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Münster Part I: The Catholic City

Prinzipalmarkt in all its splendour, decorated for a coming festival


Münster is known as one of Germany's most catholic cities. It is the seat of a bishop, is full of historical churches, and even in our secular days, the presence of the Roman Catholic church is strong. The perfect place for that favourite pastime of an art historian that we like to call “churching”.


On the other hand, Münster’s university with about 30.000 students just as strongly influences the city’s atmosphere. The centre of the university is located west of the river Aa in the inner city, along Universitätsstraße (sic!). The Schloss is another important centre, and of course the huge hospitals and clinics further west. The presence of 30.000 young adults in town means a lively nightlife, pubs and shops that cater for young people, many cyclists in the streets…

Due to the amount of material I have, my report about Münster will be divided into three parts: first the religious side of the city, which in Münster's case means first of all: Roman Catholic. The second part will look at the city's secular attractions, and in the third I wil present the lake Aasee on the western outskirts and its surroundings.

Like most German cities, Münster was heavily destroyed by World War II bombs. However, unlike many others, it has been rebuilt in a good-looking way as a transformation of historical structures into contemporary forms. The effect is most visible in Prinzipalmarkt where a closer look at the facades reveals in an instant that they are not historical but 1950s.

The result is an interesting mix of old and new, catholic conservatism and progressive young ideas, upscale patricians and vibrant alternative culture.



I visited Münster several times in the 2000s and 2010s when I attended conferences at the Catholic Academy. Its name “Franz-Hitze-Haus” refers to a local priest and professor of theology who worked in the education of adults already in the second half of the 19th century. The academy does conventions, seminars etc. about almost any topic that is in the widest sense connected with Christian faith. The academy provides accommodation and meals for the participants and the atmosphere is very pleasant, friendly and familiar.


Director and team really want people to feel comfortable, as you notice in many little details that are well taken care of. Food is abundant and of excellent quality. Since most participants stay at the academy, there is a lot of time to talk and discuss during breakfast, coffee breaks, meals, and in the evenings with a beer or wine which can be obtained at the cafeteria.

The main building with the guest house dates from the 1950s. The architecture of the building with the guest rooms, which forms a square of 6 x 6 windows, has been taken as their logo. Two years ago an additional wing with new conference rooms has been built that offer any modern technical feature you may want.


I have in the meantime been there for the 8th time, always in September for the study week on art history and theology which used to take place every year. Since the former director retired, they have done two or three attempts with a shortened programme under the new leadership, but in the meantime they have given up on this format altogether. It is a pity that they don’t have them anymore!

The chapel of the academy, dedicated to St Edith Stein

The conferences used to take five days, one of which was taken up by a full day excursion. In addition to talks and discussions, the schedule always included long breaks, time to socialize with the other participants, and one afternoon off for personal sightseeing in the city. Since most participants were staying at the academy, there were endless occasions to talk from breakfast over meal times and coffee breaks to the evening wine or beer. Everyone who attends scholars’ conventions regularly knows that the most important things happen during those little talks over a coffee or meal outside the conference schedule.

The liturgic study weeks, as they called them, would always have one particular topic, for example the altarpiece, the pulpit and ambo, designs of side chapels, vasa sacra, concepts of light, paraments and other sacred textiles… and so on. They attracted and actively invited researchers from various fields of study, like theologists, art historians, church historians, and also craftspeople, priests and nuns, architects, designers… anyone who dealt with that certain topic in the past or present. This led to a wide variety of approaches.


The emphasis was on the Roman Catholic church but other denominations were discussed as well. The conferences were open to anyone who had an interest in the topic, not just professionals. There were regulars who came every year, others who, like me, came every now or then depending on the topic, and also one time only participants. I have encountered a load of interesting people there, and I was very proud of having once given a conference talk myself (on the regulations of seating in protestant churches of the early modern era).

