Visit the Dom zu Magdeburg — the Oldest Gothic Cathedral in Germany

Visit the Dom zu Magdeburg to see the first and oldest Gothic cathedral built in Germany and medieval sculptures.

Magdeburg Cathedral in full profile from the north

The Cathedral of Saints Maurice and Catharine in Magdeburg (Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina) in Saxony Anhalt is the oldest Gothic cathedral in Germany and one of the largest churches in the eastern parts of the country. It replaced an older Romanesque basilica that contained the grave of Otto the Great, the first German Holy Roman Emperor. Although stripped from most of its art, treasures, and interior fittings during the Reformation, Thirty Years’ War, 19th-century restoration work, and air raids in the Second World War, the cathedral still has several works of art-historical importance ranging from antiquity to the present. Particularly important are 13th-century sculptures including a statue of St Maurice, which is considered the first depiction of a Black African in central European art, and a skillful portrayal of the wise and foolish virgins.

Magdeburg and Otto the Great

Herrscherpaar in the Dom zu Magdeburg

Magdeburg played a significant role in medieval German history. It was formally founded in 805 by Charlemagne although it only became of real importance over a century later. Charlemagne converted the Saxons violently to Christianity and it was these Saxons that subsequently started to conquer the Slavic tribes to the east of the Elbe. Magdeburg played a major role in these conquests that took several centuries before what is now mostly the modern state of Brandenburg was firmly within the German sphere.

In 936, Otto I became duke of Saxony and king of Germany at the relatively young age of 24 (although Otto III managed this aged three!). He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome in 962 by which time he already had a formidable reputation. He died in 973 and was buried in the Magdeburg, where his first wife, Edith, was already interred after her death in 946. His long reign was astonishingly successful and he is generally referred to as Otto the Great (Otto 1. Der Großen) — definitions depending, he is seen as the first German or Holy Roman Emperor.

Choir External of Magdeburg Cathedral

Magdeburg was an important city for Otto — he gifted it to Edith but after her death continued to expand it into the third Rome (Constantinople was still second). The Benedictine monastery of St Maurice that he founded in Magdeburg in 937 received more privileges while he built a large royal palace in the city that he repeatedly visited.

From 955, Otto expanded the monastery church into a large Ottonian Romanesque basilica. In 968, he succeeded in elevating Magdeburg to an archbishopric that included the bishoprics of Havelberg, Brandenburg, Merseburg, Meissen, and Naumburg-Zeitz, as well as controlling most of the missionaries sent to convert the Slavs.

Magdeburg remained an important city for much of its history. Despite frequent destruction by fire and war the city tended to bounce back fast. Its center was largely destroyed during the Second World War. During the communist East German period, it was known deservedly as the greyest of cities — although many Gründerzeit and Baroque buildings were restored in recent years, no-one visits Magdeburg for its historic old town. However, the city has many attractions worth seeing in addition to the magnificent Gothic cathedral.

First Gothic Cathedral in Germany

Floor plan of Magdeburg Cathedral

In 1207, the Romanesque basilica was severely damaged in a major town fire. Despite protests from the locals, who knew who had to pay for the replacement, Archbishop Albrecht von Käfernburg immediately torn down the surviving walls, as he wanted a modern church. Albrecht was well educated and well-traveled for the period. Having seen Gothic churches in France, he wanted something similar in Magdeburg. The result was the first Gothic cathedral in Germany.

Nave of Magdeburg Cathedral

The Dom zu Magdeburg followed the fairly standard Romanesque and Gothic models: an east-west Latin cross but here the transept only slightly protrudes beyond the width of the triple naves. The choir with ambulatory is compact like the half-round apsis of a Romanesque church although the style is pure Gothic, if a bit bulky.

Although some of the oldest parts of the church, especially the ambulatory, show clear Romanesque influences, this was not the result of a Romanesque church project converting to a Gothic structure during the building process. The Dom zu Magdeburg was conceptualized as a Gothic church from the beginning and the Romanesque influences are simply that — building masters unfamiliar with the Gothic struggling to bring the new ideas to fruition.

Construction proceeded in phases and only with the building of the nave did workers with experience of the French Gothic took charge to flood the church with light through traceried windows.

Gothic Dom zu Magdeburg

The Dom zu Magdeburg was constructed between 1209 and 1520 but was already dedicated and in use from 1363 as the first and oldest Gothic cathedral in Germany. Other claimants to the first Gothic church in Germany include St Elizabeth in Marburg and the Liebfrauenkirche in Trier but these are of course not cathedrals.

