Exploring 12 Romanesque churches of Cologne

Millennium-old masterpieces in the west of Germany

Slava Shestopalov 🇺🇦
5 a.m. Magazine
Published in
12 min readJul 29, 2023


© All photos by Slava Shestopalov

Several years ago, I heard about Romanesque architecture for the first time and was fascinated by its scale and elegant strictness. I dreamt about visiting Cologne one day and seeing its famous 12 Romanesque churches. So, when I had a short trip to Cologne for a business meeting, I took my wife with me, and we spent our free evening and the next morning exploring those churches.

A map of Cologne with encircled Romanesque churches.

We took a city map; it came in handy for finding optimal routes and photo timing. I noted whether a church was a “morning” or “evening” building — when its facade would be lit by the sun. So, let’s start our journey! We’ll go from the earliest-established temples to the later ones.

1. St. Severin’s (est. 4th century)

The Basilica of St. Severin dominates the southern part of the historical city center and faces the eponymous street, SeverinstraĂźe. In Roman times, this street served as an arterial road from Cologne (Colonia Agrippina) to Bonn (Castra Bonnensis).

The front of St. Severin’s Basilica before sunrise. The initial Romanesque tower was demolished in 1393 in favor of the current Gothic tower, which took a couple of centuries to complete.

When I got up at 5 a.m. on the second day of the trip, this was the first place I went to; I wanted to take a picture against the sun until it was not too bright. Besides, I grabbed a Bolt e-scooter to move faster and not to miss the precious “golden hour.”

The sunlit side facade of St Severin’s Church.

Although St. Severin’s church was established in the late 4th century, its oldest parts date back to the 10th century. The foundations of the initial chapel were buried under the nave of the current building. The church was significantly extended in the Middle Ages, probably owing to the relics of St. Severin being moved to its crypt.

The rear facade with twin towers.

The church suffered severe damage during the Second World War: its roofs and windows were gone; the tower was badly hit. But restorers managed to follow the church’s medieval appearance.

The northern view of the church. It’s so massive that I could hardly fit it into the frame.

2. St. Ursula’s (est. early 5th century)

The Basilica of St. Ursula nowadays is a Romanesque-Gothic building with a goofy Baroque tower top, which, in my opinion, spoils the impression.

The Romanesque tower of St Ursula’s Church with an awkward Baroque top.

The initial church was built upon the ruins of a Roman cemetery where Saint Ursula and 11,000 martyr virgins are said to have been buried. The legend says the Huns — nomads from Central Asia and Eastern Europe — killed them in the course of their invasion of the Roman Empire in the 4–5th century.

“11,000 virgins” sounds like an unreralistc number. One theory suggests the abbreviation “M” for “Martyrs” was misread as the Roman numeral “M” for “thousand,” hence 11,000 instead of 11.

A portion of the bones from the cemetery is kept in the so-called Golden Chamber. They are arranged in zigzags, swirls, and letters on the walls. We came too late to visit the chamber, though.

The Romanesque front facade of the church with the Gothic chapel on its side. The chapel contains the Golden Chamber with bones.

The building we see today was built around the 12th century. At that time, city fortifications were extended, and a large burial ground was discovered, thus supporting the Ursula legend. The church got numerous extensions later, including the Lady Chapel (before 1300) and the 13th-century tower and Gothic choir.

The 1942 Allied bombings severely ruined the church. The reconstruction started soon after and aimed at emphasizing the Romanesque and Gothic character of the building.

3. St. Gereon’s (est. before 612)

Most modern-day St. Gereon’s Basilica arose between 1151 and 1227 on the remains of Roman walls, which are still visible. Archaeologists revealed the presence of an earlier structure of unknown purpose from the 4th century, which was later converted into a church.

St. Gereon’s Basilica at the end of the street early in the morning.

When we approached the basilica, we first noticed its striking twin towers. But this church is actually famous for a gigantic 21×16-meter oval decagonal dome. It was the largest dome built in Western Europe between the erection of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia in the 6th century and the Duomo of Florence in the 15th century.

The main entrance to St. Gereon’s Basilica and its huge dome.

The oval plan of the church makes it so special. When medieval builders extended and remodeled the church, they reused the outline of the underlying 4th-century Roman building I mentioned above. That’s why St. Gereon’s Basilica has so much in common with other Roman temples and mausoleums!

The eastern facade with the choir and twin towers.

After the Middle Ages, the church underwent comparably minor changes, followed by reverting to the original design. During the Second World War, the main damage was inflicted on the dome, which was about to collapse, but masterly engineers managed to rescue it.

A side view of the building. It’s so huge that it barely fits into the frame.

