The Rhenish Golden Age

For a brief century in the high middle ages Cologne was at the center of Europe. It was one of the largest and most prestigious cities on the continent. It stood at the intersection of the Saxon and Rhineland Emperors and mediated between Emperor and Pope. The cultural pull of the city was immense and cities as far away as Antwerp and Strasbourg would feel its influence. This guide takes you to largest examples of this North-Rhenish – Colognian style of Romanesque architecture.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The recommended sites don’t make a convenient itinerary, I would recommend starting in Cologne and then simply do day trips. One could also conceivable stay somewhere much nicer, but since you’re reading this then Cologne probably has something to offer you.

Where to Start?

The most interesting city in the region is Düsseldorf, and it is also the best place to stay over night. In this case though, given the central role that Cologne has played in the history of the region, I have set it as the starting point. I personally do not recommend staying overnight in the city, but if you are reading this article then maybe it is worth your time. From Cologne we will being doing day trips, primarily to the north, but with some excursions to the Eifel and Rhine.

The Romanesque Churches of Cologne

To understand the wide range of destinations, we need to look at the origins of the style, which starts in the great city of Cologne.

A proper handling of each church is probably left for a more detailed guide later. If you happen to be in Cologne, I would recommend purchasing one of the guide books. For our purposes here, there are five buildings that are of special interest:

  • St. Pantaleon
  • St. Maria im Kapitol
  • St. Gereon
  • St. Andreas

Additionally, some of the destinations on the map directly concern some of these buildings, so I will mention them in this context as well:

  • Bad Münstereifel
  • Brauweiler Monastery
  • Knechtsteden Monastery
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

Cologne did not fare well in the early Middle Ages, having been sacked by the Vikings in 881 and the city would not rise to prominence until the reign of Otto the Great in 962. The brother of Otto the Great was Bruno I, and he was appointed Archbishop of Cologne in 953. Under him and his successors, the Ottonian dynasty would invest a great deal of money into the construction of monuments within the city walls. The only surviving example, St. Pantaleon was a Benedictine monastery dedicated to an Orthodox saint founded with the intent of being a sepulchral church of the Byzantine wife of Emperor Otto I, Theofanu. The building therefore had to be sufficiently grandiose for such an imperial honor.

That’s a bunch of names and dates, but the main take away here is that the architecture of the Ottonian Emperors and their successor dynasties, was influenced by a coherent image strategy. When we consider why any two buildings look alike, we can speak either of a “quotation” or reference to a style or we can consider both buildings part of the same image program. In the first case, this quotation might be a way of integrating new styles into traditional paradigms or perhaps the limits of technical expertise available at the time. When see evidence of an image program, typically the two buildings will have been constructed by the same teams of masons and architects or commissioned to serve a specific purpose.

St. Pantaleon was an influential construction, not least due to the expense undertaken to finance it. It displays a number of common Ottonian characteristics, including a joined west-facade and two flanking towers. At least one surviving copy of the church exists in the form of St. Chrysanthus und Daria in Bad Münstereifel. This would have served not just to demonstrate the power of the Ottonian Emperors, but also of Cologne, the suzerain of the town.

Travel Note: Bad Münstereifel is a charming town in the forested Eifel region. It has a charming collection of half-timbered houses and a castle ruined perched over a narrow river valley. It’s also the the center of the Northern Eifel region an makes a good place to stay while vising the other towns in the reigon.

With ascension of the Salian dynasty in 1027, the center of political power shifted south to the Palatinate. Under Conrad II, the Cathedral of Speyer was constructed to serve as an appropriate monument to imperial authority, and its symbols and motifs were subsequently exported around the empire. St. Maria im Kapitol serves this image program. Based heavily on the model in Speyer it also introduces a new set of architectural symbols which would come to represent Cologne and the Lower Rhineland.

Completed in 1065, St. Maria im Kapitol represents the core features of the Salian image program. It was built on the site of the Roman Temple and incorporated its plan into the original foundations of the Roman complex. This connection with antiquity was further enhanced by the use of a three-conch design for the transept and choir, based on the Church of Jesus’s Birth in Bethlehem. The use of cube capitals, arcades and a large vaulted crypt completed the main imperial connection to Speyer.

The adherence to a specific image program also applied to literal images. In some of the best extant Salian-Romanesque frescos in the Choir of St. Gereon and in the Monastery of Knechtsteden, we can see the Byzantine influence and the same imagery of Christ as the King-of-Kings, surrounded by the Evangelists.

Travel Note: The Monastery of Knechtsteden is in a forested suburb of Dormagen and requires taking a bus from the Dormagen main station. It’s well worth the trip, however, as the monastery is still active and the shop offers some fresh vegetables and products produced by the Monks. It’s an easy morning or afternoon trip from either Düsseldorf or Cologne.

The Salian dynasty was not the last to strive for a connection to antiquity. The Staufen Emperors, and especially the famous Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, sought to establish a strong connection with the Eastern Empire. The Staufen image program was not based so precisely on any single building as the Cathedral of Speyer, but rather on advances in construction methods and the growing urban wealth of the Empire. The groin vault and the simple pointed arch would become hallmarks of the late Staufen style. The Cathedral of Worms, is perhaps the best example of this style.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Cathedral of Worms is the most spectacular example of the Staufen Romanesque in the upper Rhine, pity Worms itself is not as interesting.

In Cologne, the most spectacular examples of Staufen influence are the churches of St. Gereon and St. Andrew. The decagon of St. Gereon reflects the Roman foundations on which it was built. Most of the Roman structure was replaced, but the lowest levels of vaults were retained. The Staufen design influence is clear, the multi-storied galleries with pointed arches and arcades, crowned with a massive groin vault over the center. This design paradigm is found across Germany, but especially in along the Rhine.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The mighty decagon of St. Gereon is a truly unique building, due its Roman foundations. The original purpose of the 4th century building is unknown, but you can still see the Roman masonry on the lower left arcades.

