Trier Cathedral:

1700 Years of History: Construction, Art, and Faith

The Trier Cathedral of St. Peter is not only Germany’s oldest church but also, in its 1700 years of history, the oldest structure in Germany which has served uninterruptedly – and continues to serve – its original purpose as bishop’s church. All phases of European construction, art, and religious history can be traced from its oldest structural core, the Roman “square” from the 4th century, to the present 21st century.

Furthermore, the Cathedral is a significant place of pilgrimage. Tradition says that the mother of Emperor Constantine, St. Helena, brought the Tunic of Christ, the Holy Robe, from a pilgrimage to Trier in the 4th century, where it was first displayed publically in 1512 and gave rise to large pilgrimages, the last in 2012.

Because of its outstanding significance for humanity, the Cathedral together with the Church of Our Lady was placed on the list of World Cultural Heritage in 1986.

  • The Cathedral in Late Antiquity

    A Christian community has existed in Trier since about AD 270 with the first bishops Eucharius, Valerius, and Maternus. The place of assembly for the first community was probably a house church within the city walls. The Edict of Tolerance from AD 311 and the agreement between Emperor Constantine and Licinius in Milan in 313 accorded religious freedom to the heretofore persecuted Christians. Under Bishop Agritius, first mentioned in 314, a first large basilica was erected above a house between AD 310 and 320. Remains of this church can be explored in the excavations under the Cathedral Information.

    Under Bishop Maximin (AD 329 to 346), the first basilica was expanded to the north and to the east, creating a monumental church complex with four basilicas, a baptistery, and numerous annexes. The Trier church center was thus one of the largest church complexes of the 4th century.

    Beginning about AD 340 an additional new structure, the so-called “square” was erected in the area of the Cathedral. The outer walls of this “square” still form the core of the Cathedral today.

  • The Medieval Cathedral

    During the unrest caused by the Germanic migrations, the ancient church complex was destroyed in the first half of the 5th century. Bishop Nicetius (died 561) had the “square” and parts of the north church rebuilt by “Italian craftsmen.” The Vikings brought a renewed destruction in 882.

    After beginnings under Archbishop Egbert (died 993), Archbishop Poppo von Babenberg (died 1047) and his successors succeeded in renewing the Cathedral, including the crypts and the west façade: a masterpiece of Salian architectural art.

    The Late Romanesque choir (dedicated 1196) with a crypt was built onto the east wall of the “square,” after which the church received a vaulted ceiling. In the 13th century, a new structure, the Church of Our Lady was erected above the torn-down remains of the ancient south church; the cloister was also built at this time. Under Archbishop Balduin (died 1354), the two slender east towers were raised, the southwest tower not until 1515.

    Significant pieces of the medieval furnishings have been preserved: choir walls, burial monuments, sculptures. The monuments indicate that the Cathedral has been the burial place of the Trier bishops since the Middle Ages.

  • The Baroque Cathedral

    Following the end of the Thirty Years’ War, Archbishop Carl Casper von der Leyen (died 1676) began the remodeling of the Cathedral. His successor, Archbishop Johann Hugo von Orsbeck (died 1711) had, among other things, the altar-like construction in the Romanesque east choir built as well as the relic chapel added to the apex of the east choir. The chapel is the repository for the Holy Robe, the Cathedral’s most precious relic.

    The fire of 1717 finally required extensive alterations to the structure itself. New altars, baroque burial monuments, a wrought-iron choir screen, and a “swallow’s nest” organ completed the baroque conversion of the Cathedral during the course of the 18th century.

  • The Cathedral Today

    Comprehensive renovations of the Cathedral began as early as the 19th century, with the initial goal of recreating the medieval appearance of the Cathedral.

    The last great Cathedral renovation took place between 1960 and 1974. Along with a thorough structural restoration, the interior of the Cathedral was newly designed. The altar area was newly conceived according to the liturgy constitution of the Second Vatican Council.

    On May 1, 1974, Bishop Dr. Bernhard Stein consecrated the new altar, and the Cathedral was returned to its original function.

  • The Domstein – the Cathedral Stone

    LEGEND

    When the first Cathedral was built, commissioned by Constantine and Helena, four large, weighty columns had to be brought in. The architect devised a trick: he told the Devil he was building the largest inn in the world; could the Devil possibly be of help by transporting the four columns.

    The Devil agreed immediately and dragged in a column every week. When he arrived with the last one, he noticed that the bishop was consecrating the building. He was angry and chagrined that he had been tricked; so he threw the last column at the Cathedral, but missed by a hair, so that the column lies where it is today.

    TRUTH

    In 1614, two fragments of a large granite column were discovered under the Cathedral floor during work on the foundation of the All Saints' altar. They were excavated and laid in front of the Cathedral door. They are known today as the “Cathedral Stone.” These column segments were originally a part of four columns, load-bearing supports in the interior of the first Cathedral. Each of the columns was about 40 feet/12 meters high and weighed about 65 tons. They were quarried at the Felsberg in the Odenwald (today the so-called Felsenmeer—“sea of rock”) and transported to Trier by water (218 river miles/350 kilometers). When the Cathedral was destroyed the first time, the columns burst and their pieces remained in the ground.

    A column made of other fragments has been reconstructed in the courtyard between the Cathedral and the Church of Our Lady.