Few buildings in Berlin define the “skyline” and the city as much as the Berlin Cathedral. The imposing Neo-renaisance Cathedral is a tourist magnet, only dwarfed in visitor numbers by the Cathedral in Cologne. While many simply enjoy the building from the outside – few realize that you can actually scale the building up to the dome and enjoy a majestic view of the Museums Island. Even fewer realize that you can visit the “top” of the Berliner Dom – the Kuppelkreuz – without having to pay or walk up 270 steps, simply by visiting a local cemetery called the Domfriedhof.
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A historical recap of the Berliner Dom
First things first: The Berliner Dom is actually officially called Oberpfarr- und Domkirche zu Berlin. As thats too long winded for anyone to say all the time, its known as the Berlin Dom.
The Berliner Dom that we know actually had 2 previous iterations. The first Cathedral dates back to 1536, when the Dominican Church south of the newly constructed Berliner Castle was transformed into the court church for Joachim II Prince-elector of the Margraviate of Brandenburg. The medieval brick building was lavishly converted into a gothic style cathedral, including a royal crypt and belfry. Joachim II decided to convert from Catholicism over to protestantism in 1539, thus the Catholic Cathedral turned into a Protestant Cathedral.
What is the difference between a Dom and a Cathedral?
A quick explanation on the german word Dom. Dom in German denotes a collegiate church (a church where worship is maintained by a non-monastic community of clergy, organised as a self-governing corporate body). As the majority of cathedrals are also collegiate churches, the term Dom has become synonymous in German with Cathedral, though they are not the same.
After 200 odd years, the brick cathedral was in dire need of repairs. Friedrich II (aka old Fritz aka Friedreich the Great) decided to build a new baroque church next to the Lustgarten in 1750 (the same spot where the Berlin Cathedral stands today) and tear down the old Dom giving us the second itteration of the Berliner Dom.
Karl Friedrich Schinkel – arguably one of Berlin and Brandenburgs most influential architects redesigned the interior and exterior of the Dom in 1816 and 1820 into a more modern classicist style. Ironically, not much later discussions came up if the modest Schinkel cathedral, was adequate aka representative enough for the (egos) of the Monarchy. At the behest of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, plans were drawn up a Friedrich August Stüler (a student of Schinkel) for a more ornate two-tower basilica. Constructions began but was soon put to a rest thanks to the 1848 revolution, and interested in the project stalled not long after as it was deemed too costly by the Prussian House of Representatives.
After the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871, the call for a representative church, which could measure up to the great churches of the world, was renewed. In 1885, the architect Julius Raschdorff, a professor at the Technical University in Charlottenburg, presented plans for a new building.
But it was Wilhelm II, in his capacity as King and Summus Episcopus in Prussia (head of the protestant church in Prussia), who ordered the demolition of the Schinkel Cathedral and called for a new cathedral based on Raschdorff’s plans (which was characterised by an eclectic adaptation of the styles of the Italian High Renaissance and Baroque).
Construction of the Berlin Cathedral began in 1894 with the aim to be finished by 1900 – but construction delays pushed back the inaugruation to the 27th of Febuary 1905. Thus we have ended up with the 3rd itteration of the Berliner Dom.
The Berlin Cathedral after the Second World War
The Berlin Cathedral suffered great damage during the Second World War. An Allied air raid caused all the altar windows to shatter, as well es cracking the domes of the corner towers. On May 24th, 1944 – one of the heaviest air raids of Berlin – a bomb filled with flammable liquid struck the dome and the heavy spire with the cross. The wooden cladding unter the coper covering was insulated with peat (great idea!) which accelerated the fire. The fire fighters were unable to reach the fire, and were doomed to watch as the burning spire crashed through the dome, smashing through the floor damaging the Hohenzollern crypt underneath.
After the end of the Second World War, large parts of the Berlin Cathedral lay in ruins and exposed to the elements (no thanks to the big hole in the Cupola). The hole was closed off rudimentarily in 1953, but the rest of the Berliner Dom was left in its ruined state. It wasn’t until 1975 when reconstruction work began, though the term reconstruction is a generous one in this case.
Purely out of ideological reasons, the GDR decided to tear down the nothern wing – the so called Denkmalskirche – which had actually survived the war relatively undamaged (the marble sarcophagous of Bismarck was also destroyed in the process). The Berlin Castle suffered a similar fate – though one of its Portals was saved and incorporated in the State Council Building in 1964.
The main dome and the four towers of the Berlin Cathedral were not rebuilt in accordance with the original plans, but in a greatly simplified form with their height being reduced by 16 meters. The spires were removed, and a completely new Kuppelkreuz (dome cross) was created – which caused great consternation amongst members of the church, historians and architects. The new cross was placed on the Dome in 1981.