In Contrast, St. Andrew reflects a more local tradition, there are no galleries and instead we have an ornate blind arcade that seems to preempt the triforia of the Gothic period. This likely came from the Monastery in Brauweiler, an important institution that sat on the imperial road between Aachen and Cologne. The blind arcade appears in a number of other churches including St. Kunibert in Cologne and St. Peter in Bacharach, but never develops into the Triforium that we see in the French Gothic. St. Andrew has a unique atmosphere to it, and the arches have an an almost arabesque appearance. Also unique are the massive clustered columns, which are a Romanesque tradition that appears with some irregularity in Germany.

Travel Note: Brauweiler is a suburb of Cologne, and will require taking a bus to reach with public transport. The Monastery complex is huge, but has strange opening hours (It wasn’t open when I was there, in contrast to the sign and the open gift shop) and there isn’t anything else to see in Brauweiler. Only recommended if you want to see the quite spectacular chuch.

Sometimes the comparison is too easy, St. Andrew on the left and St. Nicolas in Brauweiler on the Right. Of course, proving such a link would require tedious readings of primary source material that may not exist. Its easy to conclude however, that the two buildings are in some way related.

The Rhineland in its entirety had a preference for the gallery church in the Romanesque period. In this design paradigm, there would be a second story in the aisles, looking out over the nave through elaborate arcades. These served a variety of liturgical purposes, including for additional seating and as side chapels or for hosting administrative meetings. They would never disappear entirely, but would fall out of favor after the Gothic period.

The main examples here are:

  • The Cathedral of Essen
  • The Monastery Church of Essen Werden
  • The Minster of Neuss

The Lower-Rhine has a very distinctive style with its large repeating arcades of arches that became increasingly pointed towards the mid 13th century. The origins are likely in the Palatine Chapel in Aachen and related buildings such as the Minster of Essen. In contrast, the churches of the Middle-Rhine and Lahn Valleys often have much smaller arcades, possibly a design feature taken from St. Ursula in Cologne.

The Minster of Essen and the Monastery Church of St. Ludgerus in Essen-Werden were both originally constructed in the late Ottonian style, and both were heavily modified afterwards. In Essen, only the pre-Romanesque choir is retained, whereas the Monks of Werden rebuilt everything except the tower. The Ottonian tower in Werden also has a simple gallery structure, hinting that the current design may be just as much a continuation of older traditions as it is a symbol of the Staufen political dominance.

Travel Note: There is nothing to see in Essen, even the church will probably disappoint. The next best things to do are to visit the church in Essen-Werden and the Zeche Zollverein, but both are pretty far out of the city center.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The simple design of St. Quirinus is in stark contrast to many other more lavishly decorated buildings in the region

Finally worth mentioning is the Church of St. Quirinus in Neuss. This church was started in 1209, and thus predates St. Ludgerus in Essen-Werden and is not as lavishly adorned. However, it shows one ornamental feature that would be widely copied across the Rhineland, namely the cylindrical ornament on the keystone of the pointed arch. In general it has all of the standard features of a Rhenish gallery church. Both St. Kunibert is Cologne and St. Maria in Andernach are very similar to St. Quirinus.

Travel Note: Neuss is a neihboring city to Düsseldorf and was heavily damaged in the war but has several very nice corners, especially with historicist architecture. It’s worth a visit from Düsseldorf if you have the time.


These traditions come together in the Minster of Bonn, which is basically a summary of the most significant image program of the lower Rhine, with special reverence for the design of St. Andrew and related churches in Cologne. The construction is assumed to have begun around 1220, but continued well into the 13th century, making it one of the last great buildings of the Romanesque to be completed.

The church features a three-story design with with a blind arcade serving as the triforium and an upper arcade serving as a proto-tracery for the windows. The bundled columns in the nave and over the triumphal arch of the choir point to influences such as St. Andrew, but realistically could have come from any number of sources, even Gothic ones. The capitals on the other hand show more influence from the Middle-Rhine.

This is without doubt the high point of the North Rhenish Romanesque style.

That’s not to say there are not other designs in this category. The Basilica of St. Margaret in Gerresheim and St. Vitus in Mönchengladbach are both smaller, if less elaborate renditions of the same late Romanesque apotheosis of ideas.

Travel Note: Of the three towns mentioned in this part: Bonn, Gerresheim, Mönchengladbach, only Bonn is really worth visiting in general. Gerresheim is a charming village that has been incorporated as a modern suburb of Düsseldorf, there are a few quiet streets of Historicist architecture but not much else. Mönchengladbach was completely annihilated in the war. Bonn however has a rich architectural heritage and plenty of things to see and do.

Selected Bibliography

  • Clemens Kosch, Ulrich Jacobs, and Celia Korber Leupold. 2005. Kolns Romanische Kirchen : Architektur Und Liturgie Im Hochmittelalter. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner.
  • Clemens Kosch. 2010. Die Romanischen Kirchen von Essen und Werden. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner.
  • Hans Erich Kubach. 1984. Deutsche Dome Des Mittelalters. Königstein Im Taunus Langewiesche.
  • Schreiner, Peter, Monika Tontsch, and Verein Für Geschichte Und Heimatkunde (Pulheim. 2011. Die Abteikirche St. Nikolaus Und St. Medardus in Brauweiler : Baugeschichte, Ausstattung, Lapidarium Der Kirche. Pulheim: Verein Für Geschichte Und Heimatkunde.
  • Plus the small guide books for each church

Image Credits

  • All Maps made with Datawrapper

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Lower-Rhine Valley

Rhineland Renewal

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