Magdeburg Cathedral

The Cathedral of Magdeburg, officially the cathedral of the saints Mauricio and Catalina (in German, Magdeburger Dom, Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina), was one of the first Gothic cathedrals of Germany.

With a height of its towers of 99.25 and 100.98 m, respectively, it is one of the highest cathedrals in the former German Democratic Republic.

The cathedral is in the city of Magdeburg, capital of the state of Saxony-Anhalt in Germany, and there is also the tomb of Otto I of Germany.

The first church built in 937 on the location of the current cathedral was the abbey of Saint Maurice, dedicated to Saint Maurice.

The construction of the current cathedral lasted for more than 300 years, from the beginning in 1209 to the completion of the capitals in 1520.

Despite having been sacked on several occasions, it is rich in art, ranging from the Middle Ages To contemporary art.


Primitive construction

The first church, founded on September 21, 937 in the same location as the present cathedral, was the abbey of St. Maurice (St. Moritz), dedicated to Saint Maurice and financed by the emperor Otto I the Great, who promoted great works Which now encompass the so-called Ottonian architecture.

Otto wanted to demonstrate his political power after the victory in the Battle of Lechfeld in 955 and ordered the construction even before its coronation like Emperor in 962.

In addition, to support his candidacy like successor of the emperor of the Western Roman Empire (Weströmisches Reich) Obtained a large number of antiquities, such as pillars to be used in the construction of the temple.

Many of these antiquities were later used to build the second temple in 1209.

Most likely, the early church had a nave with four side chapels, a width of 41 m and a length of 80 m. The height is estimated higher than 60 m.

Otto’s wife, Queen Edith, was buried in the temple after his death in 946.

The temple was expanded in 955. From that time, the temple became a cathedral.

In 968, Emperor Otto chose Magdeburg as the seat of an archdiocese, the archbishopric of Magdeburg, with Adalbert of Trier as archbishop, even though the city was not in the center of the kingdom but on the eastern border.

The reasons for this decision must be sought in the intention to extend the kingdom and Christianity towards the east, towards what is now Slovakia.

However, this plan could not be carried out, since the emperor died in 973 in the city of Memleben, being buried in the cathedral next to his wife.

The cathedral of St. Maurice was completely destroyed during a city fire on Good Friday 1207.

Everything except the southern wing of the cloister was razed to the ground. Archbishop Albrecht II von Kefernburg decided to tear down the remaining walls and build a new cathedral, despite opposition from the city’s population.

Only the southern wall of the cloister was respected and still today remains part of the current cathedral.

The exact location of the ancient temple was unknown for many years until the foundations were found in May 2003, revealing the measurements of the previous cathedral.

The old crypt has been excavated and can be visited by the public.

The square in front of the cathedral, usually called the “new market square” (Neuer Markt), was occupied by an imperial palace that was destroyed by fire in 1207.

The stones of the ruins were used to build the cathedral. The alleged remains of the palace were excavated in the 1960s.

Construction of the current building

Because Archbishop Albrecht von Kefernburg had studied in France and Italy, he had knowledge of the new Gothic architecture that was developed in France, but was still totally unknown in Germany, which led him to build the new cathedral in the new style French.

The builders and workers did not know this new style, which was a drawback for its construction, since they had to learn it slowly and progressively.

The construction of the choir began in 1209, only two years after the fire that destroyed the first cathedral.

Therefore, the choir was built still in Romanesque style, initially using edge arches combined with Gothic elements.

The influence of the Gothic increased mainly between 1235 and 1260 under the mandate of the archbishop Wilbrand.

Since the construction was supervised by numerous people over the course of 300 years, there were numerous changes to the original plan, and the size of the cathedral increased considerably.

The inhabitants of Magdeburg were not always happy with these decisions, since they had to pay the construction.

On some occasions, walls or pillars already built were demolished to fulfill the wishes of the supervisor in charge at that time.

Construction stopped in 1274. In 1325 Archbishop Burchard III von Schraplau was killed by the citizens of Magdeburg because of high taxes. Tradition says that what provoked anger was the tax on beer.

After this the city was punished and the construction of the cathedral could only be resumed after the donation of five altars as atonement.

The building was supervised by Archbishop Otto von Hesse, who was able to complete the interior of the temple and formally open the cathedral in 1363 with a week-long celebrations.

The cathedral was dedicated not only to St. Maurice as the previous one, but also to St. Catherine.

In 1360, the works stopped again after provisionally covering the unfinished parts.

In 1477 construction was resumed under the supervision of Archbishop Ernst von Sachsen, including the construction of the two towers.

The towers were built by the master Bastian Binder, the only master of the cathedral whose name is known.