At the completion of the towers in 1520, the cathedral of Magdeburg was at its artistic and religious high mark. It had 48 altars to serve the various chapels and the whole church was filled with art. Although Magdeburg no longer enjoyed the political prominence of the early empire years, it was an important and rich city. Its population of 30,000 at the end of the 13th century made it one of the largest cities in Germany with no equal in the region.

Reformation and Lutheran Cathedral in Magdeburg

Chancel of Magdeburg Cathedral

In 1524, Magdeburg city accepted the Reformation and the first storming of statues (Bildersturm) of the Dom took place. Throughout its history, the citizens of Magdeburg were often in conflict with the religious establishment — the Reformation was not the first, or last, conflict between the people and the church (and the Catholic emperors). While Magdeburg became one of the first large cities to support Luther, who incidentally briefly attended Latin school in Magdeburg, the cathedral chapter remained Catholic. The town council closed the cathedral in 1546 but the first Lutheran services were only preached here after the chapter finally accepted Protestantism in 1567.

The Magdeburger Dom survived the trials and tribulations of the centuries. Much of the rich interior was lost after the Reformation and especially during the Thirty Years’ War when most things not built-in were carted away and all stained-glass windows destroyed. The siege and final total destruction of Magdeburg by the imperial armies led by General Tilly in 1631 was the prime example of the wanton destruction and miseries of war until the horrors of the Twentieth Century. At most only 4000 citizens out of 20,000 survived the siege of Magdeburg.

The cathedral chapter of Magdeburg was dissolved by Napoleon and his troops used the church as a stable and warehouse. A major restoration under Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1826-34) saved the church from structural collapse but further reduced the original decorations with the last of the interior paint scraped off the walls.

The cathedral was damaged in an air raid towards the end of the Second World War. Although the structure survived, all the stained glassed windows were blown out and the large organ was destroyed. Following initial repairs, the church was again in use by 1955. A major restoration project started in 1983 and as with any large Gothic structure, maintenance and restoration work continue until the fulness of times.

Exterior of the Cathedral in Magdeburg

Western Facade of Magdeburg Cathedral

The western facade with twin towers (100.98 m and 99.25 m tall) also pays homage to the regional ideas of a powerful Westwerk with the facade slightly wider than the nave of the church. Such powerful west facades are common in this region of Germany — see for example the older churches at Havelberg and Jerichow downstream on the Elbe River to the north of Magdeburg.

Western Portal of Magdeburg Cathedral

The rock on which the cathedral of Magdeburg was built, was not big enough to accommodate the whole church. In contrast to the north tower, the south tower is built on sand and as a result, an empty shell built as light as possible. All the bells are in the northern tower, which also has a staircase and viewing platform (just over 400 stairs). 

There are several legends about the missing cross on top of the south tower. However, it is most likely that the southern tower never received the planned cross.

A few sculptures survived on the western facade. The statue of Emperor Otto split the doors while St Maurice is on the gable above the portal.

Higher up are Christ and apostles, while the Virgin, St Catherine, and St Maurice are on the triangle above the clock. These sculptures date to the early 1500s when the towers were completed. Also, note the gargoyles — some restored ones are painted as the originals would have been.

St Maurice (Sankt Mauritius)

The original Romanesque abbey church in Magdeburg was dedicated to St Maurice (usually St Mauritius in German but also St Moritz) but when the Gothic cathedral was built, he was joined by St Catherine as the female patron saint of the church.

St Maurice was born around AD 250 in Thebes, Egypt, and became the commander of the Theban Legion of the Roman Army. He refused orders to harass Christians in the Valais region of modern Switzerland. As a result, the legion was twice decimated before the complete legion was executed. St Maurice is usually portrayed as a Roman general.

The cathedral in Magdeburg is the largest church dedicated to St Maurice but he was, and remained, fairly popular in many parts of the German-speaking world. A mid-13th century statue in the cathedral (now placed near the sarcophagus of Otto I) is the oldest known depiction of a Black African in central European art. He was also painted as a Black man by artists such as Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach but many others painted him as European, as are many further depictions of St Maurice in Magdeburg cathedral. 

His image is used in the heraldry of many German-speaking communities — often but not always as a Black man. The best-known example is probably Coburg’s city coat of arms, granted in 1493, which uses a Black male head in profile wearing a large golden earring. During the Nazi era, it was banned for glorifying the African race but restored in 1945. Its continued use is not entirely uncontroversial. 

Gothic Interior of Magdeburg Cathedral

Gothic Vaulting of Magdeburg Cathedral Nave ceiling

The main visitor’s entrance to the cathedral is from the northwestern portal. Note the decorative bronze door handles by Heinrich Apel — these are modern but typical for the region and also seen on many other churches and building in Magdeburg. The ones on the northern portal are of the Judgment of Paris.

