Victor Hugo at the Cologne Cathedral

When the French author Victor Hugo arrived in Cologne in 1840, the first thing he went looking for was the cathedral. He was, after all, the author of a gigantic best-selling novel about the cathedral in Paris, which in the eight years since its publication had made him famous and wealthy, so cathedrals were always his first priority whenever he visited a city that had one.

He later described his first evening in Cologne in his book Le Rhin (The Rhine): “Once alone, I began to walk, looking for the Cathedral and expecting to find it around every corner. But I did not know this inextricable city; the evening shadow had thickened in those narrow streets; I don’t like to ask my way, so I wandered around quite randomly.”

Finally, he found himself in a large square, perfectly dark and deserted. “There I had a magnificent spectacle. In front of me, under the fantastic glow of a twilight sky, rose and widened, in the midst of a crowd of low houses with capricious gables, an enormous black mass, laden with needles and pinnacles; a little further on stood another black mass, narrower and higher, a sort of large square fortress, flanked at its four angles by four long attached towers, at the top of which I do not know what strangely inclined frame was outlined which had the shape of a gigantic feather posed as on a helmet on the front of the old keep.”

Cologne Cathedral

When he returned the next morning, he found that the ‘gigantic feather’ was actually a wooden crane on top of one of the towers. The reason he had seen two enormous black masses in the darkness was that only the front and back ends of the cathedral had even been built, connected by a low and very provisional-looking building in the middle.

The two ends that Hugo saw had been built mainly between the years 1248 and 1560, but then construction work had stopped for 280 years, and was just getting started again in 1840. Hugo found that the unfinished building looked very much like a ruin. “Already the brambles, the saxifrage and the parietary, all the grasses which like to gnaw the cement and to dig their nails into the joints of the stones, have climbed the venerable portal. That which Man has not finished building, nature is already destroying.”

Although the middle section was a construction site, with carpenters hammering and masons splitting stones, the front and back sections were in full use as places of worship, complete with altars and stained-glass windows, sculptures and wood carvings, prayers and hymns. At first Hugo found this juxtaposition bizarre, until he reflected that in France “we no longer see Gothic churches being built”, since they are already finished. “All this tumult of carpenters and stonemasons is necessary” if the cathedral is ever to be completed.

Stained-glass window in the Cologne Cathedral

About the windows, Hugo wrote: “I examined the stained-glass windows, which are from Maximilian’s time and painted with the robust and magnificent exaggeration of the German Renaissance. There abound these kings and these knights with severe faces, superb looks, monstrous plumes, fierce draperies, exorbitant helmets, enormous swords, armed like executioners, outfitted like archers, combed like battle horses. They have their wives or, to put it better, their formidable females, kneeling in the corners of the stained-glass windows with profiles of lionesses and wolves. The sun passes through these figures, puts fire in their eyes and brings them to life.”

My photos in this post are from 2009 and 2010. I revised the text in 2020.

See more posts on the French author Victor Hugo.

5 thoughts on “Victor Hugo at the Cologne Cathedral”

  1. We took the train to Cologne and were floored to step out of the train station to see the huge Cathedral looming over the Bahnhofsvorplatz. We had no trouble finding it.

    1. Yes, it’s certainly easier to find now than in Victor Hugo’s time. He came by stagecoach from Aachen, by the way. If he had come the following year, he could have taken the train.

  2. Truly is a magnificent cathedral: absolutely towering with incredible views at the top. I was also dazzled by the stained glass inside St. Gereon’s Basilica when I visited Cologne almost four years ago, and I have fond memories of being in the city during the Christmas market season. Thanks for sharing!

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