The Cathedral of Trier was the first major church to be established in what is now Germany, and is the oldest standing cathedral in Europe east of France. Once the most important Christian center in the Rhine region, the Archbishops of Trier were among the most powerful and influential outside of Italy. In early centuries the Cathedral of Trier was a major pilgrimage destination as it was home to several important Christian relics. Today it stands as one of the greatest surviving architectural masterpieces of the early years of the Holy Roman Empire. The Cathedral of Trier is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Trier was the first city to be founded in Germany; that is to say, Trier was the first major settlement of the ‘civilized’ Gallo-Romans in Germany. At the height of Roman imperial power, Trier was the largest and most important city on the German frontier. It eventually became capital of Gaul and an imperial residence. When Christianity began to spread northwest into Central Europe, Trier is where it first took root. Constantine, the future emperor who converted the empire to Christianity, resided in Trier for a time.
During the late Roman period, Trier was the most important center of Christianity in Germany. After the legalization of Christianity in the 4th century, the Bishop Maximin of Trier wanted to firmly establish the influence of the Catholic Church in Germany, and set about the construction of a massive cathedral. In the last years of her life, the legendary Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine, supported Maximin’s efforts, with both encouragement and with funds. She also gifted the new cathedral with the Seamless Robe of Jesus, which she ‘discovered’ and acquired while visiting the Holy Land.
Trier was a particularly busy Christian place in the late Roman and early Medieval eras. St. Ambrose was born here in the 4th century. Also, around the time that the Robe of Jesus arrived in Trier, the remains of the Apostle Matthias were supposedly brought to the city. Between the two, Trier was the first major Christian pilgrimage destination in Northern Europe during the early Middle Ages.
The cathedral’s most important role came through the authority of its Archbishops. The earliest archbishopric to be established North of the Alps, the cathedral’s leaders were already among the most influential in the Church. But after the founding of the Holy Roman Empire, their authority soared when Trier became an electoral seat, and the archbishops became the Prince-Archbishops. This designation survived a thousand years until finally dissolved by Napolean in the 19th century. Despite this, the cathedral, which has remained amazingly intact, is still beloved as one of Germany’s greatest historical-Christian treasures.
The Cathedral of Trier is one of the most prominent surviving examples of early Romanesque architecture. The current building largely dates to the 9th century AD, although there are earlier elements. It is the third major church to stand on the spot, the earlier two having been destroyed by maurauding Franks and Normans. It is for this reason that the cathedral is extremely fortress-like in appearance, with belltowers which look more like they belong on a castle than on a church. The Cathedral of Trier is possibly the most archetypically medieval in appearance of all churches in Europe.
The interior is another matter, being more of strangely harmonious mish-mash of period styles. These range from the main chapel, which preserves some of the original 4th century structure, to the interior of the dome, which is a masterpiece of baroque-era relief work. The Seamless Robe of Jesus, which has somehow survived the centuries, is kept in its own chapel where it is still venerated by pilgrims. A number of the city’s archbishops from the 10th through the 18th century are also buried within the cathedral.
The Cathedral of Trier is just north of the Elector’s Palace in the heart of the city, about 90 miles south of Cologne. It is open daily from 6:00am-4:40pm (open later hours in the Summer). There is no charge for admission. Web: www.dominformation.de (official website)
Trier has a surprising selection of historic Christian sites. Notable among them is the Abbey of St. Matthias, where local tradition holds that the relic of the Apostle Matthias is supposedly interred. There is also the Basilica of Constantine, a Roman-era building constructed for use as an imperial audience hall; it is currently used as a Lutheran church. Other historic churches in the city include the Church of Our Lady and the Church of St. Gangolf.