Strasbourg Cathedral

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Strasbourg Cathedral
Strasbourg Cathedral Exterior - Diliff.jpg
Strasbourg Cathedral's west façade, viewed from Rue Mercière
Record height
Tallest in the world from 1647 to 1874[I]
Preceded by Marienkirche im Stralsund
Surpassed by Sankt-Nikolai-Kirche
General information
Location Strasbourg, France France
Coordinates Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
Construction started 1015
Completed 1439
Antenna spire 142 m (466 ft)
Technical details
Floor count n/a

Strasbourg Cathedral or the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg (French: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, or Cathédrale de Strasbourg, German: Liebfrauenmünster zu Straßburg or Straßburger Münster), also known as Strasbourg Minster, is a Roman Catholic cathedral in Strasbourg, Alsace, France. Although considerable parts of it are still in Romanesque architecture, it is widely considered[2][3][4][5] to be among the finest examples of high, or late, Gothic architecture. Erwin von Steinbach is credited for major contributions from 1277 to his death in 1318.

At 142 metres (466 feet), it was the world's tallest building from 1647 to 1874 (227 years), when it was surpassed by St. Nikolai's Church, Hamburg. Today it is the sixth-tallest church in the world and the highest extant structure built entirely in the Middle Ages.

Described by Victor Hugo as a "gigantic and delicate marvel",[6] and by Goethe as a "sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God",[2] the cathedral is visible far across the plains of Alsace and can be seen from as far off as the Vosges Mountains or the Black Forest on the other side of the Rhine. Sandstone from the Vosges used in construction gives the cathedral its characteristic pink hue.


The genuinely Romanesque apse can only be seen from the courtyard of the adjacent complex of 18th-century buildings.
Inside the cathedral, looking east
André Friedrich: Monument to Johannes (Jean) Hültz, architect of the octagonal top, in Strasbourg.

Previous buildings on the site

Archaeological excavations below and around the cathedral have been conducted in 1907,[7] 1923–1924,[8] 1947–1948,[9] between 1966 and 1972[10] and again between 2012 and 2014.[11]

The site of the current cathedral was used for several successive religious buildings, starting from the Argentoratum period (when a Roman sanctuary occupied the site) up to the building that is there today.

It is known that a cathedral was erected by the bishop Saint Arbogast of the Strasbourg diocese at the end of the seventh century, on the base of a temple dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but nothing remains of it today. Strasbourg's previous cathedral, of which remains dating back to the late 4th century or early 5th century were unearthed in 1948 and 1956, was situated at the site of the current Église Saint-Étienne.

In the eighth century, the first cathedral was replaced by a more important building that would be completed under the reign of Charlemagne. Bishop Remigius von Straßburg (also known as Rémi) wished to be buried in the crypt, according to his will dated 778. It was certainly in this building that the Oaths of Strasbourg were pronounced in 842. Excavations carried out recently reveal that this Carolingian cathedral had three naves and three apses. A poem described this cathedral decorated with gold and precious stones by the bishop Ratho (also Ratald or Rathold). The basilica caught fire on multiple occasions, in 873, 1002, and 1007.

In 1015, bishop Werner von Habsburg laid the first stone of a new cathedral on the ruins of the Carolingian basilica. He then constructed a cathedral in the Romanesque style of architecture. That cathedral burned to the ground in 1176 because at that time the naves were covered with a wooden framework.

After that disaster, bishop Heinrich von Hasenburg decided to construct a new cathedral, to be more beautiful than that of Basel, which was just being finished. Construction of the new cathedral began on the foundations of the preceding structure, and did not end until centuries later. Werner's cathedral's crypt, which had not burned, was kept and expanded westwards.

Construction of the cathedral (1176–1439)

Figures from the main portal of the west façade
Lower part of the West façade, viewed from Place de la Cathédrale (Alsatian: Müensterplatz)

The construction began with the choir and the north transept in a Romanesque style, reminiscent of and actually inspired by the Imperial Cathedrals in its monumentality and height. But in 1225, a team coming from Chartres revolutionized the construction by suggesting a Gothic architecture style. The parts of the nave that had already been begun in Romanesque style were torn down and in order to find money to finish the nave, the Chapter resorted to Indulgences in 1253. The money was kept by the Œuvre Notre-Dame, which also hired architects and stone workers. The influence of the Chartres masters was also felt in the sculptures and statues: the "Pillar of Angels" (Pilier des anges), a representation of the Last Judgment on a pillar in the southern transept, facing the Astronomical clock, owes to their expressive style.

