedicated to St Laurent and recounts his martyrdom.
The lantern tower
At the crossing of the transept, the Romanesque-style lantern tower dates back to 1878 and is the work of Gustave Klotz. Severely damaged during the Second World War, its forms evokes other great Romanesque cathedrals of the Rhineland such as Speyer or Mainz.
The cathedral’s interior is majestic, with its beautifully-proportioned nave, respectful of gothic – commonly known as classic – style. At 32 metres in height, it is taller than that of Rouen (28m) but remains well below that of Metz (41.4m).
The reduced dimensions of the chancel and the 63 metre length of the nave (among the longest in France) accentuate the impression of disproportion.
The nave extends over 7 spans and rises up over three storeys (large arcades, triforium and high windows). At 32 metres high and 36 metres wide (including collaterals), it is built in radiant gothic style. It is in this nave that the marriage of King Louis XV with Marie Leszcynska was celebrated on 4 September, 1725.
The stained-glass windows
The cathedral’s interior contains a rich collection of stained glass windows (more than 4,600 panels), most of which date from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries.
In the north collateral, they represent different Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire (13th century).
The stained glass windows of the triforium represent the ancestors of Christ following the genealogy of the Gospel of Luke. Those of the south lateral nave (to the right, coming from below) are in bad condition and illustrate episodes of the New Testament of the life of Virgin Mary and of Christ.
The stained glass windows of the nave depict the life of the Saints.
Finally, behind you, you can admire the Great Rose Window above the grand portal. Its round shape expresses at once the image of the cosmos, the Earth, and the Sun – often seen as a symbol of God watching over his creation.
The role of the stained glass windows was to help illustrate the stories that the preachers told from their pulpits for those who did not know how to read, in the same way as a comic strip. It was the “poor man’s Bible”, a succession of small fairly easily identifiable pictures for the people of the time.
Heading back towards the nave from the portal, visitors discover to their left the great organ hanging in the bird’s nest in the triforium. Its 14th century buffet extends across an entire span of the nave.
The pulpit of Geiler von Kaysersberg
Two nave spans further away, the magnificent hexagonal pulpit in flamboyant gothic style features statuary of some fifty small figurines. This work by Hans Hammer for the preacher, Geiler of Kaysersberg, is no longer in use today, for practical reasons. It is from here that Bible readings read during mass were explained and discussed. This very richly decorated pulpit expresses in the magnificence of its sculptures, the essential importance of the Bible, the words of which must be announced until the ends of the earth. Notice the small sculpture of a dog on the stairs. It depicts the time when Geiler of Kaysersberg came to preach on this pulpit, accompanied by his dog.
The Transept (interior)
In the south arm of the transept are two particularly remarkable elements: the Pillar of Angels and the Astronomical Clock.
The Pillar of Angels
The Pillar of Angels, an architectural prowess at the time of its construction around 1230, serves as the central pillar of the south transept. It features twelve sculptures: the 4 evangelists, angels playing the trumpet and, further up, Christ the Judge, seated, serene and benevolent, and surrounded by angels carrying the Instruments of the Passion. The pillar is also called “Pillar of Last Judgement” because it stages the judgement mentioned in the Book of Revelation.
Close to the pillar, note the statue of a man leaning on a railing. This would be a jealous architect competitor who predicted that such a pillar could never support the archway. He declared that he would wait for the structure to collapse to prove the veracity of his conviction. He is still there, waiting…
The Astronomical Clock
The enormous and complex Astronomical Clock situated in the right brace of the transept is a Renaissance piece. Sculptors, painters, technicians, mathematicians and Swiss watchmakers worked together on this wonder that is extremely popular among visitors to the cathedral: the number of visitors coming to admire its mechanism is estimated at 3 million. This incredible masterpiece is telling of the pride that the Strasbourgeois feel in counting their cathedral among the seven wonders of Germany.
The current mechanism dates from 1842. The first clock was completed in 1571 with the same Renaissance-style buffet and the same animated decorations and characters. Its mechanism stopped working one day in 1788 and it remained “mute” for several years until 1838 when the task of repairing it was entrusted to an Alsatian, Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué (1776-1856). Self-taught, this 61 year old former apprentice watchmaker-turned professor of mathematics and auditor of weights and measures had wanted to devote himself to the reparation of the clock with a very complex mechanism since his childhood.
For 30 years, he examined the mechanism and tried to understand the reasons for its breakdown. The clock’s mechanism was entirely recreated thanks to Schwilgué’s knowledge, notably in the subject of clock wheel manufacturing. From the end of the works in 1842 until today, the fascinating Astronomical Clock provides the time, the civil and ecclesiastic calendars, as well as astronomical indications such as the sign of the zodiac, the lunar phase and the position of many planets.
The seven days of the week are indicated by deities in chariots: Apollo (Sunday), Diana (Monday), Mars (Tuesday), Mercury (Wednesday), Jupiter (Thursday), Venus (Friday), and Saturn (Saturday). Looking closer, you can see that Saturn is depicted in the process of devouring one of his children, which is interpreted as time destroying that which it produces.
The weekly maintenance of the clock is carried out by a watchmaker every Monday.
It is its set of mechanical figures that nonetheless attracts visitors. These are set in motion every fifteen minutes but the complete display of animated characters takes place daily at noon in Strasbourg – which is actually 12.30 in France!
An angel rings a bell while a second one turns over the hourglass. At the same time, four characters which represent the four ages of life (infant, young man, adult and old man) march past Death. On the top level of the clock are the Twelve Apostles who march before Christ, bowing to him. Christ blesses them and the rooster perched on the left tower flaps its wings while crowing three times (an allusion to Peter’s denial in the Gospels).
Several years ago, the presentation of the Clock to visitors was entirely reconsidered. A film projected on a screen beside the Clock in French, German or English presents the curiosity and its history.
A word of advice: given the Clock’s popularity, it is better to arrive more than half an hour before the triggering of the mechanism, ie. before midday. A small entry fee will be required, except for on Sundays and holidays where access to the clock is free after the 11 o’clock mass.
The Romanesque chancel is elevated from the rest of the nave and the transept because it is situated above the crypt. Its cul-de-four cupola is decorated with neo-byzantine frescoes dating from the 19th century. It is Eastward-facing, towards Jerusalem, as was the tradition in the construction of cathedrals in the Middle Ages (as with Notre-Dame in Paris and the cathedrals of Metz and Rouen).
The stained glass window placed at the centre of the chancel is contemporary and was given by the Council of Europe in 1956 to replace the old one which was destroyed during the Second World War. It represents the Virgin dressed in blue. Seated on her lap, Baby Jesus wears a red outfit (a symbol of royalty) and in his hand he holds a lily, emblem of the city of Strasbourg. The upper part of the stained glass window features the flag of the European Union: twelve gold-coloured stars on an azure blue background.
At the heart of the chancel are twelve busts, representing the Twelve Apostles. Contrary to custom, the apostle taking the place of Judas, Matthias, is himself replaced by the Apostle Paul.
Situated beneath the chancel, the crypt is, as with many gothic cathedrals, the oldest part of the building and part of the space where the remains of the old basilica erected by Werner of Habsburg in the 11th century are found. The crypt contains the vaults of the bishops of Strasbourg in an amphitheatre covered by groined vaults. These rest on an alternation of columns and pillars, whose capitals are roughly sculpted with fabulous plant and animal motifs.
Scheduled visiting hours have been established in order to respect this place of worship: on weekdays between 10am and 5.30pm, and Sundays between 12.30pm and 6.30pm.
Official site of Strasbourg Cathedral: www.cathedrale-strasbourg.fr