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Travel to Germany: Speyer Cathedral

"If somebody asks you to think Romanesque, remember Speyer." So said Professor Horn, almost as if he knew that UNESCO in 1981 would place this church on its World Heritage list, up there as a monument of the Romanesque along with the cathedrals of Worms and Mainz. And so, almost 40 years on, a detour was made to this cathedral town overlooking the Rhine near Heidelberg.

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Germany: Speyer Cathedral picture 1

The best though an impractical approach for a motorist is through the Old Gate (the Alt Portel), a remnant of the old city wall: beyond it, Maximilian Strasse, a prosperous triumphal way.

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It leads straight to the Domplatz, or cathedral square. Calm thy palpitations: Speyer was mostly built in the 11th century, but the Westwerk or west end shown here was built in the 1850s: blame French soldiers for burning down the original in 1689. If the cathedral seems to overpower the town, it must have done so even more in 1100, when the town had all of 500 people. Conrad II set out, however, to build the biggest church in Western Christendom, and he succeeded, although he died before its completion.

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With the fire of 1689, the Prince-Bishop of Speyer lost his palace and decided to rebuild 15 miles away at Bruchsal. The palace there is a Baroque monument, and so might this church have become. The west end was in fact rebuilt in a Baroque style about 1750 by the son of Balthasar Neumann, who had built the palace at Bruchsal. With more money, the whole church might have been so rebuilt. In the 1850s, Maximilian II had the west end redone again, this time in a neo-romanesque style. Heinrich Hübsch, the architect, introduced several departures from the original style, among them poloychrome stone, statues over the entrance, and the gable.

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We're circumambulating the church. Here, on the north side, you get a sense of its symmetry but also its enormity. The main axis is 134 meters (440 feet) long. The whole place was built quickly, between 1030 and 1106.

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The church was once chockablock with cloister and bishop's residence, but most of those buildings are gone. Some fine half-timbering survives here at the Halfmoon Guesthouse.

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Not your Home Depot special.

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The church was built of red sandstone, apparently floated from the hills to the west. The rubble part of this north wall is from the 11th century; the grander ashlar masonry is from the 12th. The earlier part was done during the reign of Henry the Third; the later, during the reign of Henry the Fourth--he who went to Canossa.

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Shades of Henry Hobson Richardson: a two-story window in the south transept. Above it is a gallery that runs around the entire church.

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The north transept and the continuing gallery.

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The gallery continues around the apse as well.

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The copper roofs date from the 19th century. The ground slopes from here down to the Rhine, 500 meters to the east.

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The site of the former cloister.

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Looking back to the south transept.

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From west to east.

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Once again, the west end. Renovation work never ends.

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The entrance.

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Iconography for all.

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As consecrated in 1961, the roof was flat and wood. Thirty years later, Henry IV ordered that the nave be raised five meters and the roof replaced with vaulting.

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The crossing.

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The nave, seeing from the choir.

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There are only six vaults in the nave, but each one spans two bays. Call it "double-bay vaulting."

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The columns at the corners of the vaults were enlarged and reinforced, and clerestory windows were added. The interior paintings are from the 1850s and tell in 24 panels the life of the Virgin.

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Apse.

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Notice anything? Right: there are a dozen vaults in the aisles. No double-bay vaulting, in other words.

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The repetition of the Romanesque can be hypnotic.

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A simpler, more static chapel was added sometime before 1610.

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Columns in the chapel.


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