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The Church that characterizes Munich’s skyline

The Frauenkirche, officially known as the Domkirche zu Unserer Lieben Frau (Cathedral Church of Our Lady), is the kingpin of all Munich’s churches. As far back as 1271, almost 200 years prior to the Late Gothic brick construction we admire today, this was the site of the Marienkirche parish church. It wasn’t until 1468 that Jörg von Halsbach, commissioned by Duke Sigismund, laid the foundation stone of a new church, and by 1488 the towers that now dominate the Munich skyline were completed, albeit without the signature “onion” domes, which were added in 1525. The construction wasn’t without tragedy, however. The architect apparently dropped dead upon placing the last stone in the structure.
Frauenkirche 276x
As one of the largest hall churches in southern Germany, the cathedral is indeed massive. Its interior was designed to hold a congregation of 20,000, despite the fact that, at the time, Munich had only 13,000 inhabitants. Until 1690, when the Theatinerkirche (Odeonsplatz) was built, the Frauenkirche was the final resting place of the Wittelsbachs and the royal sepulcher under the high altar is the former royal family’s oldest and largest burial vault in Munich. According to his mother’s accounts, the young King Ludwig II was enchanted by the magnificent church and, as a boy, “gleefully dressed up as a Frauenkirche nun.”

The towers, which fortunately escaped complete destruction in 1944, are not 100 m in height, contrary to what is often claimed. In fact they are roughly 98.5 m high and there is a discrepancy in the height of the towers: the north tower is about 12 cm taller. Some claim that funds or material, ran out. Whatever the case, the result is that the north tower has been made the point of reference for all measurements of distance relating to Munich. For example, if you are on the Autobahn heading towards Munich, and the sign says “Munich 12 km,” that is the distance between you and the north tower of the Frauenkirche. It is, in effect, the geographical center of Munich as well as the official altitude reference: Munich, at the north tower, is 517.25 m above sea level.

Not many people in Munich, not even long-term residents, know that it is possible to climb the south tower. The view is spectacular and makes St. Peter’s and the Marienplatz look like LegoLand. At 92 m, it would be quite a climb without the elevator, but apparently it wasn’t high enough to prevent Anton Adner from meeting the challenge back in 1819. Legend has it that, at the sprightly young age of 110, this hearty soul from Berchtesgaden climbed the tower on his own. There is no question that he did it, just whether he was actually that old. In any case, for his efforts he was honored with a personalized gravestone from King Maximilian Josef I when he died at the age of 117. Nowadays it costs € 3 to go up, and it’s well worth the elevator ride.
There is no elevator in the north tower (it is unfortunately off limits to the public), but there is a 500-year-old, 4-m-wide wooden wheel that was once used to convey construction materials to the roof. Here’s how it worked and, actually, still works: between 15 and 20 men would be packed into this wheel, like human hamsters, and by treading inside it they would turn the pulleys and ropes that hoisted the materials50 m up the tower to the workers. They were thus able to lift massive amounts of supplies with relative ease. A tribute to these workers can be found on the inside of the church. If you look closely at the tops of the pillars inside, you will see small, colorful heads emerging from the stone. These are portraits of the construction workers who helped build the cathedral.

Of course, we can’t forget the well-known story of the footprint left in the church by the devil himself. Allegedly the architect, Jörg von Halsbach, made a pact with the devil in order to finance the construction of the church. The catch was that he wasn’t allowed to include windows. Well, upon seeing the church with its stained-glass windows, the devil got excited about acquiring his newest victim’s soul. But when he got inside, von Halsbach led him to a spot where, because of the design of the pillars, the devil couldn’t see the windows—despite being able to see light. The devil, in his frustration, stamped his hoof so hard that he left an imprint in the floor of the cathedral.

That wasn’t the only story of frustration to unfold in the Frauenkirche. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in 1786 of the 17-year-old Baroness Franziska von Ickstatt, who, in heartbroken desperation, threw herself from the north tower in 1785 because her mother refused to accept a young army officer as a suitor for her daughter. The Frauenkirche, in all its glory and tragedy, is a genuinely amazing place. The interior boasts a wealth of fine paintings and sculptures and countless other rich furnishings that make it worth taking a closer look. Don’t miss the 15th-century stained-glass window behind the altar, feel the sheer scale of the place and check out the bronze relief of three people beatified by the Pope: Mother Theresa, Rupert Mayer (a German priest known for his struggle against, and imprisonment by, the Nazis and who, in 1987, 42 years after his death, was beatified by the Pope before 80,000 people in Olympic Stadium here in Munich) and Kaspar Stanggassinger (another famous German priest).

Going up the south tower is possible from April 1 through October 31, Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm. For more information, visit

© MF White/Nov 03

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