The excursions took us into various parts of Westphalia, often to Off the beaten path destinations that no one had ever heard of. They took place on the fourth day when everyone already knew each other, so they had the character of a company outing. The leader and guide was a retired monument conservator from Münster who knew even the tiniest places in the countryside and was on first-name terms with every brick on Westphalia’s town and village churches. He would always come up with surprises. Perhaps I’ll write about some of those excursions later on…


But here's to the city of Münster. Let me start with a word of warning to you English speakers: Take care about the correct spelling of the name of this city: MÜNSTER People without knowledge of German tend to omit and ignore the two dots on the u. However, MUNSTER is the name of a small town in the Lüneburg heath north of Hannover and if you buy a train ticket to or book a hotel room in „Munster“, or enter the name into your navigation system, there will be a surprise for you… perhaps you are interested in seeing a tank museum instead of a vibrant and historical university city?
This is perhaps the most tricky example why the umlauts ought to be observed because in this case a misspelling will lead to an entirely different destination.
If your keyboard does not have the „ü“ (which is an Umlaut and turns the vowel u into a completely different letter and sound), there is an alternative spelling which is correct and acceptable and understood: insert an extra „e“ after the U and make it MUENSTER. This is a perfectly correct alternative spelling that will be recognized by every reader, be it a human being or a computer.
You will also notice that there is more than one Münster in Germany. The name derives from Latin monasterium (monastery) and there are several, although all the others are small villages. If you need an exact definition (on the Bahn website, for example), Münster/Westfalen is the right one.



Once arrived, Münster is best explored by bike. The city is widely known as Germany’s bicycle capital. The landscape in Northern Germany is mostly flat and perfect for cycling. Münster was one of the first cities that adjusted its traffic planning to bikes more than cars. The huge underground „bike station“ next to the train station offers secure parking, rental bikes, repairs and service. The city is full of bikes. Only finding parking can be a problem…


They have some bikes to let at the academy, which came very handy. Their number was limited, so one had to enquire at the reception right on arrival day to grab one. These bikes were what the Germans would call “old cucumbers” (alte Gurken – you get the idea) but they had two wheels, two pedals and a saddle and they would move. Better than nothing, and since they were for free, I am sparing my complaints. The route into the city was in theory walkable and there were also the city buses, but nothing beats the speed and the independence of a bike.

Münster Cathedral or St.-Paulus-Dom



Münster has been the seat of a bishop since 792. The cathedral is a huge building that has grown over centuries and styles. Its patron saint is St Paul. Its first inauguration took place in 1264 - hence it celebrated its 750th anniversary in September 2014.

Reason to dedicate a whole conference to this cathedral, its architecture, art and history. That year’s excursion was a long guided tour of the church into angles that the average tourist would not even notice, let alone enter.
Views from a hidden upstairs chapel


After the severe damage it suffered in World War II, rebuilding the Dom was Münster's central project. Most of it was rebuilt according to the original medieval shape, minus all late gothic and 19th century additions. Parts of the furnishing and many art works have been saved, others like the pulpit had to be renewed. The interior around the altar, however, was redesigned according to the needs of liturgy, with the wide open altar island in the intersection of nave and transept instead of the high screen that had previously closed off the chancel.


A big problem, however, was the western side. The former western wall with the late gothic portal was gone. Originally there had been a second chancel in the west of the church, only the late middle ages had given up this liturgical space and installed the main entrance fron the west. Now, the cathedral chapter wanted the second chancel back, hence no reconstruction in pre-war shape. Architect Emil Steffann provided a design in simple shape, with the small round windows that resemble a rosette as only ornament. A leftover bit of original wall in the corner on the left was integrated.
Not everyone liked the new facade, as can be expected - „modern stuff“ is often rejected without even looking at it closely. The facade was soon nicknamed „God's Douche“ or „the Phone Dial“ (the older among us will still remember those phones with a round dial;-)). In six decades people got used to it, though. I consider it a fine example of 1950s architecture of high quality.
From inside the large rosette pattern is most impressive due to the colours of the little stained-glass windows. The baroque altar used to be the church's main altar and was originally placed in the eastern chancel. With the post-war redesign it has found its place here.
The western chancel
The retable originally contained the cathedral's treasure. When all wings are opened, there is space inside for all the gilded vasa sacra and reliquiars. Nowadays the treasure is on display in the treasure chamber museum off the cloister. For the 750th anniversary of the cathedral in September 2014 the treasure was once more displayed in the altarpiece for one weekend.
This text is a brief summary of what I learned during a study week about the Dom, its architecture and history, at the catholic academy in September 2014.



