Standing in the devil’s footstep

Munich buildings
Munich buildings

It turns out Cathedrals are all about chairs, not size.

We started today with some schoolwork. Mostly reading the excellent Cathedral: The Story of its Construction by David MacAuley. This is a lovely book detailing how an archetypical cathedral was built in the 13th Century. As well as basic information on structure and approach, it’s filled with interesting titbits of fascinating trivia. I learnt for the first time how glass was blown for the stained-glass windows; that short supplies of long-straight poles meant that the scaffolding was hung from the top of the walls rather than built from the bottom; and that heavy lifting was done using a mouse-wheel-style contraption constructed on the top of the building – I dread to think who stuck their hand up for the job of running about in there all day.

This afternoon we visited Munich’s cathedral – the Frauenkirche – which was fascinating but bore almost no resemblance to what we’d seen in the book. The Frauenkirche was built in the late 1400s and early 1500s and throughout its construction suffered from a lack of funds. So it’s built of bricks instead of limestone blocks and its towers are capped with domes instead of the intended steeples. The end result is big, but very plain. Interestingly the cathedral was constructed to seat 20,000 at a time when the entire population of the region was only 13,000 – perhaps it was that sort of vaunting ambition which lead to the financial shortfalls.

In any case its plain construction was not helped any by extensive Allied bombing at the end of the Second World War. They have some good photos in the Cathedral showing the bombed shell at the end of the war and the stages of reconstruction. Declan had some useful difficulty getting his head around the fact that the bombing had been done by the Allies.

Callum was more taken with the devil’s footstep. This is a tile centred on the main entrance where, so the tale goes, the devil stood to check on a deal he’d made with the builder. The deal was that he would finance construction as long as there were no windows; and if you stand on the tile incised with the footstep you cannot see any of the side windows. He was so incensed at being tricked that he became the howling wind which prevails around the cathedral. From direct experimentation, it turns out the Devil wears size 11 shoes over those cleft feet.

Anyway we enjoyed the Frauenkirche in spite of its plainness. And thanks to our morning reading Callum was able to tell us why it was a cathedral: A cathedral is a church of any size that contains a cathedra, or bishops chair.

3 thoughts on “Standing in the devil’s footstep

  1. …”using a mouse-wheel-style contraption”. Okay, I’ll admit my mind went immediately to the mouse-wheel I was twiddling to make the screen scroll. They must have has a giant one on the roof, operated by many fingers, thought I.

    It’s okay, I get it now 🙂

    1. Strangely I think this was a more complex job than whatever they had Oscar Wilde doing in a similar contraption 600 years later. A lot of clarity would have been required on when to start lifting, when to stop, when to pause, etc.

      From what I’ve read, manpower and even skilled manpower was not in short supply at the time as there were hordes of people making their way back across Europe from the Crusades.

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