It’s probably more correct to describe the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) as a church surrounded by museums, located as it is on Berlin’s Museuminsel (Museum Island), amid the gorgeous architecture of 19th century museums and royal palaces since converted into museums.
It’s the major church that was on my “must see” list in Berlin, so since we leave in two days it was time to explore its history and architecture.
From the outside, even with ongoing restoration happening, it is a magnificent building. Huge angels ring the perimeter of the dome, each playing a different musical instrument and flanked by two cherubs; music is very important in the Lutheran church.
We climbed the 270 stairs to the level of the angels to get a really good close-up look at them.
But before tackling our second set of long staircases this week, we took time just to take in the church’s interior splendour, as well as a 30 minute (in German) orientation talk by a very knowledgeable docent.
The present church is a huge, rather ornate, Renaissance and Baroque Revival structure, built by order of German Emperor William II. Normally, German Protestant churches are quite plain, but the Emperor had something to prove to his counterparts and relatives in Italy, England, and Russia, so he incorporated elements rivalling St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg. The resulting building is the largest Protestant church in Germany and one of the most important dynastic tombs in Europe.
Entering the sanctuary, your eyes are immediately drawn to the front, where natural light streams through three huge stained glass windows. The docent later told us that because they are not artificially lit, at night they look like sepia photographs.
Next we always look up – and there was so much to see in this church! First was the ceiling area above the altar:
Then there’s a beautiful cupola over the sanctuary, with a dove in the centre representing the Holy Spirit, light streaming in via two rows of massive stained glass windows (the second set are 10 meters/33 feet tall), and decorated with what we thought were frescoes of the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.
Those “frescoes” are actually mosaics, each one 39 square meters (that’s 420 square feet!) and EACH made up of 500,000 individual Italian tiles. If those sizes sound impossible, remember that the distance to the top of the dome is 98 metres (328.5 ft); things look much smaller from the ground than they actually are. For perspective, our docent mentioned that the Berlin Victory Tower at just under 67 metres tall could fit completely inside the church, and the sphere of the famous Berlin Fernseturm (TV Tower) could fit inside the 33m/108 ft diameter dome.
In keeping with the priorities of the Protestant Lutheran church, there are depictions of bible stories and bible verses used as decoration, most notably mosaics of the four evangelists who wrote the Gospels.
Now look left and notice the glorious pipe organ. When it was built in 1905, designed by Wilhelm Sauer, it was the largest in Germany, with 7269 pipes and 113 registers, spread across four manuals and pedals. It has since been far surpassed by the organ at St. Stephen’s in Passau with its 17,000+ pipes. Completely unexpectedly, we got to hear it played when the organist did a bit of practicing for the upcoming evening event.
Our docent told us that although the church was never in danger during WWI, the organ’s pipes were removed and melted down to make weapons. They were replaced by 1935, but scavenged after WWII and sold for the value of the metal. I’ve not been able to verify either story, and the Dom’s website calls it an “intact original”.
Interesting in a “royal” church is the lack of depictions of the rulers who commissioned the church. Instead, there are 8 statues: 4 of important founders of the Protestant/Lutheran religion, and 4 of the regional rulers who supported and/or protected them. The photos are at angles because the statues are WAY up.
At the front of the church is an intriguingly-shaped altar (below), reflecting the fact this is a “United” Prussian Lutheran church. Evangelical Lutherans originally used a box/coffin-shaped altar as a reminder of Jesus’ death; Reformed Lutherans used a table, as a reminder of the Last Supper. The altar here uses both. The golden screen behind the a,tar is one of the only remaining items from the church that preceded this one.
Beneath the church is the Hohenzollern Crypt, the final resting place of over 100 royal family members from 5 centuries of Prussian rule, but it has been closed for renovations since 2020 with an expected completion date of 2025. Nonetheless, there are 6 very impressive sarcophagi behind grating on the main level of the church.
After spending a couple of hours in the Berliner Dom, we did my favourite thing: stopped for cakes and coffee, before walking home through some of the neighbourhoods we’d seen from atop the church.
The many spires of Berlin, and a real sense of the mixture of historic and modern architecture, is clearly visible from the platform 50 metres above the ground. Climbing the 270 steps is absolutely worth doing.
This was our last church tour in Berlin, but definitely not the last we’ll tour this summer. Vienna, Trieste, and London England await!