For over 200 years the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, or Strasbourg Cathedral, was the tallest structure in the world. When you stand at its doors and glance upwards, the carved Gothic figures tell you a story, they bring to life the medieval world in which they were created. The Strasbourg Cathedral was one of the first in France I visited, and it has left a lasting impression.
a little bit of history
There have been a number of cathedrals built previously on the site; one which was finished during the reign of Charlemagne and covered in gold and precious stones, and another which lasted for only 170 years after which it burned to the ground. The current cathedral was constructed over several centuries, beginning from 1176, and completed in 1439 with the addition of the intricately detailed spire on the north tower. The cathedral looks somewhat asymmetrical as the planned south tower was never built, but this certainly adds to its charms. The facade with its life-like figures and towering arches is a masterpiece of medieval architecture and design.
highlights inside the strasbourg cathedral
The stained glass windows immediately draw your eyes upwards upon entering the nave. Some are original from the 12th and 14th centuries, others have been replaced with damage from various wars. Walk to the front of the church and look behind you for the view of the beautiful rose window with its 32 ears of corn, which are believed to be symbols of wealth in the Middle Ages. The moulding on the rose window is medieval but the glazing is fairly modern.
If you are lucky enough to be visiting on an equinox, you may be able to see an amazing green ray of light. On a window depicting Jesus and some of his apostles, a light shines through green glass close to the foot of Judas and shines directly onto a statue of Christ on the cathedral floor.
For a detailed map of the stained glass windows, use this link.
Visited by over three million people a year, the Astronomical Clock is a highlight of the cathedral.
The mechanism of the clock is fairly recent, as in it was installed in 1832, but the rest of the magnificent design dates back to the 16th century Renaissance period. To see the clock in action, join the queue before midday, as at precisely 12.30 pm the figures start to move. An angel will sound a chime and the twelve apostles will pass in front of Jesus. Figures representing the stages of life will also pass before Death.
This is a fantastic video of the astronomical clock in action.
survival through the wars
The cathedral itself has stood firm during a millennia of conflicts between France and Germany. During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century the cathedral was converted into a Protestant church, with masses held in German. It wasn’t until 1679, after a 30 year war, that Louis XIV gave the church back to Strasbourg and Catholic mass was heard again.
The Cathedral was very lucky to escape mostly unharmed during the French Revolution, when all religious buildings were confiscated by the state. The Cathedral served during this time as a ‘Temple of Reason’. Some revolutionaries believed the decorated tower did not embody the qualities of equality and would have to be destroyed. In a stroke of genius a local blacksmith built a metal ‘Phrygian cap’, a cone shaped hat was placed onto the tower, with great difficulty I imagine, to show its allegiance to the new revolutionary government. Thanks to the hat, the tower is still here today.
The roof of the cathedral was damaged in 1870 during the Siege of Strasbourg when the Prussians invaded France, and the metal cross on the spire was burnt. Strasbourg was ceded back to France as part of the peace agreement following World War I in 1918. But not too long after, in 1940, Strasbourg was again in German hands. Hitler wanted to create a ‘national sanctuary of the German people’ in the Cathedral, or even a tomb for the Unknown German soldier. The well known French General Leclerc stated he would:
rest the weapons only when our beautiful colours fly again on Strasbourg’s cathedralGeneral Leclerc, March 1941
The German occupation of France ended in 1944 and the Strasbourg Cathedral became French once again. The stained glass windows had been removed during this time by locals, but were stolen. They were thankfully found in a salt mine in Germany and returned to the Cathedral by the United States.
The Cathedral can be visited every day between 08h30 to 11h15 and 12h45 to 17h45. On Sundays the visiting time is from 13h30 to 17h30.
The presentation of the Astronomical Clock occurs at 12pm every day; entry is from 11h30. There is no presentation on Sundays.
Here is the official website for the Strasbourg Notre-Dame Cathedral (in French only)