The construction of the cathedral was completed in 1520 with the placement of the ornamental cross in the north tower.

The Protestant Reformation, the Wars of Religion and the Napoleonic Invasion

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther fixed his 95 theses on the door of the church of the castle of Wittenberg in Germany, which began the Protestant Reformation.

Luther preached in Magdeburg in 1524 and this caused that many churches of the city were converted to Protestantism.

The unpopularity of Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg contributed to the spread of the new religious stream in the city, and after his death in Mainz in 1545 there was no successor at headquarters.

Magdeburg became a leading center for the Reformation, prompting Emperor Charles V to declare it outlawed.

The Catholic Church decided to keep the treasures of the cathedral in Aschaffenburg to protect them from possible destruction by the Lutherans.

However, the treasure was finally lost to Swedish troops during the fighting of the Thirty Years’ War.

The priests of the cathedral also converted to Protestantism and the first Sunday of Advent of 1567 was celebrated the first Protestant cult in the cathedral.

During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the city was assaulted and only 4000 citizens managed to survive the series of murders, rapes and looting to which the city was subjected (Sack of Magdeburg) thanks to which they requested refuge inside the temple.

The chief pastor, Reinhard Bakes, begged for the lives of his faithful to Johann Tserclaes, Earl of Tilly.

The cathedral survived the fires suffered by the city and was once again dedicated to Catholic worship.

However, after the departure of Magdeburg from the Catholic troops of the Count of Tilly, the cathedral was sacked and the colorful stained glass windows destroyed.

The city of Magdeburg lost 20 000 citizens during the war, which ended with only 400 inhabitants.

The city became part of Brandenburg and was transformed into a fortress.

In 1806 Magdeburg fell into the hands of Napoleon and the cathedral was used as a warehouse, horse stable and sheep pen.

The French occupation ended in 1814, and between 1826 and 1834 Frederick William III of Prussia financed the much needed repairs and reconstruction of the cathedral.

The stained glass windows were all restored in 1900.

The twentieth century

The cathedral received no damage during World War I, but the frequent allied bombings during World War II again destroyed the stained glass windows.

During the intense bombing of January 16, 1945, a bomb fell on the western side of the cathedral, collapsing a wall and destroying the organ and other parts of the building.

Fortunately, the fire brigades were able to control and extinguish the fire before it damaged the roof structures, so the damage suffered was only moderate.

The cathedral was opened again in 1955 and in 1969 the new, smaller body was installed in a different place than the previous one.

When the communist state of the German Democratic Republic was created in 1949, the city passed to the Soviet sphere of influence.

Communist leaders tried to suppress religion as a threat to the system.

However, the religion could not be eradicated and from 1983 onwards prayers for peace were recited weekly in front of the Magdeburger Ehrenmal, a sculpture by Ernst Barlach.

This led to the famous Monday Manifestations in 1989 in Leipzig and Magdeburg, which played an important role in the later unification of Germany.

In 1983 the government of the R.D.A. Reconstruction work began and as early as 1990 a photovoltaic solar energy installation was installed for the first time in a cathedral in East Germany to provide power to the cathedral itself or even to the general grid. Installed power is 418 watts.

In 2004, a collection of funds was completed, starting in 1997 for a new body, having raised 2 million euros.

The construction of the new 36-tonne body was commissioned by a Potsdam company, with 93 registers and approximately 5,000 tubes.

According to the planned plan, the body should have been completed in 2007 and could be used in 2008.

The Magdeburger Ehrenmal is once again the starting point for many demonstrations on Monday, although on this occasion these demonstrations are intended to fight against the government’s social reforms that seek to reduce social spending.

However, these manifestations are of a much smaller scale if we compare them with those that were organized in 1989 and usually have a propagandistic character.


The present cathedral was built over a period of about 300 years, beginning in 1209 and ending with the placement of needles or spiers in 1520.

Since Gothic architecture had been developed in France during the twelfth century, there were no previous examples of this type of architecture in Germany, so the local craftsmen were not yet familiar with this new style.

Therefore, the builders of the cathedral became familiar and learned the keys to this new style as the construction progressed, a fact that can be observed in small architectural changes throughout the construction period.

Construction began on the presbytery, in the eastern part of the temple, near the river Elbe and ended with the top of the towers.

This sanctuary shows a marked influence of the Romanesque style.

Unlike the rest of the Gothic cathedrals, the one of Magdeburg does not have buttresses to reinforce the support in the walls.

The cathedral has an interior length of 120 m and a height to the roof of 32 m.

However, the two towers reach a height of 99.25 and 100.98 m, being the highest church towers of all the old R.D.A.