Like the city of Strasbourg, the cathedral connects German and French cultural influences, while the eastern structures, e.g. the choir and south portal, still have very Romanesque features, with more emphasis placed on walls than on windows.

Above all, the famous west front, decorated with thousands of figures, is a masterpiece of the Gothic era. The tower is one of the first to rely substantially on craftsmanship, with the final appearance being one with a high degree of linearity captured in stone. While previous façades were certainly drawn prior to construction, Strasbourg has one of the earliest façades whose construction is inconceivable without prior drawing. Strasbourg and Cologne Cathedral together represent some of the earliest uses of architectural drawing. The work of Professor Robert O. Bork of the University of Iowa suggests that the design of the Strasbourg façade, while seeming almost random in its complexity, can be constructed using a series of rotated octagons.

The north tower, completed in 1439, was the world's tallest building from 1647 (when the spire of St. Mary's church, Stralsund burnt down) until 1874 (when the tower of St. Nikolai's Church in Hamburg was completed). The planned south tower was never built and as a result, with its characteristic asymmetrical form, the cathedral is now the premier landmark of Alsace. One can see 30 kilometers from the observation level, which provides a view of the Rhine banks from the Vosges all the way to the Black Forest. The octagonal tower as it can be seen is the combined work of architects Ulrich Ensingen (shaft) and Johannes Hültz of Cologne (top). Ensingen worked on the cathedral from 1399 to 1419, and Hültz from 1419 to 1439.[12]

In 1505, architect Jakob von Landshut and sculptor Hans von Aachen finished rebuilding the Saint-Lawrence portal (Portail Saint-Laurent) outside the northern transept in a markedly post-Gothic, early-Renaissance style. As with the other portals of the cathedral, most of the statues now to be seen in situ are copies, the originals having been moved to the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame.

Later history

Interior of the cathedral, c. 1617

In the late Middle Ages, the city of Strasbourg had managed to liberate itself from the domination of the bishop and to rise to the status of Free Imperial City. The outgoing 15th century was marked by the sermons of Johann Geiler von Kaisersberg and by the emerging Protestant Reformation, represented in Strasbourg by figures such as John Calvin, Martin Bucer and Jacob Sturm von Sturmeck. In 1524, the City Council assigned the cathedral to the Protestant faith, while the building suffered some damage from iconoclastic assaults. In 1539, the world's first documented Christmas tree was set up inside the Münster.[citation needed] After the annexation of the city by Louis XIV of France, on 30 September 1681, and a mass celebrated in the cathedral on 23 October 1681 in presence of the king and prince-bishop Franz Egon of Fürstenberg,[13] the cathedral was returned to the Catholics and its inside redesigned according to the Catholic liturgy of the Counter-Reformation. In 1682, the choir screen (built in 1252) was broken out to expand the choir towards the nave. Remains of the choir screen are displayed in the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame and in The Cloisters.[14] The main or high altar, a major work of early Renaissance sculpture, was also demolished that year.[15] Fragments can be seen in the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame.

A round, Baroque sacristy of modest proportions was added north-east of the northern transept in 1744 by the city's chief architect Joseph Massol according to plans by Robert de Cotte and between 1772 and 1778 architect Jean-Laurent Goetz surrounded the cathedral by a gallery in early Gothic Revival style in order to reorganise the merchants shops that used to settle around the building (and would do so until 1843).[12]

In April 1794, the Enragés who ruled the city started planning to tear the spire down, on the grounds that it hurt the principle of equality. The tower was saved, however, when in May of the same year citizens of Strasbourg crowned it with a giant tin Phrygian cap of the kind the Enragés themselves wore.[16] This artifact was later kept in the historical collections of the city until they were all destroyed in a massive fire in August 1870.[17] During the Siege of Strasbourg, the cathedral was hit by Prussian artillery and the metal cross on the spire was bent.[16] The crossing domes's roof was pierced and it was subsequently reconstructed in a grander, Romanesque revival style by the Notre-Dame workshop's longtime chief architect, Gustave Klotz.[18]

During World War II, the cathedral was seen as a symbol for both warring parties. Adolf Hitler, who visited it on 28 June 1940, intended to transform the church into a "national sanctuary of the German people"[19] or into a monument to the Unknown Soldier;[20] on 1 March 1941, General Leclerc made the "oath of Kufra" (serment de Koufra), stating he would "rest the weapons only when our beautiful colours fly again on Strasbourg's cathedral".[21] During that same war, the stained glass was removed in 74 cases[22] and stored in a salt mine near Heilbronn, Germany. After the war, it was returned to the cathedral by the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the United States military.[23]

The cathedral was hit by British and American bombs during air raids on Strasbourg's center on 11 August 1944, which also heavily damaged the Palais Rohan and the Sainte-Madeleine Church. In 1956, the Council of Europe donated the famous choir window by Max Ingrand, the "Strasbourg Madonna" (see also Flag of Europe Biblical interpretation). Repairs to war damage were completed only in the early 1990s.

