As the largest Gothic church in northern Europe, Cologne’s Cathedral gets a lot of love in words and pictures for its size and splendour. But the distinction of oldest Gothic church in Germany goes to Magdeburg. The church is the city’s landmark and the church’s benefactor is part of the city’s nickname as “Ottostadt”. The full name of the church is “Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina”, or Magdeburg Cathedral of Saints Catherine and Maurice, reflecting the history at this very location since the 10th-century.
Magdeburg Cathedral is important because:
- it’s the burial place for Otto the Great, the first German Holy Roman Emperor,
- it’s the first church constructed in Gothic style on German soil, and
- it’s the largest consecrated space in east Germany.
Short Thousand-Year History
In the Middle Ages, Magdeburg developed into a centre for both trade and politics, becaming a “third Rome” for importance along side Rome and Constantinople. Son of the first German King Henry I, Otto the First (Otto I.) was crowned King of Saxony in 936 AD/CE in the city of Aachen. Otto chose Magdeburg as his palatinate residence, and gave the city to his wife, Editha, as a wedding present. Otto founded the Benedictine monastery dedicated to St. Maurice in 937; Editha was buried at the monastery’s church upon her death in 946. Otto was given the moniker “the Great” when his troops defeat the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955, ensuring peace and security along the fledging nation’s eastern borders. In the same year, Otto commissioned the construction of an imperial basilica at the site of the monastery. Otto was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome in 962, becoming the first German king with the title, allowing him to establish a German nation-state fromi the Holy Empire. Otto and his second wife returned to Magdeburg in 972 in time to witness the inauguration of the Ottonian cathedral the following year. After his death in 973, he was laid to rest in the cathedral.
After fire destroyed the Ottonian cathedral in 1207, construction of the present-day cathedral began in 1209 with the dedication to St. Catherine, along with St. Maurice from the 10th-century monastery church. Unlike other grand European cathedrals, construction took centuries until completion of the towers in 1520. As a departure from French neighbours, the Magdeburg cathedral was built almost entirely with Gothic design with added Romanesque details. With the Reformation movement in full swing in the middle of the 16th-century, the Catholic cathedral became Protestant in 1567. The cathedral survived the town’s destruction during the Thirty Year’s War in 1631, and from bombing in World War Two in 1945.
Otto the Great was head of the Ottonian dynasty (919-1024), and great-great-grandfather to Conrad the Second (Konrad II). The latter became king of the Salian dynasty (1024-1125) and commissioned in 1030 AD/CE the construction of the Speyer Imperial Cathedral.