The cathedral has a central nave and two sides with a transept. Each side of the transept has an entrance, leading the one on the south side to the cloister.

The height to the roof in the central nave is greater than in the aisles, allowing the windows of the triforium to provide light to the central nave.

It has a separate narthex in the western part. The sacristy in the east is separated from the nave by a stone wall, in turn making the separation function between the nave and the apse. The apse is in turn surrounded by a circle.

A secondary construction around the large cloister of non-rectangular shape is connected to the south side of the cathedral.

The cloister, whose southern wall survived the fire of 1207 and comes from the original church, is, like the original cloister, parallel to the church that suffered the fire.

As the present cathedral was constructed with an angle different from that of the original, the cloister maintains a strange angle with it.

In the city of Magdeburg, the land in the vicinity of the river Elbe is soft, making it difficult to build high-rise buildings.

For that reason the cathedral was built on a huge rock of the subsoil, only point on which to be able to raise a building of that height.

The rock is known by the German name of Domfelsen and is visible when the level of the river Elbe is sufficiently low.

In antiquity, too low a river level meant a poor harvest, so the rock is also known as Hungerfelsen, which means rock of hunger.

In any case, the rock was not large enough to be able to build on it the whole cathedral, so that at the western end only the north tower could have the foundations on the solid rock, while the south tower remains on the soft soil to reduce the weight of the south tower, it is totally devoid of stairs or other components inside.

The heavy bells are all housed in the north tower, which can withstand this weight gain. However, the south tower is slightly higher than the north and an attempt was made to visually correct this by adding an ornamental cross over the north tower.


In spite of the looting and looting to which it was subjected, the cathedral of Magdeburg is rich in artistic representations, covering a wide range of objects and elements ranging from antiquity to contemporary art.

Below is a selection of the most outstanding pieces. The objects are presented in an approximate way in order of seniority.

Ancient marble pillars, porphyry and granite used in the apse that originally belonged to buildings of Ravenna and were transported to Magdeburg to build the first church in 937.

The baptismal font made of porphyry from somewhere near Aswan (Egypt). It was originally used as a fountain with a hole in the center. The object is thousands of years old and is still used today to provide the sacrament of baptism.

The tomb of Otto I, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 973. During an exhumation realized in 1844 was discovered that the sarcophagus contained a skeleton and some clothes, but everything had been looted, presumably during the War of the Thirty Years.

The sculpture depicting Saint Maurice, circa 1250, is the first representation of African ethnicity in Central European art, clearly showing the ethnic characteristics, such as the wide nose. The figure is not preserved whole.

The sculpture of Saint Catherine, also from about 1250, was created by the same artist as the sculpture of Saint Maurice.

The Royal Couple (Herrscherpaar) in the chapel of sixteen sides (also dated from about 1250) is a very realistic sculpture with very natural expressions. The identity of the couple is unknown, but could represent Emperor Otto I and his wife Editha or even Jesus Christ in heaven with his “wife” church.

The sculptures of the five wise virgins and the five foolish ones (representing the ten virgins who appear in the parable of the Gospel of Matthew), which also date about 1250. It is the most important artistic work of the cathedral. The five wise virgins are prepared and take oil to the wedding, while the foolish ones are not prepared nor carry the oil. Therefore, by the time the bride and groom arrive, they must fetch the oil for their lamps and arrive at the banquet when the doors have already been closed. The unknown author of the sculptures masterfully shows the emotions on the faces and along with the girls’ body language, expressions that are much more realistic than what was usual at the time are appreciated. All the figures are different and have Slavic features. The sculptures are located outside the north entrance to the transept.

The choir seats, dating from 1363, are masterfully carved and show episodes of the life of Jesus. The unknown author is in turn the author of the choir of the Cathedral of St. Peter of Bremen.

Ernst Barlach’s Magdeburger Ehrenmal was commissioned as a memorial to the fallen heroes of the war, but because of his participation as a volunteer in World War I, Barlach stood against the war, thus showing the suffering and pain of this. This caused great controversy, and the monument was about to be destroyed. The place in front of the sculpture served as a meeting point for the beginning of the Monday Manifestations.

The Lebensbaumkruzifix (literally: Tree of the Cross of Life) is a bronze sculpture painted from 1988 showing Jesus nailed to a tree instead of the cross. Jesus is attached to the tree only by his hands and feet. The sculpture was conceived to be contemplated not only from the front, but from all sides of it. The whole tree is lifeless, except in a small leaf that springs from where the blood of Jesus has dripped. The artist, Professor Jürgen Weber, wanted the sculpture to be placed in a central place near the altar, but against his wishes was placed on the south side of the transept.