The astronomical clock is maybe the most popular tourist attraction inside the cathedral. It is located in the side aisle around the chancel on the southern side. Since 1540 it has been indicating time, the run of sun and moon, the planets and the zodiac, and the clockwork is still exact. A renaissance masterpiece. The lower part behind the grid shows the calendar. Everything is guarded by the Madonna from above.
You will hear the bell every 15 minutes. But only once a day, at 12 noon, the clock will perform its little show. Many tour guides include this in their walking tours so expect to be in the middle of a dense crowd. The little man on the left will „blow“ his trumpet, his wife hits the bell. Chronos, the Time, turns his hourglass and Death will ring his bell. Then the Three Holy Kings together with their servants will start their march, salute and bow the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. The figures are high up and the aisle is narrow, so one does not see them too well from below. Nevertheless, if you are in or near the cathedral just before noon, watch it.


The three chapels around the eastern chancel were built in the 1660s by Prince Bishop Christoph Bernhard von Galen after his victory against the rebellious city. His tomb is placed in the one behind the altar, a large baroque tombstone with his statue kneeling in prayer. Note the artificial flowers on top of the screens between aisle and chapels.


However, Christoph Bernhard was not the most famous member of the noble family of Galen who is buried here. In 1933 Clemens August Graf von Galen became Bishop of Münster. The „Lion of Münster“, as he was named, was a determined opponent of the NS regime. He had the courage to speak up against racial discrimination and euthanasia. He was constantly on the brink of being arrested but never was - his origin from one of the highest noble families may have protected him. His sermons were banned, though. Nevertheless the texts were spread everywhere, copied by hand or typewriter and passed around clandestinely. In 1946 Clemens August was nominated cardinal but died soon after. He was buried in the middle chapel.
In 2005 Pope John Paul II declared him blessed. An inscription in the metal plate in the pavement states that the Pope had visited the grave to pray here in 1987. A bronze portrait bust of Clemens August has been put up in the aisle opposite his grave.


The Cloister



The gothic cloister behind the cathedral serves as graveyard for the members of the chapter, suffragans and other clerics, while the bishops are buried in the crypt inside the cathedral.
The hooded figure on top of the monument in the centre is not a Madonna, as it may seem from afar, but - Death.


The cloister contained the entrance to the Treasure Chamber of the Dom. For anyone interested in sacral art, this museum used to be a must. Due to structural problems of the building it has been closed for good in 2017. It is still awaiting a decision how and where the treasure is going to be presented in the future.
The photo shows it as it used to be. This is just a small part of their collection of historical vestments for mass. The treasure includes gold and silver artefacts, relics of saints, vasa sacra and textiles from all times back to the Romanesque era. Let's hope they will soon find an adequate solution to reopen it to the public.




A wide square extends along the western side of the Dom. It allows to see the full extent of the cathedral’s length from the two steeples in the west to the high choir in the east.


A large farmers' market takes place twice a week in Domplatz: on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. It fills more or less the whole square. The stalls sell all kinds of fruit and vegetables and other groceries, fish and meat and bread and cheese and whatever fresh food you can think of. There is a „cheese lane“ and a „bakers lane“ and a „butchers lane“ and so on. Some sell specialities, like spices, jam, honey, mediterranean specialities like olives and other marinated vegetables, Dutch liquorice... Flowers and garden plants are also available in abundance. If you like markets, this one is worth a visit. On Saturdays it will be extremely crowded because tout Münster do their weekend shopping there. On Wednesdays it is still busy but less overrun. Go in the morning as the stalls pack up and leave between 12.00 and 13.00.
At all other times, a large part of the square serves as a parking lot, which does not necessarily add to its atmosphere.

Kurien: Houses of the Canons

Kettler'sche Doppelkurie

The members of the cathedral’s chapter each had a house in the vicinity of the cathedral. Houses which are better described as ‘manors’ – a very nice type of company housing.
Two baroque „curiae“ still exist in Domplatz - three, in fact, because one of the buildings, Ketteler'sche Dopelkurie, combines two under one roof (hence the two portals) with a representative staircase in the middle.
The other one hosts the Generalvikariat, the central administration of the diocese.
And there is a third one, a few steps away in the street opposite Landesmuseum, currently undergoing restorations and blocked off by the fence of the construction site.
The design of all of them follows the same principle. The main building is separated from the street by a front yard, closed by a fence. The main wing has a risalite with a small gable in the middle. Two lower side wings embrace the front yard.