In October 1988, when the city commemorating 2000 years of foundation by Argentoratum, pope John Paul II visited and celebrated mass in the cathedral. This event was also an occasion to celebrate the Franco-Germany reconciliation.[24]

In 2000, an Al-Qaeda plot to bomb the adjacent Christmas market was prevented by French and German police.[25]




Flying buttresses on the southern side of the cathedral
File:A004, Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg, France, 1990.jpg
The square and façade from the observation deck

The known dimensions of the building are as follows:[26]

  • Total length: 112 m (367 ft)
  • Total length inside: 103 m (338 ft)[27]
  • Height of spire: 142 m (466 ft)
  • Height of observation deck: 66 m (217 ft)
  • Height of crossing dome: 58 m (190 ft)
  • Exterior height of central nave: 40 m (130 ft)
  • Inside height of central nave: 32 m (105 ft)
  • Inside width of central nave: 16 m (52 ft)[27]
  • Inside height of lateral naves: 19 m (62 ft)
  • Inside height of narthex: 42 m (138 ft)
  • Exterior width of west façade: 51.5 m (169 ft)
  • Diameter of west façade rose window: 13.6 m (45 ft)
  • Main construction area: 6,044 m2 (65,060 sq ft)
  • Copper-covered roof area: 4,900 m2 (53,000 sq ft)
  • Tile-covered roof area: 600 m2 (6,500 sq ft)
  • Slate-covered roof area: 47 m2 (510 sq ft)


Pulpit with green ray of light
Marriage at Cana, one of the cathedral's tapestries

Protestant and Revolutionary iconoclasm, the war periods of 1681, 1870 and 1940–1944 as well as changes in taste and liturgy have taken a toll on some of Strasbourg Cathedral's most outstanding features such as the choir screen of 1252 and the successive high altars (ca. 1500 and 1682), but many treasures remain inside the building; others, or fragments of them, being displayed in the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame.

The outstanding elements are:

  • Stained glass windows, mostly 14th century, some late 12th century (northern transept) and 13th century ("emperor windows" in the northern lateral nave), some 20th century (southern transept, choir). Stained glass windows from the former Dominican Church, destroyed in 1870, in the Chapelle Saint-Laurent and Chapelle Saint-André.
  • Tombstone of Conrad de Lichtenberg in the Chapelle Saint-Jean-Baptiste, ca. 1300. Facing it, monument to a canon by Nikolaus Gerhaert (1464).
  • Richly ornate baptismal font by Jost Dotzinger in the northern transept, 1443
  • Richly ornate pulpit by Hans Hammer, north-east of the central nave, 1486
  • Life-sized group of sculptures "Christ on the Mount of Olives" in the northern transept, facing the baptismal font (previously in the Église Saint-Thomas), 1498; the cross towering above it is from 1825[28]
  • Suspended pipe organ on the north side of the central nave (Organ case of 1385, 1491; mechanism and registers by Alfred Kern, 1981)[29]
  • Choir pipe organ, north side of the choir, Joseph Merklin, 1878[30]
  • Crypt pipe organ, 1998[31]
  • Busts of Apostles from the high altar of 1682 along the semi-circular wall closing the choir, wood, 17th century
  • Tapestries "Life of Mary", Paris, 17th century, acquired by the cathedral's chapter in the 18th century
  • Altars in the chapels (15th–19th centuries); large Baroque altar of 1698 (structure) and 1776 (paintings) in the Chapelle Saint-Laurent

Astronomical clock

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The astronomical clock

The cathedral's south transept houses an 18-metre astronomical clock, one of the largest in the world. Its first forerunner was the so-called Dreikönigsuhr ("three-king clock") of 1352-1354, located at the opposite wall from where today's clock is. Then starting in 1547 a new clock was built by Christian Herlin, and others, but the construction was interrupted when the cathedral was handed over to the Roman Catholic Church. Construction was resumed in 1571 by Conrad Dasypodius and the Habrecht brothers, and this clock was astronomically much more involved. It also had paintings by the Swiss painter Tobias Stimmer. That clock functioned into the late 18th Century and can be seen today in the Strasbourg Museum of Decorative Arts.

