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Romanesque churches of Cologne

Churches fit for an emperor

Cologne is best known for its great Gothic cathedral. But its superb Romanesque churches are equally worth visiting – and show you an earlier and less well known era.

By the tenth century, Cologne had become an important and wealthy city. Archbishop Bruno, who founded several of these churches, was the younger brother of Emperor Otto I; another church was founded by the Empress Theophanu, wife of Otto II. There may be finer churches – the cathedrals of Worms, Speyer, and Mainz further up the Rhine come to mind – but nowhere else in Germany will you be able to see so many in a single city.

When I first visited Cologne many of the Romanesque churches were closed. Now, the city has realised that these churches are a tourist resource – there's even a music festival using these churches as venues for concerts of sacred music, every June. Most of the churches are open regular hours throughout the week.

The Rhineland Romanesque style is a little different from, say, the Norman style. It's an imperial style – often referred to as Ottonian after the great emperors – and most of the Romanesque churches in the city are imperial or monastic foundations, built to impress with their wealth and size. They are basilicas, usually with aisles and one or more apses at the east end. But some also have 'westworks', very much an Imperial feature – a western transept or apse balances that on the eastern end - or western galleries. Twin towers often flank the facade, but sometimes flank the apse; they are tall and thin, impressively ambitious, contrasting in their slender verticality with the solidity and mass of the church building itself.

A number of the churches have trefoil shaped east ends, highly unusual anywhere except Cologne. But what more than anything else characterises these churches is the use of Lombard arcading – tiny arcades running round the top of the apse, or used to embellish the towers. That's something that as its name suggest started in the Lombard churches of northern Italy, but was adopted with wild enthusiasm by the German builders. The later the church, the more intricate the arcading becomes; while the earliest building is massive and plain, later blind arcading becomes obsessively patterned and highly decorative.

Remember that the Romanesque period in Cologne covers nearly three centuries. The earliest church is St Pantaleon, built just before the Millennium; and the latest, St Kunibert, wasn't built till 1247 – the year before the foundation stone was laid for the Gothic cathedral.

Sankt Maria im Kapitol (not open Thursday) is a church of the eleventh century. It was built on the site of the Roman temple, hence its name ('Capitol' after the Capitoline triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva). It has a trefoil east end, with the transept apses exactly equal to the main, eastern apse; this sets up a feeling of centralised space which is quite at odds with the longitudinal, basilica-style nave. Some have said that the trefoil shape echoes the dimensions of the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem.

There's a west gallery, too, perhaps recalling the much older Palatine chapel at Aachen – the emperor's own private chapel, built under Charlemagne – with its triple arch.

Women were always involved in the church in Cologne. St Maria was founded by one woman, Plektrudis, and rebuilt by another, Abbess Ida. And it's Ida who may have given the church its imperial ambitions – she was the grand-daughter of Emperor Otto II and his Byzantine wife Theophanu.

The great treasure of this church is the set of Romanesque wooden doors. These were carved in 1065, and show scenes from the life of Christ. They're in remarkably high relief, with some of the figures almost completely detached from their backgrounds, and the carved panels are linked by interlace strips reminiscent of Celtic carving. Particularly sweet is the scene of the Annunciation, which takes place not indoors, as in later art, but under a feathery parasol – the prerogative of the Byzantine emperor.

St Caecilien is now a museum of medieval art (not open Mondays: small admission charge) – a highly appropriate function for an ancient church. It was built for a community of canonesses, who used the fine nuns' gallery at the west end of the nave, raised up over a small crypt. (As so often in the Rhineland, the western end of the church feels as important as the eastern.)

It's a fine aisled basilica, with a flat roof in the nave, and vaulted aisles, and eastern apse. There are wall paintings of around 1300 – a century and a half after the church was built. Perhaps the nicest decorative feature, though, is the tympanum over the north door, which shows St Cecilia being crowned by an angel, as her fiance and his brother look on.

St Pantaleon, Cologne

St Pantaleon is a little way out of the town centre, among trees and parkland. It was begun in 966 and consecrated in 980 – a remarkably fast building campaign – on the site of an earlier church. The Empress Theophanu expanded the church, adding a fine apse and westwork – sign of an imperial foundation – and was buried here in 996, in a tomb made of Greek marble.

Theophanu is a fascinating character. She was a Byzantine noble, perhaps the niece or grand-daughter of Emperor John I Tzimisces, brought to Germany to marry Otto II. Unfortunately, the Germans thought they were getting an imperial princess – 'porphyrygenita', born to the purple – and her failure to measure up got her off to a rocky start in the German court. Despite her mother-in-law's dislike, though, she became a powerful woman, signing decrees in her own name and acting as regent for her son Otto III. Though the church was begun by an archbishop of Cologne, it was her imperial patronage that created the church as it is today.

It's a plain church, typical of this early period in its simplicity. Twin slender round towers flank the westwork, so that from the outside, the church makes an impressive statement. Inside, the long nave is filled with light from the high clerestory windows, under a flat wooden ceiling. I always find the peace and calm of this church refreshing after a busy day in the Altstadt.