The dismantling of the original Kuppelkreuz of the Berlin Cathedral sparked a discussion about whether the five dome spires, as they adorned the building before the war, should be replaced. Critics of the dome cross from the GDR complained that the proportions of the original building had been destroyed by the alterations. While campaigns have been ongoing to have a more faithful restoration, this is highly unlikely as the current incarnation of the Berliner Dom has been classified as a historical monument, making any architectural changes nearly impossible.
A new “new” cross for the Berliner Dom
In 2006, only 25 years after the new Kuppelkreuz was hoisted atop the dome of the Berlin Cathedral, it had to be removed again. Statisticians were called in after rust damage was found under the gold plated copper sheet cladding. The report revealed that the damage was due to bimetallic corrosion, which results from the combination of different noble metals (in this case copper and steel) and leads to the corrosion of the less noble metal (in this case steel). The KT Steel used (corrosion-resistant steel) was believed to have more favorable material properties in the 1970s – but apparently this was wrong.
The Stability of the 12.5 Ton and 15-meter-high dome cross could no longer be guaranteed, and was at risk of falling off. The Kuppelkreuz structure was constructed out of hollow steel molds, which had complete eroded inside and outside and made restoration impossible.
The Kuppelkreuz of the Berliner Dom was removed and a new one was ordered from the Metal Construction Company Breidenbach in Peiting. Bavaria . The mould of the 1981 version still existed, so Breitenbach were able accurately recreate the old new cross. After the cross was moulded, it was covered in 1.5 kilos of gold leaf by specialists in Berlin. On the 19th of August, 2008 – a 500 ton crane hoisted the new cross on top of the dome of the Berliner Dom. The whole spectacle (including the creation of the new cross) cost a cool 700,000 euros.
What to do with an old church cross?
So what happened with the old Kuppelkreuz that graced the top of the Berlin Cathedral? Rather than scrap it, it was moved to the cemetery of the Oberpfarr- und Domkirche, more specifically the Domfriedhof I.
The golden Kuppelkreuz and orb now grace the entrance of the Domfriedhof, the original cemetery of the Berlin Cathedral. It looks somewhat lost in its position in the middle of a small field, but at the same time it seems to be a fitting resting place. One wonders what a fitting “disposal” of a cross would be – and if such a thing would even be possible (it seems like the church has less qualms about the disposal of gravestones as they seem to be littered around in piles)? Regardless, the solution of placing the Kuppelkreuz in the cemetery seems like an appropriate and welcome addition.
The Domfriedhof I is one of three cemeteries built in the 1830s along the Liesenstraße at at time when the land was still on the northern outskirts of Berlin. The protestant Domfriedhof I was the first cemetery to be built and was used by the Upper Parish and Cathedral Church (aka the Berlin Cathedral). Next to it is the Catholic St. Hedwig cemetery from 1834, and last in the group is the cemetery of the French Reformed community from 1835. A fourth cemetery, the Dorotheenstädtische Friedhof was built in 1842 on the norther end of the street.
After the Berlin was was built on the 13th of August, 1961 – access was virtually cut off to the cemeteries. Of the three cemeteries, only the Dorotheenstädtische Friedhof was still freely accessible, ironically its congregation was cut off by the Berlin Wall. dozens of historical graves were destroyed to make way for the continuous expansion of the wall and its security perimeter.
When the Berlin Wall and its Watchtowers came tumbling down, several of its incarnations and traces survived. You’ll find a 15 meter segment of the “Grenzmauer 75” (the fourth generation of the Berlin Wall introduced in 1975) in the northern tip of the St. Hedwig cemetery (close to the S-Bahn Tracks / Bridge). You’ll also find a part of the so-called “Hinterlandmauer” – the wall behind the Berlin Wall in the western part, and a 200 meter long concrete panel wall (a so called Vorfeldsicherung – another security barrier) in the eastern part of the same cemetery. A similar slab can be found on the Domfriedhof.
The three cemetries serve as the final resting place for severely quite famous people such as Theodor Fontane, Wilhelm Stolze (the creator of the german language stenography), Leopold Arends (another stenography inventor), Will McBride (American photographer and painter), and Lorenz Adlon (the hotelier behind the famous Hotel Adlon) – just to name a few.
“Thanks” to the isolation of the Berlin Wall, all three cemeteries have acquired a very quiet and calm atmosphere which has endured to this day. Visiting the Domfriedhof, St. Hedwig Cemetery and the Cemetery of the French Reformed community is a pleasant and calming experience, sprinkled with bits of German history dating back to the 17th century right up to the Cold War. Plus theres the added bonus of being able to see the highest point of the Berlin Cathedral up close without having to walk up all the steps.
Address of the Kuppelkreuz of the Berliner Dom
Liesenstraße 6, 13355 Berlin
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Very interesting. Lived in Berlin for 15 years, first photographed the Dom without the Kumppelkreuz. Didn’t realize the history behind it. Good work and great post!
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