4. St. Mary’s in Capitol (est. 690)

Although St. Mary’s Church is surrounded by residential buildings, it’s still visible behind them. This 100×40-meter building is the largest Romanesque church in Cologne. Its name refers to the previous Roman temple for the Capitoline Triad that stood on a small hill in the 1st century.

The massive St. Mary’s Church half-hidden behind the residential blocks.

In the 5th century, Cologne was conquered by the Franks, a Germanic people who lived near the River Rhine on the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. During this period, the Frankish mayors’ residence and church were built upon the Roman temple’s foundations.

The front facade of the church at noon.

The current church appeared between 1040 and 1065, inspired by the design of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem. It is considered the key work of German church architecture of the Salian dynasty.

In the Second World War, the church was damaged heavily. Its eastern part (in the photo below) was reopened after reconstruction only in 1984.

The eastern facade of St. Mary’s in Capitol.

5. St. Apostles’ (est. 9th century)

The Basilica of the Holy Apostles is visible from afar owing to its single 67-meter western tower. The first church on this site was probably built in the 9th century, but this hasn’t been undeniably confirmed.

The western side of St. Apostles Church during the “golden hour.”

A gorgeous Romanesque temple you can see today was built in the 11th century. The main altar was set in its western part. It was unusual for Christian churches, where the most sacred elements face the east, where the sun rises. However, it was not by mistake; the architect was inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which stays west-oriented until now.

Unlike its model, St. Apostles Church was reoriented to the east in the late 12th century; the old western crypt was filled in, and a tall western tower (in the picture above) was erected instead.

Simple Romanesque forms of St. Apostles Church.

An interesting fact: when the church was constructed, it stood right outside of the city walls because Cologne was still enclosed in Roman fortifications, intact at that time. Only in the 12–13th centuries, a new city wall that covered a much larger area was built.

You can still locate a bricked-up gateway on the apse — 8 meters above the ground (in the picture below). Through this door, it was possible to enter the walkway of the Roman city wall until the 12th century.

The eastern apse of St. Apostles Church with the remnants of a medieval wall gateway.

After the Second World War destruction, the church first underwent makeshift fixes and later was restored correctly. Although only the core parts of the walls are genuinely medieval, the shape of the original 11th-century building is well-preserved.

6. St. Cecilia’s (est. 9th century)

This is the humblest Romanesque church in Cologne: without grand towers or large windows. And this is not because they haven’t survived, but because the church was initially simple. Since we visited it in the evening, it looked more mysterious and attractive than in the daylight.

This building originates from the 9th century when the archbishop founded a “women’s home” dedicated to St. Cecilia here, on the ruins of Roman baths. However, the present-day building dates back to 1130–1160, and it hasn’t changed much since then. Nowadays, it houses the Schnütgen Museum of medieval art.

The church’s apse in the evening.

“The Dance of Death” is a graffiti on the western facade of St. Cecilia’s Church created by Swiss artist Harald Naegeli. In the 1980s, he drew several hundred skeleton spray paintings around Cologne.

The western facade of St. Cecilia’s Church with the skeleton graffiti.

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7. St. Pantaleon’s (est. 870)

This was the last church we saw before going to the hotel on the first day of our trip. Stars started to show up in the ultramarine sky. We were a bit sleepy but managed to walk to St. Pantaleon’s Church, which hid behind dense greenery.

The western facade of St. Pantaleon’s Church.

A hill behind the ancient city walls was initially occupied by a Roman villa, and you can still see its remnants in the crypt of St. Pantaleon’s Church. The villa was replaced with a church around 870 and later accompanied by a Benedictine abbey, which started the construction of the current, much larger monastery church in 966–980.

The building was closed when we came to it, so only afterward I learned that it was a resting place for a couple of historical figures: Empress Theophanu, a Byzantine princess who was married to Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, and Bruno the Great, the archbishop of Cologne and brother of Otto I, the first Holy Roman Emperor.

Note: the Holy Roman Empire was, in fact, a medieval German state. It was called this way because Germans had an ambition to dominate Italy and the Pope and considered themselves heirs of the ancient Roman Empire, which stretched up to half of modern Germany.

A close-up of the main facade.

From 1618, St. Pantaleon’s Church was remodeled in the Baroque fashion. The building even temporarily served as a horse stable when French revolutionary forces occupied Cologne at the end of the 18th century.

During the Second World War, the church was hugely ruined like most of Cologne’s architecture, and the post-war restoration reverted it as much as possible to its medieval state, without Baroque extras.

8. St. Cunibert’s (est. 9th century)

The Basilica of St. Cunibert was the last of Cologne’s Romanesque churches to be completed. It had been consecrated one year before the work on the famous Gothic Cathedral of Cologne began.