The clock existing today originated in 1838-1843 (the clock has 1838-1842, but the celestial globe was only finished on June 24, 1843) and was built by Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué in Dasypodius' clock case, and with roughly the same functions, but equipped with completely new mechanics. Schwilgué made a number of preliminary studies years before, such as a design of the computus mechanism (Easter computation) in 1816, and built a prototype in 1821. This mechanism, whose whereabouts are now unknown, could compute Easter following the complex Gregorian rule.

The astronomical part is unusually accurate; it indicates leap years, equinoxes, and more astronomical data. Thus it was already much more a complex calculating machine than a clock. Often the complicated functioning of the Strasbourg Clock made specialized mathematical knowledge necessary (not just technical knowledge). The clock was able to determine the computus (date of Easter in the Christian calendar) at a time when computers did not yet exist. Easter had been defined at the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 as "the Sunday that follows the fourteenth day of the moon that falls on March 21 or immediately after". (See also Easter controversy, Ecclesiastical new moon, and Paschal Full Moon.)

Today tourists see only the sculpted figurines of this clock, but behind this ensemble there is a mechanism that engages and that represents one of the most beautiful curiosities of the cathedral. The animated characters launch into movement at different hours of the day. One angel sounds the bell while a second turns over an hourglass. Different characters, representing the ages of life (from a child to an old man) parade in front of Death. On the last level are the Apostles, passing in front of Christ. The clock shows much more than the official time; it also indicates solar time, the day of the week (each represented by a god of mythology), the month, the year, the sign of the zodiac, the phase of the moon and the position of several planets. All these automatons are put into operation at 12:30 PM.

According to legend, the creator of this clock had his eyes gouged out afterward, to prevent him from reproducing it. Similar legends are told for other clocks, such as the astronomical clock in Prague.

In the same room, there is a statue of a man resting his elbows on a balustrade. According to legend this was a rival architect to the one who had built the pillar of angels, the architectural feat of the era, who contended that one single pillar could never support such a large vault, and he would wait to see the whole thing come crashing down.[32]

A visitor's commentary of this clock was given after his visit in the summer of 1855 by Theodore Nielsen, a Danish Kleinsmith Journeyman in his memoirs.[33] As follows. "Everybody knows about the cathedral which is called Munsteren. There is a unique clock in the tower. Surely the only one in the entire world. It shows all time changes, Sun and moon eclipses besides the ordinary times of day. On top of the clock is a niche in which stands Death with a bell in one hand and a crossbone in the other. With this bone he hits the bell each hour to count the time. A Christ figure stands in yet another niche. On each side is a door, and when the clock strikes twelve the left hand door opens and the twelve apostles appear, one at a time. Each one bows deeply before Jesus who in turn lifts his right hand in benediction. Each one then disappears through the door to the right. When Judas appears Jesus hides his face in a fold of his cape. Besides all this there is an enormous rooster that crows and flaps his wings at the same time the Death figure hits the bell with the bone. Above and to the right is a life sized figure, a replica of the man who made the clock. He sits and looks down on his handiworks and you have to look twice to realize that it is not a living person sitting there. Parisians wanted a clock just like that for the Cathedral of Notre Dame. So the burghers of Strassburgh blinded the artist in order to make him unable to undertake the commission. He then asked to be taken up into the tower just once more and this was granted. While up there he put the mechanism out of commission, and the clock was stopped for many years. Several able watchmakers volunteered their entire time to try to get the clock to work again. Some of them became deranged of sheer frustration. But at last someone found the key and since then the clock performs perfectly once more."

There are several models of the Strasbourg clock, usually with simplified functions. One is in the Sydney Powerhouse Museum.[34]

From 1858 until 1989, the clock was maintained by the Ungerer company. This company was founded in 1858 by two brothers, Albert and Théodore Ungerer (Tomi Ungerer's great grandfather) who were Schwilgué's assistants and later in charge of the astronomical clock for three generations. Since 1989, the clock has been maintained by Alfred Faullimmel and his son Ludovic. Mr. Faullimmel had been employed by Ungerer between 1955 and 1989.

In popular culture

The Tempter courting the foolish virgins (south aisle portal of the west façade)

The 1976 film Monsieur Klein, set in France in 1942, takes place largely in Paris but in one sequence, in the middle of the film, the protagonist visits his father in Strasbourg. The cathedral can be seen out a window, and there is a brief shot inside the cathedral of the astronomical clock's figurines moving about and striking the hour.[35]

The Dutch progressive rock band Focus dedicated a theme to the cathedral in their 1974 album Hamburger Concerto.