The sculptures of the patron saints, Maurice and Katharine, are 19th-century copies. The originals from around 1515 are inside the church directly after the entrance at the door to the tower stairs.

From the rear of the church, the huge dimensions may be appreciated: the total length is 120 m, while the triple-nave main church is 42.5 m wide with the vaulting of the central nave 32 m high. 

The church is bright — not only because of the large Gothic windows but also the fact that only clear glass is used. The original medieval stained-glass windows were already destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War. Between 1847 and 1907, all 89 windows of the cathedral were painted to cover 2300 square meters. All these were blown out on 12 September 1944 during the first air raid on Magdeburg — only two windows were removed previously for safekeeping but both remained lost. 

Visit the Dom St Nikolaus (St Nicholas) in Stendal, less than an hour by car or train to the north of Magdeburg, to see one of the largest ensembles of medieval stained-glass windows in Germany, while the Jacobikirche in Stendal has the oldest stained-glass windows in northern Germany.

Art in the Dom zu Magdeburg

Ernstkapelle in Magdeburg Cathedral

Much of the art and decorations of the interior of the church were lost during the centuries but a few notable items survived and remained in situ. More art and treasures are displayed in the Dommuseum Ottoniannum that recently reopened next to the church after a major renovation.

a Judensau (Jews’ Sow) on a frieze in Magdeburg Cathedral

The western portal has been mostly out of use since Archbishop Ernst of Saxony, who died in 1515, converted it into his grave chapel. The bronze tomb by the Nuremberg master Peter Fischer was already cast two decades before the bishop’s death. The tomb, another sculpture of St Maurice, and a candelabra in this chapel are of high artistic quality but meant that the western portal is rarely used for admission to the building. Less glorious but surprisingly well preserved is a Judensau (Jews’ Sow) on a frieze in the chapel — it dates from around 1270 and shows a Jewish man suckling a sow. 

The porphyria baptismal font at the rear of the church in the central nave is probably from the original Ottonian Romanesque cathedral but it is much older. The stone originally probably came from Egypt and it might have been used in antiquity in Italy before being transported to Germany.

Holy Grave Chapel in the Magdeburger Dom

Holy Grave Chapel in the Magdeburger Dom

The Holy Grave Chapel (Heilig-Grab-Kapelle) with the ruling couple (Herrscherpaar) is from the mid-13th century. This 16-sided freestanding chapel in the fourth bay of the nave is supposedly a copy of the holy grave chapel in Jerusalem. Reproductions were popular during the Middle Ages and were seen in many churches. 

Only two seated crowned figures are inside this chapel. It is debatable whether they represent Emperor Otto I and his English wife Edith or whether they are allegories for Christ and his bride (i.e., the church). The style of the figures is similar to the famous sculptures in Naumburg Cathedral of Uta of Ballenstedt and the donors. 

The Renaissance alabaster chancel (1597) is by Christoph Kapup. It finally allowed the sermon to be placed at the center of services, as is common in Lutheran churches. The first Lutheran service in the cathedral was only held in 1567 — over four decades after the city accepted the Reformation. 

Choir and Grave of Otto I

Choir and Grave of Otto in Magdeburg Cathedral

Behind the mid-15th century rood screen (Lettner) is the high choir with the sarcophagus of Emperor Otto the Great (Kaiser Otto I. Des Großen) who died in 973. The cenotaph for his English wife, Edith who died in 946, was installed in the ambulatory only around 1500. (She was the grand-daughter of Alfred the Great and also known as Eadgyth, Ædgyth, Editha, or Edgitha.)

The marble Easter candelabra (1170) survived from the Ottonian cathedral. The sculptures of Saints Catherine and Maurice are from around 1250, making this St Maurice the oldest representation of a Black African in northern European art.

Root Screen Magdeburger Dom

The marble high altar from 1363 measures 4.3 by 2 m and is claimed to be the largest in any church in the world. The oak choir stalls are from the same era but were enhanced in 1844.

In the choir in the bishop’s gallery are colored pillars from antiquity imported by Otto from Ravenna. These are topped by sculptures, from the left: Andreas (sans cross), Paul, and Peter from around 1220, and John the Baptist, St Maurice, and St Innocent from after 1232. The capitals on the columns in the ambulatory are also beautifully carved with a variety of motives — many of these were also recycled from the Romanesque church.

Charlemagne similarly imported items from antiquity and from as far away as Jerusalem when building the Imperial Cathedral with throne in Aachen.

