Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne – Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm


Cologne had been settled in the Roman times, and it was made the provincial capital of Germania inferior in the first century AD. It was the seat of a bishop going back to the earliest Christian era, and Charlemagne elevated the position to that of archbishop during his reign. Cologne is also a veritable cradle of the Rhenish Romanesque architecture which flourished in the 11th century. There are twelve Romanesque churches in the historic center of Cologne dating from this period, most of which suffered devastating damages during WW II. The restoration work lasted until the 1990’s for some of the churches. Sankt Maria im Kapitol which measures about 100 meters long and 40 meters wide, is the largest and most notable of the twelve, and is considered to be one of the finest achievements of the building art of the Salian dynasty (aka Frankish dynasty 1024~1125).

The original Sankt Maria is said to have been built in the 8th century by Plectrudis, wife of Pippin as a convent church for noblewomen on the foundations of a Roman temple and an earlier church built in Merovingian times. The present Sankt Maria im Kapitol was begun in 1040, and consecrated by Pope Leo IX in 1049. Although the main body of the church had been substantially completed by 1065, the construction continued toward the late Romanesque period, the architecture gradually acquiring a Lombardy style in its exterior design.

As illustrated by the plan, Sankt Maria in the Kapitol district of Cologne has the trefoil-shaped, three-apse east end. While there are two other churches of trefoil plan in Cologne, it is Sankt Maria which epitomizes the geometrical logic and the formal resolution of the trefoil-shaped triapsal plan to the fullest extent. The aisles are groin vaulted, whereas the nave had initially been built with flat timber ceiling, but rebuilt with sexpartite vaulting starting in 1219, one of the earliest on the present day German soil.

Plan, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia)

Plan, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia)

In Sankt Maria the chancel is located at the junction of the easternmost bay of the nave and the crossing, with an 18th century rood screen. The eastern apse of the trefoil plan is the primary zone for the choir, while the northern and southern apses with entrances at centers are left free of seating today. Inside the space of Sankt Maria im Kapitol, one feels a distinct sense of movement north-south as well as east-west.

Nave to chancel, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave to chancel, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The nave elevation scheme shows that in place of piers with capitals, there are very wide piers with relatively thin cornices forming a nave wall with half-round arched openings rhythmically punctuating the plane. The nave elevation also shows what the restoration architects must have agonized, then finally chosen as a visual record of the compound piers of the sexpartite nave vaulting of the early 13th century. How gratifying would it have been if the sexpartite vaulting were reconstructed in the post-WW II restoration!

Nave elevation, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Nave elevation, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view from the ambulatory at the southern entrance toward the northern apse shows that the rood screen for the chancel straddles the western column line of the crossing, and is constructed of two sets of four columns, one set on the nave side, and the other on the crossing side, and an organ loft is placed within the thickness of the main arch.

Northern apse, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Northern apse, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The axial view of the eastern apse accurately conveys the rich spatial layering of the ambulatory and the apse. The stained-glass-fitted clerestory windows describing a semi-circle of the apsidal space appear to be from the Gothic period.

Eastern apse, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Eastern apse, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

An oblique view toward southeast from the ambulatory of the northern apse shows how logically the master builder worked out interlocking of the structure at every turn.

Ambulatory to eastern apse, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Ambulatory to eastern apse, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The 45-degree view toward southeast shows the entry to the chapel at that re-entrant corner of Sankt Maria indicated on the plan.

Re-entrant corner chapel, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Re-entrant corner chapel, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The view of the crossing toward northeast eloquently shows how the trefoil plan creates a rich spatial interplay.

Crossing, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Crossing, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

The oblique view toward the entrance of the southern apse rewards visitors with wonderfully sculptural and generous space. The columns forming the trefoil apses of Sankt Maria im Kapitol are adorned with cushion capitals, which are not proportioned in accordance with the classical architecture, but are reminiscent of Byzantine precedents. They also bear certain resemblance to those of St. Michael in Hildesheim, but more cubic and taut.

Entrance to southern apse, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Entrance to southern apse, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Finally, the axial view looking up to the vaulting of the eastern apse shows an oven vault joined to barrel vaults at the short bay, and the dome at the crossing.

Vault, eastern apse, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

Vault, eastern apse, Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia) Photo by Jong-Soung Kimm

With its unique trefoil, three-apse plan, clarity of spatial organization and unity of form in its execution, Sankt Maria im Kapitol is justly considered a highpoint of the Rhenish Romanesque architecture of the Salian dynasty.

Location: 50.934600 6.958380

This article on Sankt Maria im Kapitol is the twentieth that Mr. Kimm has written for Via Lucis. We are so grateful for his enormous contributions to our site. For more information on Jong-Soung Kimm, please select this link.

One response to “Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne – Guest Post by Jong-Soung Kimm

  1. Not too far from where I live….and have planned for years to visit.Will not postpone any further.Really more than nice pictures,congrats.

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