Strategically situated as it is at the confluence of the Rhine and Main rivers, Mainz had already been settled in the Roman times, and it formed the northernmost frontier of the empire. Along with Speyer and Worms, Mainz is one of the three Imperial Cathedrals (Kaiser Dom) on the Upper Rhine, constructed under the patronage of several Holy Roman emperors of the Salian (1024~1125) and Hohenstaufen (1138~1266) dynasties as symbols of the imperial power over the papacy. Mainz was one of the seven elector-archbishoprics of the Holy Roman empire, the coronation site for several emperors, and was better known in the English-speaking world by its French name Mayence until the recent history.
Archbishop Willigis laid the foundation stone for the earlier Ottonian-design Mainz Cathedral in 975. Willigis had been in the service of Otto the great at the same historical moment as when Bernward of Hildesheim was also in Otto’s court. Willigis was appointed as the Archbishop of Mainz by Otto II in that year. After more than three decades of building campaign, the Cathedral was consecrated in 1009. On the consecration day, however, a fire destroyed the bulk of the Cathedral. Although Willigis began the process of rebuilding, he passed away two years later, and two successive archbishops were not effective in re-building. It was left to Archbishop Bardo to oversee construction of the main body of the Mainz Cathedral, which was consecrated in 1036. It lasted less than half a century, as another major fire destroyed the Cathedral in 1081, and most of what comes down to this day as the Mainz Cathedral of St. Martin was built in the Lombardic style under the patronage of Henry IV (1050~1106, Holy Roman emperor 1084~1105), who also initiated building of Speyer II, and it was consecrated in 1137.
Unusual for a major cathedral of the Middle Ages, Mainz Cathedral is sited in the heart of the market square of the city, its red sandstone massing dominating the cityscape. The view of the Cathedral from the northwest toward the southeast shows the sculptural ensemble of the octagonal eastern crossing tower, two stair turrets which survive from the original Ottonian construction, as well as the lime stone Gothard Chapel built at the turn of the 13th century.
The view of the Cathedral from the east on a Sunday illustrates how it is integrated into the bustling commercial activities of the city.
That atmosphere contrasts with the engraving of the eastern façade from the justly famous Dehio-Bezold folio. Visitors’ eyes are drawn to the master builder’s deft use of “dwarf gallery” around the eastern apse, a design feature which helps to reduce the apparent weight of the semi-cylindrical masonry volume, and imparts a sense of scale to the true size of the mass.
As shown on the plan, Mainz Cathedral is laid out on the basilica plan with both the western and eastern apses; the nave of five squarish bays covered with Gothic cross vaults; aisles with two slightly rectangular bays corresponding to one nave bay, covered with groin vaults; two larger stair turrets at the east end and a pair of smaller stair turrets at the west; prominent western transept and two crossing towers. At Mainz, the western choir dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, was given prominence over the eastern one as conceived by Willigis, that appears to have been inspired by the great St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Although the appearance of the now lost Ottonian western choir is not known, its present architecture is from the late Romanesque period.
The nave elevation scheme shows that while square piers are laid out at even spacing, on every other pier there is a semi-cylindrical pilaster which reaches the sill level of clerestory windows with a simple impost. The piers with these pilasters in turn support, or figuratively speaking, “collect” the nave arches as well as the ribs for the cross vaults, defining each bay. The clerestory windows are paired within this bay, rather than being evenly spaced across the length of the nave. The nave walls of Mainz Cathedral are articulated by shallow round-arched indentations that rise above the nave arcades, and extend to just below the clerestory windows. One notes that pairing of clerestory windows create displacements, so that clerestory windows are not centered on the nave arcades. The height of the nave is 28 meters, a notch lower than 33 meters for the nave of Speyer Cathedral.
The view toward the eastern chancel, dedicated to St. Stephen, adequately conveys the spatial character of the Mainz Cathedral interior, with its stately progression of alternating piers down the nave.
The view of the eastern apse shows the oven vault over the semi-circular space built in the Lombardic design replacing the former flat Ottonian gabled façade. The chancel bay with the octagonal tower above, almost anticipates the presence of an eastern transept, but it is enclosed by substantial masonry walls separating it from the aisles and the stair turrets beyond.
The view looking straight up to the nave vaulting indicates the prominence given to the slightly larger bay preceding the chancel before the crossing tower. The Gothic rib vaults for the nave date from around the turn of the 13th century.
The view toward the more spacious, as well as visually more important western chancel illustrates the solemn ambience of Mainz Cathedral befitting the stature of an Imperial Cathedral.
The western chancel and the western transept had been rebuilt around the year 1200, presumably on the foundation of the original building under Willigis in the late Romanesque style, but already showing the impulse for the Gothic vaulting technique.
On the transept wings, there are galleries over somewhat wider span. The view looking up to the western crossing tower and transept wings contrasts the later construction of the tower with the Lombard moldings to the Romanesque space of Mainz Cathedral.
A footnote to Mainz: Johannes Gutenberg was born here, and the Museum of Printing honoring him attracts visitors to the city. Mainz today is the capital of Rhineland-Palatinate, and the assembling point of German wines from the Rhine and Main vineyards.
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