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The golden spires of Speyer

Speyer Cathedral © Stadt Speyer/Karl Hoffmann

The golden spires of Speyer

Speyer’s magnificent cathedral

Crossing the Rhine, the vast Cathedral with its four towers is imposingly massive even today. So what sort of impression must it have made when first consecrated in 1061? It was certainly designed to impress, because its founder, the newly elected German Emperor, Conrad II, wanted to create a fittingly grandiose burial church for himself and his heirs of the Salian dynasty.

He was clearly not a man of half-measures, because the edifice begun in 1024 was the biggest building in Christendom. However, neither he nor his son, Henry III, lived to see the scheme completed in 1061. And how shocked they would have been to know that their successor, Henry IV, was far from satisfied by their efforts. Building fashions were changing, and the new emperor clearly disapproved of such dated features as the small windows and flat wooden ceiling.

Window to history

To see why, start your visit to the cathedral by walking to the park at its east end. The tiny windows and roughcast stonework on the two towers (note their pointed “Rhenish helms”) give some idea of how Conrad’s original building must have looked. In contrast, Henry IV wanted larger windows like those you see on the semi-circular apse plus more elegant (and expensive) stonework cut in regular blocks (so-called ‘ashlar’).

When we get inside, we’ll see that he also added an extraordinary stone vaulted ceiling that was a wonder of its time and gave an even greater impression of height.

As we walk around to the south side, it’s perhaps hard to believe that Henry was to die excommunicate in 1106, meaning that he couldn’t be buried in his own magnificent structure. He was the emperor who had the famous run-in with Pope Gregory VII that culminated, in 1076, in him having to kneel for three days in the snow outside the papal residence in Canossa before being admitted and restored into the church. But Henry relapsed again in 1102, and it was only a hair-splitting theological stratagem that allowed him to be entombed in the new Afra Chapel on the north side, because it had not yet been consecrated.

Remnants of fire damage

Going along the south side, we can see evidence of a fateful event in the cathedral’s history. Just under the eaves of the roof, there’s a lovely frieze of leaf-like palmettes that was created by imported Italian craftsmen. But look closely and you’ll see that the carving suddenly becomes more regular (and less interesting), continuing this way until, further to the east, it regains its vivacity. What happened? Unfortunately, in 1689, Louis XIV’s army decided to raze the city  of Speyer to the ground, the fire got out of control, and the whole roof of the cathedral burnt out, so that a section of the main nave simply collapsed. A century was to pass before the main body of the church was restored to something approaching its original state.

Italian flourish

However, the west façade remained a ruin right into the 19th century, when the architect, Heinrich Hübsch, was commissioned to rebuild it. As we reach this end, prepare  for a shock. Here, instead of the impressive simplicity of German Romanesque, we’re suddenly in the fanciful world of recreated Italian splendor. It may have a certain grandeur, but it could hardly be more out of place. Apparently, Hübsch refused to accept any salary for his work on this project, and it could be argued that he was not underpaid.

Before we go inside, though, take a look at the ancient enormous bowl, the Domnapf, that marks the boundary between the city of Speyer and the bishop’s domain. Supposedly, when a new bishop was consecrated, the bowl was filled with wine to soften the burghers’ mood before he entered the city via the gateway one can see at the other end of the High Street.

Interior wonders

But let’s turn round now, pass through the eastern porch and savor one of the great early medieval interiors of Europe. The sheer size of it is humbling, the lack of ornament gives it a tremendous austerity that is only slightly mildened by the alternating pink and white stonework. Certainly, you can appreciate why Henry insisted on a vaulted stone ceiling, although it required those half-columns on the main piers to help shoulder the extra weight.

If you have the feeling that those paintings between the piers are nothing to write home about, you’re not alone. But imagine that, in the 19th century, the whole church was covered with similar works. Mercifully, restoration begun in the 1950s got rid of most of these. Having absorbed the stark magnificence of the nave, it is a little surprising to know that the best is yet to come.

Into the crypt

Let’s go along the south aisle (with its groined vaulted ceiling, this gives a good idea of how Conrad II’s original cathedral must have looked) before descending the steps into the crypt. Low, dark and intimate, this is Romanesque architecture at its magical best.

The simple but attractive vaulting, the cushion capitals, the rough whitewashed masonry: it all seems touchingly human in scale after the celestial vastness of upstairs. Alas, the tombs of the builders’ dynasty were ransacked at the time of the fire of 1689, but the modern tombs still have a certain dignity, although nowhere near as fine as that of Rudolph of Hapsburg (d. 1291), the founder of what was to be Europe’s greatest ruling dynasty.

The locals say that Speyer is where the Pfalz begins to turn into Italy the context is supposed to be culinary, but in fact the buildings in the beautiful square opposite the cathedral really do look more Italian than typically German. The many outdoor cafés and Biergärten though are fairly typically German and all the better for it.

Things to see in Speyer

  • The cathedral (Dom zu Speyer) is one of the largest and most significant Romanesque churches in Germany. Construction began around 1030 and the cathedral was consecrated in 1061.
  • The city hall (Rathaus) is a good example of late Baroque architecture.
  • The fish market, which was already known in 1290 as “ forum piscium”
  • The Speyer Museum of Technology (Technik Museum), which is housed in a former aircraft hangar from the year 1913, now classified as a historical monument. Here one can view airplanes, locomotives, fire engines and oldtimers.
  • The IMAX movie theater which is part of the Museum of Technology
  • Sea Life Speyer

Romantic Lorsch Abbey

If you’re looking for a building that invites open-mouthed amazement, Speyer is surely an excellent choice. But if you’re looking for a building to fall in love with, Lorsch Abbey is a much better bet. Chances are, you’ve often passed within a couple of miles of it on Highway 5 or 67 between Weinheim or Mannheim and Darmstadt without noticing the Lorsch turn-off. Yet, at one time, the abbey here was one of the most important establishments in Europe. But that, as the saying goes, was way back in the mists of time. In fact, centuries before the present Speyer Cathedral was even conceived. Because, in Lorsch, old really does mean very old indeed. When we park near what is signposted as the Königshalle, we are about to see a small but nonetheless wonderful building that goes back over 1,200 years. It was probably built in the 770s, and the great Frankish king Charlemagne may well have passed through its arches long before he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800.

You don’t have to be a connoisseur of Carolingian architecture to feel immediately fascinated by the mosaic-like pattern of the stonework. The impressive Corinthian capitals might well remind you of what you’ve seen in Speyer, as will the narrow palmette frieze between the two tiers of columns. But take time to enjoy the lovely patterns of the red stonework, whose very irregularity gives them so much vivacity.

The building served as a gatehouse where it was decided who would be allowed into the precincts of the powerful Benedictine monastery that owned vast estates in the surrounding region. Upstairs, there’s a rather primitive

room that is rarely open, but is worth checking out, as some of its fragmentary paintings are over 1,000 years old. Unfortunately, little else survives of the original monastic complex, the only substantial building being the torso of the church that does contain a couple of ancient tombs.

Behind this, a pleasant monastic herb garden has recently been laid out. The museum next to the gatehouse has a section devoted to tobacco cultivation, but its main interest lies in the reconstructions of the abbey buildings plus facsimiles of its greatest treasure, the so-called Lorsch Gospels, whose covers (now in London and Rome) incorporated ivory carvings going right back to Roman times. In other words, even further back into the mists of time.

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