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How many generations does it take to build a cathedral?

I recently returned from Europe and one thing that struck me as was the difference in time perspectives. I live in Canada where a generation seems like a long time. But after two weeks in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, it seemed normal that a great church could take generations to build.

Inside the Cologne Cathedral in Germany

And I don't mean a couple of generations. More like ten or twenty generations, spanning centuries. It may be hard to imagine from a modern perspective. My wife and I got quite stressed when our house renovation took almost ten months.

So consider the conversation you might have reviewing plans for a new cathedral you want to build that has no chance of being completed in your lifetime. Or the lifetime of your children, your grandchildren or their great grandchildren.

Uh, could we maybe cut some corners and shave off a century?

The Cologne Cathedral

The most visited landmark in Germany is the Cathedral in Cologne overlooking the Rhine. This jaw-dropping wonder inspires more than 20,000 visitors every single day! No doubt many, like me, wonder at how something this massive could have been built with medieval technology.

True it was completed in 1880, but most of the heavy lifting was done by 1473. The timeline for the Cathedral stretches back to August 15, 1248, when the foundation stone was laid. The new church was to be the final resting place for the remains of the Three Kings (i.e. the Three Wise Men) which were brought to Cologne from Milan a hundred years earlier and needed somewhere special to spend eternity.

For the next 74 years work proceeded until the eastern arm of the church was completed and consecrated in 1322. Soon after, work began on the western section and continued for another hundred years.

Finally, in 1473 the south tower was finished, as high as the belfry level. It was crowned with a huge crane in hopes of finishing the project soon (at least soon by their standards). In fact, the crane graced the Cologne skyline for the next 400 years as work on the unfinished cathedral languished.

But in 1842, the original plans for the façade were re-discovered, and work began once more to finish the project once and for all. Finally, 632 years after it was started, Germany’s largest cathedral was opened on August 14, 1880 and a national holiday was declared to celebrate. I guess so!

More than twenty-five generations had lived and died since the original cornerstone was laid by Archbishop Konrad von Hochstaden in 1248.

St. Vitus Cathedral

I thought perhaps the Cologne Cathedral was unique in its long gestation and birth, but I found other examples of churches with a similar history. Perhaps the most impressive we visited was St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, the largest and most important church in the Czech Republic.

St. Vitus also has a long history stretching back to 1060 with various smaller structures on the same site. The present-day gothic cathedral that graces the Prague skyline, was started in 1344, when the foundation stone was laid by King John of Bohemia. The master architect was Matthias of Arras from France, who would only live long enough to see a tiny section of the project completed - the outer arcades and ambulatory.

The architects who designed these cathedrals could only see the finished structures in their imaginations. Both projects would take more 600 years to complete.

Although the section was stunning, it was only an appetizer. The main course was centuries away from completion. Various master builders took over including Peter Parler who was more of a sculptor than an architect. He imagined the cathedral as a gargantuan sculpture.

But time is not kind to those who dream that big. (Parler was also a little busy working on the Charles Bridge in Prague, one the most impressive bridges in Europe.) By the time he died, only a little more of the church had been completed, primarily the choir and parts of the transept. His sons took over and after they died, were succeeded by other master builders who lived to see sections of the great tower completed.

But by 1450, over a hundred years into the project, work was halted with the beginning of a war. Little or no work was done for the next hundred years, and then a great fire in 1541 seemed like it might be the end of the half-finished cathedral, which remained closed up with a temporary wall to keep out goats and people.

A few attempts were made to restart the project, but again, like the cathedral in Cologne, centuries would pass without any work being done. It was not until 1844 when a group of German architects formed a collective to complete the cathedral, that anything happened with the ghostly framework of the cathedral.

St. Vitus lit up at night. Pity the Medieval craftsmen who built it, never got to see it like this.

It would take another 85 years before St. Vitus Cathedral was officially opened in 1929. Many of the elements from Peter Parler’s original 1352 designs remained intact and in fact, were harmoniously executed throughout the building.

Six hundred year building projects

You might wonder if we have lost something in our modern world of 100+ storey condos and skyscrapers. Indeed they are engineering marvels, but are they in the same league as a stone structure built without the benefit of modern machines and designed by those who could only see the final results in their imaginations?

Would we begin a project today that would take more than one hundred years to complete?

When you stand in front of these cathedrals in awe, I think what you are seeing is the power of time - stone columns made up of 400 ton sections and that could take a decade from start to finish. Or an archway under construction for the entire lifetime of its craftsmen.

Over many, many years the full magnificence of these structures take shape. The designer's vision is brought to life slowly, decade-after-decade, with intervening wars, plagues, famines and fires along the way to its eventual completion.

‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’ I think I finally get it!


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