The 2013 US TV show Zero Hour on ABC utilizes the cathedral for numerous scenes, including the first episode, as well as the episode 'Winding' in which the astronomical clock is figured prominently.

In 2014, the American composer Spencer Topel wrote a lengthy piece for chamber orchestra called Details on the Strasbourg Rosace that has been performed several times since.[36] The previous year, Topel's British colleague John Tavener had composed It is Finished : a Ritual for Strasbourg Cathedral, his last completed work. That composition's premiere took place in 2015, during the celebrations of the millennium of the present cathedral's foundation.[37]

The cathedral and surrounding plaza figure prominently in the opening scene of the film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.


View of Straßburg in 1493 showing the Münster

One legend says that the building rests on immense piles of oak sinking into the waters of an underground lake. A boat would roam around the lake, without anyone inside, though the noise of the oars could be heard nevertheless. According to the legend, the entry to the underground lake could be found in the cellar of a house just opposite the cathedral. It would have been walled up a few centuries ago.

The legend of the wind blowing around the cathedral is as follows: In olden days, the Devil flew over the ground, riding the wind. Thus he caught a glimpse of his portrait carved onto the cathedral: the Tempter, courting the foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), in the guise of a seductive young man. It is true that his back opens up and toads and snakes come out of it, but none of the naïve girls notices that — nor do many tourists for that matter. Very flattered and curious, the Devil had the idea to enter to see whether there were other sculptures representing him on the inside of the cathedral. Taken captive inside the holy place, he could not come back out. The wind always waits in the square and still howls today from impatience on the places outside the cathedral. The Devil, furious, makes air currents from the bottom of the church to the height of the pillar of angels.

See also


  1. Strasbourg Cathedral at Emporis
  2. 2.0 2.1 Susan Bernstein: Goethe's Architectonic Bildung and Buildings in Classical Weimar, The Johns Hopkins University Press
  3. "Strasbourg Cathedral Hangs On", The Christian Science Monitor, 13 October 1991
  4. "Art: France's 25", Time, 2 April 1945
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  12. 12.0 12.1 Les grandes dates de l’histoire de la Cathédrale de Strasbourg (French)
  13. La prise de Strasbourg : 1681 (French)
  14. Strasbourg Virgin, on The Cloisters database
  15. Retable du maître-autel(French)
  16. 16.0 16.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
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  18. Recht, Roland; Foessel, Georges; Klein, Jean-Pierre: Connaître Strasbourg, 1988, ISBN 2-7032-0185-0
  19. "Nazideutschland im Elsass" (German)
  20. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  21. Le serment de Koufra (French)
  22. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
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  24. Vatican Library, Discours du pape Jean-Paul II à l'occasion du bimillénaire de la fondation de Strasbourg (in French)
  25. France Convicts Islamic Militants -
  26. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.(German)
  27. 27.0 27.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.(German)
  28. La Croix de Mission du transept Nord de la cathédrale (French)
  29. The nave organ (French)
  30. The choir organ(French)
  31. The crypt organ (French)
  32. This section largely translated from fr:Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg#L'horloge astronomique [1] and Astronomische Uhr [2].
  33. "With Staff in Hand" Memories of my wanderings in foreign lands. Aarhus Jutland Publishing 1903
  34. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  35. Losey, Joseph (director). (1976) Monsieur Klein. DVD released 2004, Home Vision Entertainment. Title 4, Chapter 12.
  36. "Details on the Strasbourg Rosace" on (access date: 8 March 2015)
  37. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.

Further reading

  • Doré, Joseph; Jordan, Benoît; Rapp, Francis; et al.: Strasbourg – La grâce d'une cathédrale, 2007, ISBN 2-7165-0716-3
  • Bengel, Sabine; Nohlen, Marie-José; Potier, Stéphane: Bâtisseurs de Cathédrales. Strasbourg, mille ans de chantier, 2014, ISBN 2-8099-1251-3
  • Baumann, Fabien; Muller, Claude: Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, Du génie humain à l’éclat divin, 2014, ISBN 2-7468-3188-0
  • Recht, Roland; Foessel, Georges; Klein, Jean-Pierre: Connaître Strasbourg, 1988, ISBN 2-7032-0185-0, pages 47–55

External links

Preceded by World's tallest structure
142 m
Succeeded by
St. Nicholas' Church, Hamburg