"This cathedral above the Rhine Valley with all of its might and glory would have remained in my memory even if I had never seen it again," wrote the German author Anna Seghers.
The majestic Cathedral of Mainz is a key feature of the cityscape even today – over a thousand years after its construction. Mainz, located at the intersection of important trade routes and the place where Saint Boniface worked and lived, became an important centre of Christianity from 746/47. The city was eventually promoted to the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Mainz in 780. During the time of Archbishop Willigis (975-1011), it bore the title of "Holy See of Mainz".
In 975, Willigis who was both the Archbishop and Archchancellor of the Holy Roman Empire, ordered the construction of a new cathedral in the pre-Romanesque style, modelling it on old St. Peter's in Rome.
Over the centuries, seven coronations of kings took place in Mainz Cathedral. The new building did not, however, survive the day of its consecration in August 1009 – a fire destroyed the edifice and it was only possible to use the cathedral again in 1036. That is why Willigis is buried in St. Stephen's.
The triple nave Romanesque pillar basilica and the bronze door of the portal facing the market square were part of the original building, and the inscriptions on the ceremonial door actually refer to the constructor and the artist. The cathedral has a nave with two side aisles, two chancels and numerous side chapels. The west chancel with the High Altar is dedicated to St. Martin, the east chancel to St. Stephen.
Mainz Cathedral is still almost completely enclosed by other buildings. The "cathedral mountain" of red sandstone that developed over the centuries stands out from the light-coloured stone of the Romanesque St. Gotthard's Chapel erected as the archbishop' private chapel by Archbishop Adalbert before 1137. A crucifix from the period of the Hohenstaufen emperors is kept there. Ignaz Michael Neumann, the son of the renowned Baroque architect Balthasar Neumann, built the cathedral houses on Leichhof, a former cemetery. Dating from 1778/79, they were built with stone roofs for fire safety.
Over the centuries, the cathedral was damaged by fire no fewer than seven times, and the fear of fire was great. After the west tower was struck by lightning, Neumann built a new spire in 1767 whose design is inspired by Gothic bell-floors. For fire safety, it was constructed in stone rather than timber.
The east chancel with its walls of over two metres in thickness is the oldest part of the cathedral. Its crossing tower was partly destroyed in 1793 during the siege of Mainz and was rebuilt at the beginning of the 19th century. The city architect Georg Moller designed a round iron dome, which was later removed in favour of a historicising pointed roof. The capitals of the portal facing Liebfrauenplatz were sculpted around 1100 by stone masons from Lombardy. In the 19th century, a crypt constructed in the style of the 11th century was discovered under the east chancel.
The late Romanesque west chancel was built between 1200 and 1239. A Gothic belfry was added to its crossing tower in the 15th century. The carved Rococo choir stalls from 1767 were saved from sale by Joseph Ludwig Colmar, the then bishop who had been instated by Napoleon. It was also Colmar who persuaded the French emperor not to demolish the cathedral after secularisation in 1803.
The new crypt under the west chancel serves as a burial place for the bishops of Mainz since 1928. Of the 84 bishops and archbishops who held office in Mainz since the time of Boniface, 45 are buried in the cathedral. The walls and columns of the church and the cloister feature many gravestones and monuments dating from the 11th to the 20th centuries. The often idealised portraits of the ecclesiastical dignitaries reflect the history of the diocese of Mainz. As the portrait gallery of Mainz Cathedral is exceptionally complete and well preserved, it has become one of the most popular treasures of the church. Unfortunately, none of the old wall paintings and stained glass windows has survived. The murals in the nave, based on sketches by Philipp Veit who was influenced by the Nazarene movement, date from the 19th century.
One of the main attractions of the cathedral is the altar to the Virgin Mary in the Ketteler chapel with a statue of the "Serene Lady of Mainz". The late Gothic group of wood-carved figures (ca. 1510) is in the style of the sculptor Hans Backoffen, whose workshop produced three of the sepulchral monuments in the cathedral.
The 15th century cloister has two storeys. In the past, the canons of the cathedral lived in the adjoining collegiate buildings, which today house the Episcopal Cathedral and Diocesan Museum. Treasures of religious art from the late Middle Ages and the modern period are on display in the restored late Gothic exhibition rooms.
Most parts of the cathedral are accessible to wheelchair users. Wheelchair access to the church is through the Williges Gate on the market square, and there is also a ramp at the Domstrasse entrance. The cathedral information desk can be reached without barriers. Toilets for disabled people can be found at the entrance from Domstrasse and in the cloister. The area in front of the first pews near the west chancel stairs is reserved for wheelchair users who wish to attend Mass.
The cathedral is a historic building. That is why the following areas are not easily accessible to wheelchair users: transept, St. Gotthard's Chapel and the chapels in the basement.
A bronze model of Main Cathedral can be seen on Liebfrauenplatz. The model is to scale and features explanations in Braille.