Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer – A Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


In 1024 Conrad II (ca. 990~1039), the first Holy Roman Emperor of the Salian dynasty commissioned the construction of a cathedral which was intended to be the symbol of the imperial power over the papacy on the foundation of a former basilica. The work began sometime between 1027 and 1030 with the crypt and the chancel over it with two towers to north and south flanking the chancel.

Ground plan, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate)

Ground plan, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate)

Construction of westwork and the nave with closely spaced columns and a lower wooden roof and two aisles with groin vaults followed, and the first incarnation of the cathedral, Speyer was consecrated in 1061. Conrad II died in 1039, his son Henry III in 1056, and they were buried in the nave in front of the altar. The original apse was half round on the inside, but was finished as a square volume on the outside.

Western facade with the original Salian Westwork restored in the 19th century, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Western facade with the original Salian Westwork restored in the 19th century, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Around 1090, Conrad’s grandson, Henry IV, also elected as the Holy Roman Emperor, undertook an ambitious rebuilding of the cathedral. The crypt and the eastern towers were the only original components from the Speyer I, and ceiling of the nave was raised by five meters, foundations reinforced to eight meters below ground. The most significant achievement of the nameless master builder was to reinforce every other columns of the nave by joining substantial, half round pilasters creating six bays defined by transverse arches, and enclosing the nave bays with groin vaults.

Groin vaulting, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Groin vaulting, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Two other significant contributions of the master builder, almost as important as the nave vaulting concept, firstly, was the system of clearstory centered between all columns; and secondly, the dwarf gallery on the exterior along the longitudinal mass of the cathedral and around the half round apse. The dwarf gallery does three things: reduce the visual weight of the imposing height of the masonry; express the impressive heft of the masonry by highlighting the colonnades against shadow; and enhance sense of scale.

East exterior with dwarf gallery, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

East exterior with dwarf gallery, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The expanded cathedral, Speyer II, was completed in 1106, the year of Henry IV’s death. It is 134 meters long and 43 meters wide. Speyer cathedral suffered two major devastations in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What comes down to us today for Speyer is largely the work of the nineteenth century restoration by Heinrich Hübsch, who restored the original Salian concept of the westwork replacing an earlier classical/baroque western elevation.

When a visitor enters the cathedral through the narthex, then sets foot in the nave, the immediate sensation he or she feels is the scale and grandeur of the space. “Speyer is not subtle, but anyone who understands masonry will love the tremendous cliff-like masses of its walls and the heavy over-arching testudo of its vaulting,” writes Kenneth John Conant.

View of nave toward choir, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

View of nave toward choir, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The nave consists of six groin-vaulted bays defined by transverse arches supported by major pilasters attached to columns, and it is joined to the east by the crossing with octagonal tower above, relatively shallow cross rib-vaulted transepts, and the semi-circular apse. The major column in the middle shows the substantial, half-round pilaster with capital from which the 5-meter extension of column sprang.

Nave elevation, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave elevation, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The altar is placed in the last bay of the nave to the west of the crossing. The red sandstone quarried from Speyer forest upstream on the Rhine with which the cathedral is built, unifies the three Kaiserdom on the Rhine: Speyer, Mainz and Worms.

Chancel, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Chancel, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

On the interior, the builders used grey sandstone in combination with the red sandstone in defining the transverse arches, as well as the imposing masonry to surround the bronze gate entry to the nave from the narthex.

Bronze gate to nave, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate)  Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Bronze gate to nave, Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Speyer cathedral together with Santiago de Compostela and Durham, all constructed within a few decades of each other, stand out as the crowning achievements of the medieval building art. Cluny III, had it not been so tragically destroyed, would undoubtedly take a place of honor within this group of monuments.

Location: 49.317199°8. 8.442247°

For more information about our guest writer, Jong-Soung Kimm, please see this link.

7 responses to “Imperial Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Stephen, Speyer – A Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm

  1. Dear Prof. Kimm,

    How nice of seeing you in WordPress, via Society of Architectural Historians. I met you in Seoul nearly more than 30 years ago while I was a student of Architectural Association in London. It was a short visit during the break from London.

    Anyhow, also it is very enjoyable to share your interest of Romanesque architecture. I presented a humble paper in Paris on 2011 titled as ‘The Cistercian Order Monastery Architecture in 12 century France: its Genetics with Modern Architecture’. Also in 2013, it was delivered to Seoul National University, 한예종, Asan Academy & Catholic University in Incheon.

    I would like to see you once again when I visit Seoul. Would you kindly advise me how I could contact you other than via WordPress.

    Awaiting to hear you in due course.

    Best regards,
    Eonuh Rhee (이 언 우)

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