Westfälisches Landesmuseum


The museum contains a large permanent collection about history, art and culture of the region of Westfalen and the diocese of Münster. Among their treasures there are the original medieval statues from the cathedral and other churches in Münster. It also shows temporary exhibitions. The museum is owned and operated by the Federal State and the biggest museum in the city.

Our excursion of the Dom in September 2014 took us also into the Landesmuseum to see some additional pieces of particular value or delicacy that could not be kept inside the church. The museum has just been reopened after five years of closure for construction works. The size of the building and the room for exhibitions has doubled due to the new wings that have been added. Their art treasures, from the middle ages to contemporary art, now have lots of space around them and can be viewed much better than previously. The modern architecture is worth a look, too. A visit is highly recommended!

„Churching“ in Münster

In addition to the cathedral itself, there are many more opportunities for our favourite pastime called “churching”. The city is full of churches and chapels. First, there are the big parish churches of the city, namely Überwasserkirche, St Lamberti and St Ludgeri. Many religious orders had and/or still have their convents in town.

During a conference excursion, we visited an architect's office located on the top floor of a modern building opposite the theatre. They had a rooftop terrace, from where I caught these exceptional views:
Towards Dom and Überwasserkirche. In the background, in front of those trees just left of Überwasser steeple, you can spot the roof of the palace. The trees on the light hill belong to the park and botanical garden. The two highrises behind are the university hospital. The academy is located in the same direction but hidden behind the hill.
St Lamberti over the rooftops



St Lamberti is the city parish church in Prinzipalmarkt, catholic of course. Its blackened gothic spire is a landmark in the city’s skyline. The facades are decorated with rich gothic and neogothic sculpture. The interior is a wide gothic hall with three naves of equal height.

When and where Münster Made History I: The Anabaptists’ Empire (1534)


The steeple of Lamberti gives testimony of a dramatic episode in Münster’s history to this very day. Three metal cages are attached to the big window above the clock face. Those cages once contained the corpses of the executed leaders of the Anabaptist revolution in 1534.
In the age of the Reformation certain groups did not go with the ‘official’ evangelical theology but developed their own doctrines. They did not accept the baptizing of little babies who cannot decide for themselves but postulate people to be baptized only as adults when they are able to understand what this is about. They also refused to accept any worldly authorities. Rumours spread that they were even planning armed riots. Those radical sects, known as Wiedertäufer (Anabaptists), were persecuted as dangerous heretics everywhere in Germany, tortured and executed when caught.


In 1534 the Anabaptists conquered the city of Münster and created their own state here. The Bishop had to flee. However, the Bishop returned, supported by other Princes, with an army and besieged the city. After a year the Anabaptist’s reign fell. Punishment was severe.
The leaders of the Anabaptist revolution were executed and their corpses enclosed in iron cages which were attached to the steeple of St Lamberti so that ravens and crows would eat the flesh and bones. A shameful grave for the whole city to see. The cages were meant to stay up there forever, as a warning for anyone with similar heretic notions. And there they are to this very day. Yes, they are really empty now!

Überwasserkirche, the church “over the water“, is located, seen from the city centre, beyond the Aa river that flows along the western side of the cathedral hill. It is the parish church of the northwestern quarter. A short walk from Domplatz across a small bridge takes you there. The church's striking feature is its fat, spireless steeple which reminds of English and French churches and forms a significant landmark in Münster’s skyline.


After a renovation and a longer period of closure, the church is now reopened. The Interior is accessible all day. The main portal through the spire is usually open. Note the Madonna on the trumeau, the middle pillar between the two doors - probably 19th century, but what a charming look.
The late gothic interior is a hall with three naves of equal height. The modern glass windows in the choir add colourful light. The church appears rather plain at first sight, but some historical art works are preserved. Other pieces had to be substituted by modern ones after the war. The baroque baptismal font caught my eye. The gilded serpent slung around the pedestal symbolizes sin and the devil, which are overcome by the Lord's promise of redemption in baptism. The modern tabernacle in the northern side nave is also worth a closer look, as well as the new bronze portal on the southern side.



