The Ulm Minster

This is Ulm, with the world’s tallest church steeple rising like a fata morgana from a sea of mediocre post-war architecture.

The church was built starting in 1377 but wasn’t completed until 1890. According to Guinness World Records, it has the world’s tallest church steeple, measuring 161.53 meters from the bottom to the top.

The steeple of the Lincoln Cathedral in England would be the second tallest if its spire hadn’t collapsed in the year 1549.

Actually, Ulm’s claim to having the world’s tallest church steeple may not last much longer, because when the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is finished (in 2026, perhaps), then it will be the tallest.

Ulm Minster

The Ulm Minster is now a Lutheran church — which it has been since 1531 — but when construction started in 1377 it was of course intended as a Roman Catholic church, because that was practically all there was in western Europe in those days.

By coincidence, 1377 was the year Pope Gregory XI (= the eleventh) returned the papal court to Rome, after seven successive popes had resided in Avignon, France, for nearly seventy years. From 1378 to 1417 there were two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon (each ex-communicated the other), but this was more for political than for theological reasons, and had nothing to do with the Reformation started by Martin Luther a hundred years later.

From a video produced by the city of Ulm, I learned that construction of the Ulm Minster starting in 1377 was decided on and paid for by the mayor and citizens of Ulm. “No prince, no bishop is present. The Ulmer Minster is a citizens’ church. The city is wealthy. The best is just good enough, and it can all be a bit bigger.”

The video doesn’t explain why they needed a new church, but the main reason turns out to have been security. Their old church was outside the city walls, which made worship risky in times of war. Ulm at this time was a Free Imperial City, meaning it did not belong to any of the usual principalities, duchies or margraviates but was directly subservient (at least in theory) to the Holy Roman Emperor. To enforce this subservience, the Emperor Charles IV sent his troops to besiege Ulm in 1376. The siege was unsuccessful, but it made the people of Ulm realize that they needed a new church in the city center.

Construction of the church continued for the next 166 years, but was interrupted for various reasons in 1543. The video gives the short version: “But suddenly it’s the modern era. America is discovered. The trade routes are changing. The textile business is no longer flourishing. Construction is stopped for three hundred long years.”

Ulm Minster from the river bank

From 1543 to 1843 Ulm had a large unfinished church in its center. But in 1844 construction finally resumed. As explained in the video: “Only with the rise of German Romanticism does the longing for the Middle Ages awaken throughout the country. Cologne and Regensburg lead the way. In Cologne the Emperor pays, in Regensburg the King. In Ulm it is mainly the citizens who open their wallets.”

(In Cologne it was actually the King of Prussia, the future German emperor, who paid the bills. In Regensburg it was the King of Bavaria.)

The Ulm Minster was completed on May 31, 1890. It was only slightly damaged in the otherwise devastating air raid of December 17, 1944, near the end of the Second World War.

My photos in this post are from 2005. I revised the text in 2021.

See more posts on Ulm, Germany.
See also: Victor Hugo at the Cologne Cathedral in 1840.

13 thoughts on “The Ulm Minster”

  1. That’s a very impressive steeple for sure. It’s good that it escaped the war damage but it does make the post-war architecture look very ordinary in contrast.

  2. What a story! Bravo for the original citizens for planning such an undertaking, but I am curious at why they needed one so enormous if their goal was more immediate. I assume they finished enough of the cathedral to worship inside sooner than the 19th century, and thus have the protection they sought. I shouldn’t question any of it because in the end there is this beautiful Ulm Minster, which does make the rest of that part of the city look rather shabby.

    1. In the 14th century they were rich (and independent) and wanted to show it. In the 16th century they were poor and put the whole project on hold. But they did use it for worship, nonetheless.

    1. Yes, it is unusual, but it also happened in a few other German cities, such as Cologne and Regensburg. Cologne was especially weird, since the front and back ends of the cathedral were more or less finished (and used for worship the whole time) but the middle wasn’t. The original reasons were economic, but then came the Thirty Years War, which was so devastating that it took Germany two hundred years to recover.

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