Paradise Portal 

Wise Virgins Magdeburg Cathedral
Two Foolish Virgins Magdeburg Cathedral
Foolish Virgins Magdeburg Cathedral
Detail of two foolish virgins in Magdeburg Cathedral

The Paradise Portal — the north entrance of the transept — is an artistic highlight. The portal with the tympanum of the assumption of Mary is from 1310 but more famous are the sculptures of the wise and foolish virgins produced around 1250. The women in these sculptures show individual emotions and facial details very uncommon in works from the period. The door handles are by Heinrich Apel (1935-2020) and illustrate the Judgement of Paris — the precursor to the Trojan Wars and certainly not a biblical event.

Barlach Memorial in Magdeburg Cathedral
bronze grave of Archbishop Friedrich of Wettin in the Magdeburger Dom

Just inside the church from the paradise portal is the oak memorial for the fallen of the First World War (1929) by Ernst Barlach. It was controversial from the start but only removed from the church by the NS regime in the 1930s. It only returned during the 1950s. See also: Ernst Barlach’s Floating Angel (Der Schwebende) in the Dom zu Güstrow — one of the best-known war memorial sculptures in Germany.

Many further epitaphs and grave monuments, from the 12th and 16th centuries, are scattered through the church. Most are of archbishops and include the popular mid-12th-century bronze grave of Archbishop Friedrich of Wettin has a small figure pulling a thorn from his foot at the bottom of the bishop’s staff. Goethe described it as a barbaric copy of the Boy with a Thorn in the Capitolini Museum in Rome.

Cloisters 

Cloisters of Magdeburg Cathedral.JPG

The southern transept door leads to the cloisters and related buildings. The Romanesque parts of the cloisters are the only structures that survived from the original Ottonian complex. As the new church was built at a slightly different angle from the old, the cloisters no longer form a perfect square. The large refectory is used as the winter church, as it may be heated, and is usually only seen on guided tours or when attending services.

The large crucifix of Christ being crucified on a tree rather than a cross is by Jürgen Weber. It was installed in 1988 as a gift from Braunschweig, although Weber was apparently dissatisfied with its positioning in the lavatorium or tonsure chapel of the cloisters rather than in the center of the church. 

Organ and Music In Magdeburg Cathedral

Organ Pipes Magdeburg Cathedral.jpg

Magdeburg has a long organ tradition. The first organ was already installed in the cathedral in 1363 by organ master builders from Halberstadt. The cathedral was famous for its large organs but the much-praised Röver organ installed in 1906 was completely destroyed during the second world war. 

Although two smaller organs were installed in the church after the war, these were too small for the full cathedral and are now used mostly for smaller performances. However, in 2008 Schuke installed the largest organ in Saxony-Anhalt in the western portal of the Magdeburger Dom. This instrument has 93 stops and 6139 pipes played via four manuals and a set pedals.

Music concerts are frequently held in the cathedral. Not only organ but also choir music is very popular, as the Magdeburg cathedral choir is with 120 members one of the largest in Germany.

Other noteworthy organs in Saxony-Anhalt include the Hildebrandt Bach organ in Stadtkirche St Wenzel in Naumburg and the Handel and Bach organs in the Marktkirche in Halle. In Halberstadt, the cradle of organ building, visitors may hear for free (part of) John Cage’s ORGAN²/ASLSP As Slow As Possible, which is playing for 639 years in the St Burchardi Church.

Visitor’s Information

Gargoyles on the Magdeburger Dom

Magdeburg Cathedral is open daily from 10:00 closing at 18:00 from May to September, 17:00 in April and October, and 16:00 from November to March. 

On Sundays and religious holidays, sightseeing is only possible after the church service (from around 11:30). 

Other sights near the Magdeburger Dom include the Dommuseum Ottonianum, the colorful Hundertwassers Grüne Zitadelle von Magdeburg building, and the Kulturhistorisches Museum with the original Magdeburger Reiter statue — the market square has a gilded copy, as well as a Roland statue. 

Magdeburg hotels (see Tripadvisor ratings) often offer good deals over weekends and during holiday periods when business and political visits are less common. Very good transportation links — see German Railways timetables — make Magdeburg a good base for sightseeing in the region.

See more photos at Flickr and several hundred on Raymond Faure’s Strasse der Romanik site.

Henk Bekker in armor

About the author:

Henk Bekker

Henk Bekker is a freelance travel writer with over 20 years of experience writing online. He is particularly interested in history, art, and culture. He has lived most of his adult life in Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark. In addition to European-Traveler.com, he also owns a travel website on the Lake Geneva region of Switzerland and maintains statistical websites on car sales and classic car auction prices. Henk holds an MBA from Edinburgh Business School and an MSc in Development Finance from the University of London.

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