Last month, I traveled Europe during the #MyGayPride tour with Gay Star News. I made my way from city to city chasing Pride with my Eurail pass. As I got off the train in Cologne for the largest Pride celebration in Germany, I was completely caught off guard by the giant castlelike structure just outside the train station.
It turned out to be Cologne Cathedral (or as some people call it, the Dom), the largest cathedral in Germany and the third tallest in the world. It’s over 765 years old and according to UNESCO, it’s the most complete example of a High Gothic style cathedral on earth. Amazingly, despite it being one of the most holy churches in the world, I did not burst into flames when I stepped inside.
I thoroughly enjoyed the tour of the cathedral that we did with Cologne Tourism. Normally tours like this are exceptionally dry and filled with dates, names of architects I’ve never heard of and information of the Jesus variety that just doesn’t suite me, so this was a pleasant surprise.
Our tour guide, Dr. Stefan Rath, made all the difference. He was a sassy older gay man who ruled his tour group in a captivating and slightly intimidating way. At one point, he even shushed one of the journalists in our group for speaking during his lecture. I burst out laughing and knew he was everything I needed in a tour guide.
Dr. Rath made me laugh and I actually learned from him. When you go on as many tours as I do, that is definitely a novelty.
He shared with us a lot of the history of the cathedral but also added some interesting tidbits, like the fact that the bones of the Three Magi are held in a golden coffin in the center of the church. For those who aren’t caught up on their Jesus-related history, the Three Magi are the three wise men who came to visit Mary when Jesus was born. You may remember them as the three kids in awkward robes carrying fake golden gifts during your childhood Christmas pageant.
Being the skeptic that I am, I grilled him about how they know for sure they’re truly the bones of the three wise men and not some dudes who met a really unfortunate demise when they were building the cathedral in the 12th century. Rather than calling me a hater or pretending he didn’t hear me, he provided me with a legitimate answer.
He told me about the history of the holy relic trade. Which, being a huge nerd, fascinated me. I immediately went back to my room that night and started researching this bizarre obsession. I stumbled upon dozens of articles about the market for literal pieces of Jesus. Including this one about his foreskin (you’re welcome).
Apparently, back in the day -aka The Medieval Period, or the 1200s for those travel blog readers who like facts and actual research- Holy Relics were fought over because they were believed to grant miracles. Pilgrims would travel hundreds of miles on foot and horseback to pray at their altars. Cologne, being the great leader in tourism that it is, decided to invest in obtaining one of these relics and building the biggest and best house for the relic that the world (at that time) had ever seen. Some see this as extremely pious and noble, while others see it as a smart investment in the local economy. I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Cologne started building the cathedral in 1248. It wasn’t finished until 1880 (for the non-math majors in the crowd, that’s 632 years,) which makes me feel slightly better about the ongoing construction on the 2nd avenue subway line in NYC.
Medieval Colognians did a damn good job in the construction, too, because the entire structure made it (mostly) unscathed through the Allied forces’ bombing of Germany during WWII. That in itself is practically a miracle.
The cathedral is shaped around the tombs of the Magi. It’s filled with religious propaganda and still stunning to this day. My reaction when I first saw it was a bit of slack-jawed disbelief. I thought it was a castle at first. It’s that impressive.
The cathedral put Cologne on the map and is still bringing in massive amounts of tourist traffic. Our lovely guide told us that 6.5 million people visit the cathedral each year. In medieval times it would have been the most impressive thing people had ever seen. The church was very deliberate in its construction. It houses three relics; the tomb of the three kings, a statue of the Virgin Mary that cries and a cracked cross that healed itself. It was the medieval version of more bang for your buck. Why go to a church that has only one miracle-granting inanimate object when you can go to one that has three saints and two miracle-granting pieces of wood??
Anyway, according to our lovely guide, modern scientists exhumed the remains of the kings in 1980. Inside the coffin were the remains of three men wearing silk. The scientists carbon-dated the silk to be about 2000 years old, which is around the time of Christ. 2000 years ago, only kings, saints and very wealthy folks wore silk. So, it could be them, but in reality there is no way to prove it. Could be some schmucks who got knocked off for use in the very profitable relics trade.
I, for one, don’t think it really matters if it’s actually them or not. The power of faith makes it real to those who believe.
As we passed through the pews and learned about the ways the word of Christ was delivered to illiterate pilgrims of the day, I noticed one window was out of place.
Most of the windows were old school stained glass depicting images of saints, Jesus stories and panels paid for by Cologne’s elite. However, this particular window was a rainbow colored giant geometric pattern with no reference to Christ or anything overtly religious. It could easily have been hanging in MOMA or LACMA.
Our trusty guide told us that it was commissioned from artist Gerhard Richter in 2007. As he was telling us all the details of the window, I happened to look up and notice all the queer couples in the church. It was Pride weekend in Cologne, after all.
I looked back at the rainbow window one more time and thought to myself that maybe Richter made it rainbow on purpose. I mentioned this to our guide and he responded, “I always thought it was a symbol of hope for a more accepting future of the church.”
For that…I have faith.