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One Thousand Years of Catholics, Lutherans, and Revolutionaries in Strasbourg’s Cathedral

One Thousand Years of Catholics, Lutherans, and Revolutionaries in Strasbourg’s Cathedral


by Andrew L. Wilson

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from LF Winter 2015

Floating down the Rhine from Basel, a medieval bargeman would have seen few monuments of any size. Fishermen and ferries would ply their trade; smoke would rise from forest huts. At Briesach he could admire the grand St. Stephan’s church upon the hill, skirted by that fortress city’s walls. Some vineyards and some fields would show on distant slopes. But mostly he would float, the dark line of the Black Forest rising to the east, the Vosges Mountains its mirror image to the west. 

Nearing Strasbourg he would spy a different sight, something angular and unnatural, a dusky smudge erupting up from the plain, the only sign of the great city teeming below. And at last, off the Rhine and through the tollhouse of the river Ill, he would raise his eyes and see that spindly mass of heaven-piercing height, the Cathedral of Our Lady.

A thousand years ago, in 1015, the first foundation stone was laid for Strasbourg’s cathedral. It started as a bishop’s project, an alliance between Werner Habsburg and his good friend Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor. The two together placed the cornerstone from which would rise a great monument to God and a sign of their prestige. Unlike modern minds—who might have searched for proper bedrock—they built upon the site where Christ’s name was first honored in Strasbourg. The quaggy soil required the driving of thousands of piles to support the church’s weight—moist roots, if you will, for the almost animate mass soon to grow above.

Over the course of the eleventh century, a sturdy Romanesque basilica of Euclidean perfection grew, all arcs and pillars and barrel vaults, set in golden means. The transept was octagonal—a reminder of the resurrection, and of Charlemagne’s basilica in Aachen. Subtle beasts and peering faces stared from its historiated capitals, tiny heralds calling mortals to contemplate eternity amidst the resounding harmonies of the spheres. Until it caught fire four times and finally toppled, frail and perishable after all.

Rebuilding commenced at once. The choir and half a transept were built again in Romanesque. But then another style took over: the nave and the rest soared upward in dazzling, unruly Gothic. Set against the restrained Romanesque, the Gothic comes off as all nobs and crockets, finials and pinnacles, writhing beasts and beastly gargoyles. By some transcendent feat, an architectural transubstantiation, the Gothic mind managed to spin tons and tons of pinkish sandstone into a gossamer veil across the heavens. The nave was built in a single push: just forty years to make the buttresses fly.

By the late 1200s the bishop’s power waned; the city’s waxed. The burghers now took the reigns of the building plan. To pay the workers they consolidated farms—bequests from the faithful, bits of forest, other buildings and their rents. They channeled piously purchased indulgences into the coffers of an independent foundation, the Oeuvre Notre Dame, still in existence all these centuries later.

Fed by this fertile stream of revenue, the building grew yet grander. New architects were hired, and masons, too. New quarries were opened. From field, from grove, from mine, the cathedral added yearly to its splendor and its height. Light that refracted through great expanses of tinted, glittering glass told tales of God’s providence. The northern wall of windows was populated by potentates—Charlemagne, Charles Martel, Pepin the Short, Louis the Debonair, Conrad, Philip, Frederick—emperors all, bearers of the Roman orb, safeguards of Christendom. The southern windows depict Bible tales in gruesome verisimilitude. The entire building broadcasts scenes and images from the world above, seen through the glass dimly.

This was a church for the people. There was no high altar to begin with; ringed round the aisles stood well over a hundred little ones, each with its benefactor, each with its patron saint, each tiny table lovingly adorned with candles and swaddled by masses and prayers. It was a public place as well: a refuge from the driving rain, a beggar’s stoop, a merchant’s meeting room. The inside was filled with booths and sometimes the warm and pungent smell of animals. 

If the inside was a harbor for the faithful, the façade was a message to the world proclaiming Strasbourg’s greatness. The three gaping portals are positively toothy with statues. On the left, Christ is born and the virtues stand victorious over the vices. In the center, flanked by his apostles, Christ is crucified; surrounding them the Bible’s greatest hits roll out on tiered archivolts. On the right Christ stands in judgment as his angels blow their trumpets, tombs are emptied, the foolish virgins weep, and the wise ones stand smugly by.

Above this Scripture carved in stone a great rose window blooms, streaming out in white and blue and yellow—pure aesthetic pleasure without figures or faces. Perched high above and to the side, mounted upon chargers in their niches, stand epic statues of the city’s patron kings: Clovis, Dagobert, and Rudolph of Habsburg. Each year at Schwörtag, swearing-in day, the burghers took their oath of civic loyalty before God and these His earthly deputies.

When finally in 1439 its spire topped out at 466 feet, Our Lady of Strasbourg was the tallest building in Europe. What simpler metaphor for greatness than height? In all the world only the pyramids of Egypt surpassed it, and only by a few feet. Rival steeples destroyed Strasbourg’s record until lightning destroyed them. Our Lady crowned Europe again for over two hundred years, until Ulm and Cologne finally seized first and second place late in the nineteenth century.

They’d built the building to proclaim the glory of God, but in time the stones ceased to cry out with the same insistence. So the burghers called in a preacher, an impassioned orator, Johann Geiler (1445–1510) from nearby Kaysersberg. He preached in the cathedral’s St. Lawrence chapel until the crowds, eager to hear their very own Jeremiah bawl his exposés of priestly debauchery and lay laxity, grew too large. The city built a proper pulpit in the nave, a jewel of Gothic miniature, ringed with the requisite evangelists and apostles, tiny niches lurking with orthodox bishops. The heavens, too, were put to work for the sake of this evangel: at solar noon on the equinoxes, a greenish ray strikes the pulpit’s cross—an event still announced in the local papers.

