Dom - Essen Cathedral

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Essen, Germany

Dom - Essen Cathedral Reviews

Kathrin_E Kathrin_E
371 reviews
Dom - Essen Cathedral Aug 26, 2010
Essen's history begins in the middle of the 9th century, 1000 years before the industrial revolution. Around 850 a convent of canonesses was founded here in a location by the Hellweg, an important trade route that leads along the Ruhr river. The convent owned the surrounding territory until 1803, the Prince Abbess was the head of state. This convent of aristocratic ladies, who were not nuns but canonesses, was one of the most exclusive and most influential in the Holy Roman Empire. Several abbesses were daughters or granddaughters of emperors and kings.

The church we now call the Dom was the church of the convent. Only in the 1950s it became the seat of a bishop when the new Bishopric of the Ruhr was founded, and thus a cathedral. „The Dom“ actually consists of two churches. The Romanesque and early gothic convent church is accompanied in the same axis by the slightly younger church of St Johann with the big steeple. The two churches are connected by a tiny atrium in between.

An oasis of tranquility (unless there is a big tour group around...): the cloister behind the Dom. One wing is still Romanesque, the others were renewed in gothic style in the later middle ages. The graves in the courtyard are those of post-war canons, priests and members of the cathedral chapter. World War II air raids that destroyed 90% of Essen's centre did not spare the church complex. Access is from inside the Dom and also from the street behind.

The oldest parts of the church are the early Romanesque Altfrid crypt, named after the bishop who founded the convent, underneath the choir and the western part of the nave, built in the 10th/11th century. The latter reveals a remarkable architecture and political intention to the trained eye: The nave ends in three sides of an octogon with two rows of arcades and a gallery - a copy of Charlemagne's cathedral in Aachen that was built 200 years earlier. The convent in Essen was closely related to and connected with the Ottonic dynasty who expressed their ambition as rightful successors of Charlemagne on the imperial throne.

The convent and the town of Essen were founded in 852 by Altfrid, the fourth Bishop of Hildesheim. After his death in 874 he was buried in the crypt underneath the altar of the church, and later sainted. The grave of Saint Altfrid is a pilgrimage destination. The crypt is one of the oldest preserved parts of the church. It is open to visit but meant for prayer and silence, so please keep quiet. Access is down the staircases beside the choir; I only found the door on the right side open.

A modern bronze statue in the corner between church and treasure chamber shows Saint Altfrid in the ornate of a Bishop, holding a model of the church he founded.

The crypt underneath the western end of the nave is a modern counterpart to the Altfrid crypt in the east. The so-called Adveniat crypt has been designed at the end of the 20th century. The structure must be much, much older, as it is underneath the Ottonic architecture that copies the cathedral of Aachen. The square room is turned into an octogon by the low vault and the benches. The altar in the middle is made from glass and almost entirely transparent. All surfaces of walls, vaults and pillars are covered in reliefs, made from a plaster/mortar-like material. They show scenes and symbold from the bible and lives of catholic saints, rich in number and details. The crypt contains the grave of Franz Cardinal Hengsbach, Bishop of Essen from 1958 to his death in 1991. Modern bishops still know about representation and burial places just like those in former eras. The entrance to the crypt is in the west of the nave behind the bronze chandelier down a few stairs.

The colourful, life-size statue of Franz Kardinal Hengsbach is a recent addition to the front yard of the cathedral. I spotted it in December 2012, during my visit in 2010 it had not yet been there.

Franz Hengsbach became the first bishop of the newly founded diocese of Essen in 1958. He stayed in office until 1991. In 1988 Pope John Paul II appointed him cardinal. During his long term in office he had great influence on the church in the Ruhr district. He died in 1991, a few months after his retirement at the age of 80. Not everyone was happy about everything he did, but Hengsbach earned himself lots of respect and trust due to his down-to-earth style, his deep connection with the Ruhrgebiet (his bishop's ring had no precious stone but a but of coal) and his interference in emergencies, like delivering the ransom to rescue Theo Albrecht, one of the Aldi brothers, from kidnappers. I am not sure how to explain the symbols of wolf and lamb by his feet.
Dom, interior
Dom, western part: a reminiscence …
Altfrid statue
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photo by: Vlindeke