St Gereon is an amazing building, a visionary construction which breaks all the rules while still remaining distinctively Rhenish in its style. It's a centralised church, a shape which had become canonical in such buildings as the Palatine Chapel at Aachen. It's a martyrium – this is the site where Gereon, a Roman soldier (in fact Egyptian by birth) was beheaded – and martyria were often planned as centralised churches. But instead of the usual octagonal format, this one is a decagon, with a higher chancel added on to the ten-sided nave.

St Gereon, Cologne

Yet though it's so different, it reflects the Rhineland style with its twin towers flanking the apse, and the obsessive patternings of blind arcading. You can see, too, how by the time the nave was heightened in 1227, the Gothic style had started to take over, with its pointed window arches and plate tracery. It's a new style, but its simplicity and massive feel suits itsRomanesque underpinnings well.

Inside, this is an attractive church with an impressive 'dome' – actually a ribbed decagonal vault (the original church would probably have been crowned by a pyramidal wooden roof). Its red paint makes it sombre – but the high windows create a zone of light that is truly inspiring. If you only see one church in Cologne, make it St Gereon.

An intriguing feature of the church is the Blood Column – a pillar said to have been splashed with the saint's blood when he was killed. It was used in the Middle Ages to detect, or at least discourage, lies, and for the taking of oaths; the inscription above says “If I come to it with sin I will be punished”. Perhaps less direct than the promise of the Bocca della Verita in Rome, which is said to bite the liar's hand off – but still rather menacing.

Gross St Martin (open Thursday to Sunday) would have dGross St Martin, Cologneominated the skyline of early Cologne with its high crossing tower, before the cathedral was built. Its fine pyramidal spire is still a prominent feature, despite the competition (and you should remember the cathedral's towers weren't finished till the ninenteenth century, so St Martin had it all its own way till then). The bulk of the trefoil chancel and tower, though, seem strangely out of proportion with the rather plain, short nave – the church originally had a western narthex, but this has been lost.

St Georg, which was a stop on the pilgrim route to Santiago, looks like a fortress or even a bunker rather than a church. Its huge west tower was never finished, and the church seems lumpish and ugly from the outside. Inside, on the other hand, it has a unique grace – the only Rhineland basilica to use slender columns, rather than solid rectangular piers, to support the arcades of the nave.

St Kunibert, with its twin-towered chancel, is the latest of Cologne's Romanesque churches; it was started in 1247, the year before the foundation stone for the cathedral was laid. Its blind arcading is profuse, with trefoil arches – a sign of the nascent Gothic style – offsetting the Romanesque arches of the apse.

St Andreas was founded in 960 and still has its fine Romanesque octagonal central tower, but the choir and transepts are Gothic – and here you can really see the difference between the solid, harmonious nature of the Romanesque with its rounded arches, and the incredible thinness and height of the Gothic work. Here, there's not the gradual transition that happened at St Kunibert and St Gereon, but rather, a hard and fast dividing line – a real object lesson in how the two styles are divided not just by the shape of their arches, but by the desire for mass and complexity in the romaneque, and on the other hand for light and thinness in the Gothic.

St Aposteln is another basilica with a trefoil choir; its clover-leaf chancel was built in 1200, and the octagonal crossing tower is one of the finest in the city. The massing of the east end, with twin towers, the apses of the chancel, and the central crossing tower behind, is one of the most powerful statements of the Rhenish Romanesque – a truly imperial architecture.

St Maria Lyskirchen is the only one of Cologne's romanesque churches that was a simple parish church, rather than a monastic foundation or imperial commission. It's a relatively late building, notable mainly for its fine west door.

St Severin is a late church, already verging on the Gothic. Its two spindly square towers are disappointing – the twin-tower facade here lacks its usual monumentality.

The church of St Ursula, like St Gereon, commemorates a local martyr – Ursula, who was killed together with her eleven thousand virgins. (She is now believed to be fictional and no longer figures in the calendar of saints.) There's little Romanesque left after a Gothic refashioning of the church, but St Ursula's is worth visiting for the 'Goldene Kammer', a fine, ornately decorated treasury dating from the baroque period. The Golden Chamber impresses at first with its gold and glitter – but look up and you'll see its macabre side; the walls above the fine reliquaries are decorated with the bones of the virgins, scattered in odd, peasant-style patterns that clash with the baroque finery below.

And finally, let's visit the cathedral, which though it's a Gothic building, contains one of the greatest works of Romanesque sculpture, the Gero crucifix. It's said to have been the first crucifix of its type north of the Alps, showing Christ not as the triumphant ruler and king, but as a dead body, his head slumped and his body twisted.And yet with its fine patterning of the looped loincloth, and its linear treatment – look at the sensitive way every muscle is delineated – it has immense dignity and weight; there's no cruelty in this treatment. Its poise and dignity sums up the Romanesque style of the Rhineland – a style in which the massive, the imposing and the weighty remains, somehow, elegant and fine.

For a good selection of hotels and other accommodation in Cologne, try Place to stay in Cologne.

Photo credits (from top): St Aposteln, Matthew Black; St Pantaleon, Stephan Classen; St Gereon, Stephan Classen; Gross St Martin, Sebastien Bertrand, all on flickr.