The western facade of St. Cunibert’s Church. The evening sun gently illuminates its long-suffering tower.

The initial church, located on a burial ground north of the Roman city walls and dedicated to St. Clement, was founded by bishop Cunibert. After his death, the church was renamed in his honor. A monastery called after St. Cunibert appears in records as far back as 866.

The eastern side of St. Cunibert’s Basilica.

In the 11th century, the direct predecessor of the current church was built. It became a pilgrimage site owing to the canonization of Cunibert and two other saints buried in the crypt. However, the current building appeared only in the first half of the 13th century.

The side of the church with one of the eastern twin towers.

Fate did not spare the western tower — it collapsed two times! At first, during a storm in 1830 because it was not part of the original plan, and the structure couldn’t support it properly. For the second time, during the Second World War after a direct bomb hit. The post-war reconstruction took a lot of time and lasted until 1985.

9. St. Mary’s Lyskirchen (est. 948)

St. Mary’s Lyskirchen is the smallest Romanesque church in the city.

The Rhein embankment with St. Mary’s Church on the opposite side of the street.

Unfortunately, the initial building from 948 hasn’t survived; what you can see nowadays is a 1210–1220 temple with later additions in the Gothic style. The church was flanked by two towers, but only one of them was built to its full height.

The completed northern tower.

I guess the small size helped the building to receive minimal damage during the wars. It has a beautiful Romanesque portal and a set of 13th-century ceiling Biblical paintings rediscovered not a long time ago.

The western facade with the entrance.

10. Great St. Martin’s (est. the 960s)

Great St. Martin’s is probably the most famous Romanesque church in Cologne; its elaborately decorated 75-meter tower is well visible from the city center and across the river and has become a landmark of the old town alongside the Cologne Cathedral.

The iconic soaring tower of Great St. Martin’s Church.

The church was founded in the 960s as a men’s choir house in honor of Martin of Tours; its foundations rest on the remnants of a Roman chapel. However, the current building was erected between 1150 and 1250. After that, it wasn’t seriously modified. Maybe, the only critical change was the demolition of its unstable western tower. As you can see in the picture below, there is no tower on the right.

17–18th-century documents claimed that the church had been founded by missionaries Viro and Plechelmus much earlier, around 670–714, but thorough research proved those chronicles were forged.

Unfortunately, the church was severely damaged in the Second World War, and restoration was finished only in 1985. The only medieval element of the church still present today is the three round apses meeting in the shape of a cross under the tower.

11. St. Andrew’s (est. 974)

St. Andrew’s Church was the first of 12 Romanesque churches we noticed in the city after arriving there by train from Berlin. The thing is, it’s located in the heart of Cologne, the closest to the iconic Gothic cathedral that is so beloved by tourists.

This is how close St. Andrew’s Church is to the Cologne Cathedral.

It was preceded by an early Christian chapel called St. Matthew’s at the Moat, but replaced with a Romanesque structure dedicated to St. Andrew in 974. It was extended to its current size in the 11th century.

An early-morning view of St Andrew’s Church.

However, the church was substantially remodeled in the 14–15th centuries following the then-trending Gothic style. The eastern choir was demolished in favor of a Gothic one, and only the crossing tower, accompanied by internal staircase towers, kept its Romanesque design.

The still-Romanesque western side of the building.

Miraculously, the Second World War didn’t ruin medieval wall paintings in the aisles and several historic windows from 1899 and 1918. Besides, restorers uncovered a medieval crypt under the east choir. The crypt was modernized and expanded, and since the 1950s, a 3rd-century Roman sarcophagus there holds the body of medieval theologian and philosopher Albertus Magnus.

12. St. Georg’s (11th century)

St Georg’s Church turned out to be enclosed by residential blocks on one side and construction works on the other. This church created the weirdest impression. I couldn’t shake the feeling it was composed of mismatched pieces instead of being a uniform building. I visited it early in the morning to avoid the construction buzz and busy traffic.

The foundation year of St Georg’s Church is unknown, but it was consecrated in the 11th century. The entrance portal on the northern side (well visible in the picture above) was added only in 1551.

The massive western side of the church with a minimalistic restored roof.

The massive western part (in the photo above) has 5-meter-thick walls, which implies a much taller construction plan than actually built. During the Baroque era, the top part was remodeled in the spirit of that time, but after the Second World War, restorers decided to revert it back to a simple Romanesque hip roof.

That’s it, folks! Hope you enjoyed this virtual walk.

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Slava Shestopalov 🇺🇦
5 a.m. Magazine

Design leader and somewhat of a travel blogger. Author of “Design Bridges” and “5 a.m. Magazine” ·