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Willigis, archbishop and at the same time archchancellor of the Holy Roman Empire, laid the foundation stone for the cathedral in 975, modelling it on old St. Peter’s in Rome. Seven coronations of kings took place in Mainz Cathedral in the course of the centuries. 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. Willigis was therefore buried in St. Stephen’s.
From his time dates the oldest surviving pieces of ornamentation from the Romanesque pier basilica: the bronze door panels of the market portal. The inscription on this ceremonial door refers to its 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 surrounding buildings. The “cathedral mountain” of red sandstone, that has grown in the course of the centuries, forms a contrast to the light coloured stone of the Romanesque St. Gotthard’s Chapel which Archbishop Adalbert erected before 1137 as the archbishops’ private chapel. 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 the Leichhof, the former cemetery. He provided them with fireproof stone roofs.
The cathedral burned seven times in the course of the centuries, and the fear of fire was great. After the west tower was struck by lightning, in 1767 Neumann provided it with a new spire, with references to the Gothic bell chamber in its form. It too was constructed in stone and not in wood as previously.
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 bombardment 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 peaked 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 11th century style was found under the east chancel.
The late Romanesque west chancel was constructed between 1200 and 1239. A Gothic bell chamber was added to its crossing tower in the 15th century. The carved rococo choir stalls from 1767 were saved from sale by Bishop Joseph Ludwig Colmar, whom Napoleon had installed. It was also Colmar who convinced the French emperor not to demolish the cathedral after secularisation in 1803.
Since 1928, the bishops have been buried in the new crypt under the west chancel. Of the 84 bishops and archbishops who have held office since Boniface, 45 are buried in the cathedral. Many grave monuments from the 11th to the 20th centuries have been mounted on the pillars and walls of the church and the cloister. The often idealised portrayals of the ecclesiastical dignitaries reflect the history of the diocese of Mainz. Their completeness and their good state of preservation make this portrait gallery one of the most important sights in the cathedral. Old wall frescos and stained glass windows have not survived. The wall paintings in the nave, to designs by the painter Philipp Veit, who was regarded as being a Nazarene, date from the nineteenth century.
The altar to the Virgin Mary in the Ketteler Chapel with its “beautiful Lady of Mainz” is a centre of attraction. The late Gothic group of wood carvings (around 1510) is in imitation of the sculptor Hans Backoffen, from whose workshop three of the tombs in the cathedral came. The 15th century cloister has two storeys. In the past, the canons of the cathedral lived in the adjoining collegiate buildings. Today the Episcopal Cathedral and Diocesan Museum is housed there. Religious art treasures from the late Middle Ages and the modern period can be admired in the restored late Gothic exhibition rooms.
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