The parish church of the southern quarter of the old town was founded in the late 12th century. The nave was built around 1200 in Romanesque forms but underwent some repairs and changes after a fire in 1383. The higher choir and the upper part of the central spire were added in the 14th century. The central spire has never had a pointed peak. Instead it ends in open gothic tracery that looks like a crown.
The two front steeples are 19th century addition but substitute the Romanesque steeples that had been destroyed in the fire of 1383. The interior hosts a couple of precious art works, both medieval and modern.

Jesuitenkirche St Petri, the Church of the University


The former church of the Jesuit college, now the catholic high school church of St Petri, was built in 1590-1597. It is located in the university quarter. The architect was a Johann Roßkott. It was the first church built by the Jesuits in the Rhenish province of the order, thus an important example of early Jesuit architecture. The architecture is a mix of renaissance and late gothic elements. The Jesuits often used the gothic style in their churches, although the middle ages were long over and other styles were en vogue, to emphasize the long tradition of the true Christian (read: Roman Catholic) church and faith.



This one is a jewel. Münster’s only baroque church was built by Johann Conrad Schlaun in 1745 - 1753. The octagonal church is crowned by a dome - deriving from the model of baroque architecture in Rome and finally from the ancient Pantheon. The dome is decorated with a fresco that reveals a (painted) view into heaven. Restoration works had it closed for some years. However, these works are finished. The church can now be admired in all its freshly polished splendour. Outside mass and services the church can only be viewed through the wrought-iron gate behind the entrance door, unfortunately. During a conference tour we were able to enter, though.



Protestant Chapel of St John


Yes there are also protestant Christians in Münster. Being a minority, they make little appearance in the centre, though. In central Münster they have two former Franciscan convent churches (Observantenkirche and Apostelkirche) and a cute little gothic chapel, Johanneskapelle.
The 14th century chapel of St John is hidden in a walled courtyard on the edge of the old town, not far from Buddenturm, the only remaining tower of the medieval fortifications. It was built in the 14th century for the convent of Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. The order is long gone from Münster. Later on the Franciscans used the chapel; the main portal and a few tombstones and epitaphs are preserved from that era. Since 1811 it was empty and used for profane purposes.
After World War II it was given to the protestant parish community. Protestants are still a minority in catholic Münster - the first protestant community was founded when the city became Prussian in the 19th century. Only after the war a larger number of protestant people settled in the city.
The chapel is open in the daytime - at least it was when I passed. The architecture is not too overwhelming, but most likely you'll be all alone in there. The acoustics is fine for singing a little hymn...

Dominikanerkirche and the Foucault Pendulum


Even Münster feels the impact of our secular times, with more and more members leaving the big churches. The city has more than enough churches. The diocese had to make some hard decisions which one to give up as places of holy service and find a profane use for.
The most prominent affected ex-church in the centre is the one of the former Dominican convent. The baroque church building in Salzstraße, right in the pedestrianized shopping street, has been profaned in 2017. A big art work by the artist Gerhard Richter has been installed under the dome. It consists of a Foucault pendulum reflected in two huge mirrors. Chairs invite to sit down for a meditative watch of the pendulum.

Former Dreifaltigkeitskirche


This is a place we visited during a conference excursion. That year the conference dealt with the profanation of churches due to diminishing numbers of church members, and how to find new uses. Trinity Church was erected as parish church for a suburb in the north of the city in 1937 – 1939.


After the fusion of three parishes, the church became obsolete. It was turned into a housing project for homeless people, together with some offices that were rented out to businesses in order to have some incoming money. Architects found an interesting solution how to deal with the present building. From the outside its shape remained undisturbed. Inside, they installed three or four storeys with a glass corridor in the middle. Only in the apsis, where they installed the elevator, a few original items recall the former function as a church.


Sequels (to come):
Münster Part II: The Secular City
Münster Part III: Around Aasee

Posted by Kathrin_E 21:43 Archived in Germany Tagged churches münster nordrhein-westfalen

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What a fascinating read! The conferences you attended here sound very well planned and organised - I have organised/attended/spoken at more than enough conferences in my time to know what works well for delegates! I'm trying to decide, based on your photos, whether or not I like the 1950s wall on the cathedral. From the inside for sure, outside though I think I would have to see for myself. But I definitely like the adaptions of those churches now used for secular purposes - they seem to have been very well thought-out.

by ToonSarah

Thank you for visiting! Yes, those conferences were really brillant. It's sad that they are not having them any more.

by Kathrin_E

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