In 326 A.D. Constantine the Great traveled to the West after many years of residency in Constantinople to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of his reign as the first Christian Roman emperor. He stayed in Rome and started construction of the great St. Peter’s Basilica. He also traveled across the Alps to Trier (Augusta Treverorum, Trèves in French), his one-time home, to lay foundation stones of a major church, on the site of the palace of his mother Helena. The Cathedral St. Peter of Trier is the oldest cathedral in Germany, and Trier had been one of the seven Elector-Archbishoprics of the Holy Roman Empire. Trier Cathedral, as befits its importance in the Western history, is a unique work of architecture which fuses the early, mature and late Romanesque styles with the early 4th century Roman nucleus. The Constantinian church is said to have been about four times as large as what comes down to this day. Extensive damages to the church in the 5th and 9th centuries left it in ruins, but the Cathedral was rebuilt starting in 1035 in the early Romanesque style, then the cross rib vaults were constructed in the late Romanesque style in the 12th century.
The plan shows that Trier Cathedral is laid out in general as a basilica plan with the nave and side aisles, eastern transept and two apses, with some unusual architectural features. The existing part of the 4th century Roman basilica, about 42-meter square structure shown in black on the plan, forms the core of the Cathedral. The square bay (B) in the center, about 18 meters to the side, was joined by rectangular bays (A) on all four sides. The center square bay had become the Crossing of the Transept which was finished flush with the outer walls to the north and south. The nameless master builder of the 11th century building workshop, quite brilliantly expanded the structure by adding another square bay, and a rectangular bay to the west, setting up the rhythm of A – B – A – B – A for the nave itself. Then a somewhat shorter rectangular bay for the Chancel was built to the east. The eastern and western apses which are as wide as the nave were joined later to the nave thus formed.
The western façade of Trier Cathedral facing Liebfrauenstrasse and a spacious square presents a one-of-a-kind Romanesque Westwork. At the outer corners, two cylindrical stair turrets are placed forward of the cubical blocks for the western towers of different heights above, as the turrets and tower bases are connected diagonally. In front of the towers, on axes with aisles inside, are the tall entrance bays with significant upper story arches and relief. At the center flanked by the entrances is the very wide half-round western apse, completed in 1196. Stair turrets pulled forward, stepping of entrance bays with the somewhat squat towers behind, and the very wide half cylinder apse in the middle all contribute to making the Westwork of Trier Cathedral quite different from other well-known works of the Carolingian and Ottonian architecture which have taller, and flush Westwork.
The view from the northeast shows the Cathedral ensemble with myriad structures accumulated over the centuries. It also shows what might be described as half of the twelve-sided eastern apse joined to the end wall of the nave, the tall gable of the northern transept, and more vertically proportioned eastern towers. The octagonal Baroque chapel at the eastern end with its own crypt is not shown on the more diagrammatic cathedral plan.
The longitudinal view toward the eastern choir shows the nave appearing not as long as its length of about 80 meters, probably due to absence of a rhythm set up by regularly spaced piers and columns in a normative Romanesque church space.
The nave elevation scheme of the western of the two square bays illustrates this point further. Here, the relatively narrow south aisle reads as lateral expansion of the nave space itself, rather than appearing as continuation of a linear “aisle” running parallel to the nave in the east-west direction. The aisle space here has been made into a sort of shallow narthex for the door from the adjoining Liebfrauenkirche of mid-13th century.
A closer view of the crossing toward the eastern chancel shows that the steps to the choir starts at about the midpoint of the crossing, and a very elaborate Baroque altar is placed high up in the six-sided apse with ornate Gothic ribs on the vault ceiling.
The view from the raised eastern Choir looking west conveys the unique spatial character of Trier Cathedral faithfully. As said earlier, due to the lateral expansion of the nave space at the square bays and absence of a rhythm, the sense of sweep lengthwise is halted at these two points. From the entrances on either side of the western apse, the sense of movement toward the eastern chancel is subdued. The nave is a calm and deeply contemplative space of worship.
The view looking straight up to the nave vaulting shows the rectangular bay at the midpoint of the Cathedral with an ornate Baroque organ loft, and the Crossing to the east (down), the “narthex” bay with gallery above to the west (up). Trier Cathedral is 26 meters high at the crown of the nave vaulting, and the width of the nave is about 18 meters.
The view of the eastern Choir looking north shows on the left a generous Gothic arch with well-lit gallery above, and a well-crafted choir screen. It also shows on the right an opening leading to the northeastern stair tower, and a gallery at a mezzanine level.
The view of the north aisle at the western square bay opposite the “narthex” on the south side, looking east accurately conveys the feel of expansion of the nave space, as the relatively narrow aisle space beyond reads as a separate spatial compartment, rather than a linear continuation of the north aisle.
One special treasure of Trier Cathedral, although rarely put on public view, is the Holy Tunic of Christ, which legend relates was worn by Christ shortly before he was crucified, and was subsequently brought from Jerusalem by Helena (later St. Helena) when she made pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and was entrusted to the new church of her son.
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