Partly due to Geiler’s groundwork, the Reformation won Strasbourg over in 1524. Though most of the cathedral’s decoration was spared the iconoclasm that ravaged churches elsewhere, the reformers purged the space to fit their new confession. The remaining side altars were suppressed, along with the mass; prominent statues of St. Christopher and the Virgin were moved to less offensive locales. In Geiler’s place now preached Bucer, Capito, Oecolampadius, Zell, maybe even Calvin once or twice. But much continued as before. Catholics were allowed to worship in the choir—Strasbourg has a long tradition of confessionally partitioned and shared church buildings—and a Protestantly reorganized Oeuvre Notre Dame continued to maintain the building.

And added to it, too. The broken medieval clockwork was replaced with a new mechanical marvel. On each quarter hour, struck by an angel, the four seasons of life march before Death. At local noon, Death sounds his bell twelve times; then, above, the twelve apostles promenade, turning to face a blessing Christ. At Peter’s passage, a cock begins to crow. Beneath this allegorical dance an “ecclesiastical computer” calculates festivals and days, the sun and planets circle in their spheres, eclipses are presaged. Nothing, not even time, escaped the jurisdiction of this church.

For one hundred fifty years the edifice was Lutheran. In 1681 Louis XIV took Strasbourg for France and the cathedral for his confession. The reinstated Catholics returned the displaced art and installed a new high altar conforming to the rubrics of the Council of Trent. Later, a laureled King Louis upon his battle stallion was installed opposite Clovis on the façade.

It was the French Revolution that left the most destructive wake. In 1792 the Jacobins took out their rage by smashing two hundred and thirty-five statues. They evicted the Baroque high altar and in its place erected a stylized mountain topped with a figure of many-breasted Nature. The cathedral was repurposed as a Temple to Reason. The cooler heads of the town council managed to stave off the threatened hewing of the cathedral’s spire—its single elevated spire, lacking its double, was judged by certain revolutionary officials to be an offense to égalité—by offering to cover it with a gigantic Phrygian cap. For several years the steeple’s cross hid beneath a sheet-metal tuque painted an appropriate revolutionary red.

Catholic worship was restored in 1798, but the building remained state property (and does to this day). Its height made it a natural site for France’s first optical telegraph, which for fifty years transported messages through the air from Paris to points east. While thurifers inside raised their messages to God on clouds of billowing incense, operators above yanked their pullies, shifting the semaphore’s black and white arms, sending messages of doom for regions soon to be razed by Napoleon’s roaming armies.

Iconoclasts and Jacobins did spotty work at best. But nature never ceases her attacks. Lightning was the cathedral’s most constant and dramatic scourge—a preaching point, for sure. More than once storms knocked the topmost spire askew. The freakish squall of 1568 sent lightning skittering across the leaden roof, setting off a flood of molten metal that splashed onto the pavement below before stopping up the mouths of several peptic gargoyles. In 1624 a bull’s-eye bolt blew the spire to smithereens, asperging bits of sandstone cross over a radius of five hundred feet.

The most urgent menace crept up from below. In 1903 acting lead architect (for a proper cathedral always has one on staff) Johann Knauth noticed fissures in a critical pillar, the one supporting the southeast corner of the spire, evidently the victim of rotting piles far beneath. For years to come, even through the First World War, men of Strasbourg braced and jacked and dug and poured concrete to reinforce the crumbling pier and save the spire from tumbling down.

Even without this drama, the weather chips away at the stone relentlessly, the wind rounds off the statues, rain erodes the delicate tracery. Crockets crack and flutes crumble. A steady staff of masons and sculptors are constantly cleaning or restoring bits of something, working up new vaults or statues to replace the crumbling old ones, which are often auctioned off to pay for the new. Who knows how much of what we see is original. The Oeuvre still has its properties, its rents, its annual income. And it must, for keeping a cathedral upright is a never-ending task.

Our culture is obsessed with penultimate goals. Against this stands the cathedral of Strasbourg along with those of other cities—whose geological origins and celestial orientation demand from us a much, much longer term. It shows us, too, how a beloved object can invite the efforts of many lives, of many epochs, and somehow be faithful to them all. America’s energies flow generously into other things—mobile phones and feature films, biotech cures and suvs. It would be futile to lament it. But contemplating the architectural outgrowth, the embodied creative energy of a single city, I wonder what we might create were our minds similarly steered.

Each night throughout this summer’s millennial festivities for the cathedral, digital projectors beamed a postmodern fantasia upon its façade and southern flank: earthquakes trembled, dragons flapped, flowers One thousand years after its foundation, Strasbourg’s cathedral still dominates the city skyline and the surrounding Rhine valley. The building is not dead or relegated to the pathetic status of “heritage.” It continues to speak, to be adapted to new forms.

The barges of today have more and greater human signs to see—dams, locks, bridges, whizzing wonders of machinery zipping by above and humming below. The Rhine itself is not the river it once was: now it’s straight and narrow, diked and tamed by human hands. But in and around the din of highways, airports, train stations, and high-rises, the cathedral remains, standing tall and delicate, stately, airy, unmoved, and very beloved. If it’s a window on the past, it’s also open to the future. A thousand years from now, little else here today is likely to be standing.

Andrew L. Wilson is professor of Church History at Japan Lutheran Theological Seminary in Tokyo, Japan, and former Production Editor of Lutheran Forum.

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