July 2021. A week after my Eindhoven escapade featuring the DAF Museum and a night at Hotel Mariënhage, I travelled to Utrecht for a culinary weekend with Steve. At that time, the Netherlands were very liberal concerning coronavirus countermeasures. That was both concerning and liberating at the time.
After dropping off our luggage in a Utrecht Centraal locker, we walked to the Domkerk or Dom Church. The Dom Tower was unfortunately covered by scaffolding.
St. Martin’s Cathedral or Dom Church is a Gothic church dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours, which was the cathedral of the Diocese of Utrecht during the Middle Ages. It is the country’s only pre-Reformation cathedral, but has been a Protestant church since 1580.
It was once the Netherlands’ largest church, but the nave collapsed in a storm in 1674 and has never been rebuilt, leaving the tower isolated from the east end.
The building is the one church in the Netherlands that closely resembles the style of classic Gothic architecture as developed in France. All other Gothic churches in the Netherlands belong to one of the many regional variants. Unlike most of its French predecessors, the building has only one tower, the 112-metre-high (367 ft) Dom Tower, which is the hallmark of the city.
The first chapel in Utrecht was founded around 630 by Frankish clergy under the patronage of the Merovingian kings but was destroyed during an attack of the Frisians on Utrecht shortly thereafter. The site of this first chapel within Utrecht is unknown. Saint Willibrord, who died 739 and was the Apostle to the Frisians, established a second chapel devoted to Saint Martin on (or close to) the site of the current building.
This church was destroyed by the Normans in the 9th century during one of their many raids on Utrecht, but was reconstructed by Bishop Balderic in the 10th century.
The church was repeatedly destroyed by fires and then rebuilt. A Romanesque style church was built by Bishop Adalbold and consecrated in 1023.
This building, also known as Adalbold’s Dom, was partially destroyed in the fire of 1253 which ravaged much of Utrecht, leading Bishop Henry van Vianen to initiate the construction of the current Gothic structure in 1254.
The construction of the Gothic cathedral continued into the 16th century. The first part to be built was the choir. The Dom Tower was started in 1321 and finished in 1382. After 1515, steadily diminishing financing prevented completion of this building project, of which an almost complete series of building accounts exists.
In 1566, the Beeldenstorm or Iconoclast Fury swept across much of the Low Countries, justified by the Calvinist belief that statues in a house of God were idolatrous images which must be destroyed. As a result, many of the ornaments on both the exterior and interior of the cathedral were destroyed.
In 1580 the Utrecht city government devolved the cathedral from the Diocese of Utrecht to local Calvinists. From then on Protestant services were held in the building with one brief exception, in 1672 and 1673, during the Franco-Dutch War, when Catholic masses were again held in the cathedral.
A year after the French retreat, the still unfinished and insufficiently supported nave collapsed on 1 August 1674 during a massive storm that caused a tornado. Over the subsequent centuries, much of the enormous building fell into further neglect. The pitiable state of the cathedral led to some small restoration activities in the nineteenth century, followed by major renovations in the early twentieth century with the aim of returning the Cathedral to its original state. However, the nave was never rebuilt.
The Roman Catholic Church remained strong within Utrecht following the Reformation but was legally obliged to worship discreetly in clandestine churches (schuilkerken). One of these churches, St. Gertrude’s, later became the principal cathedral of the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands.
The Catholic Church, during the 1853 reestablishment of the episcopal hierarchy in the Netherlands, designated the former St. Catherine’s Church of the Carmelites as the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Utrecht.
What remains of St. Martin’s today are the choir, the transept and the Dom Tower.
The central nave of the cathedral which collapsed in the storm of 1674 is now a square with large trees, the Domplein. Stones in various colours indicate in the pavement the original outlines of the church.
In 2004, 750 years after construction began, the collapsed parts were temporarily rebuilt in scaffolding material. The scaffolding was also blown down in a storm, like the original nave.
In 2013 a project has started to expose archaeological artifacts of the St. Martin cathedral. That can be visited. It’s called DOMUnder.
A cloister and a chapter house, which is now the main hall of Utrecht University, are also still standing. The Union of Utrecht, a founding document of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, was signed in the chapter house.
You can visit the Dom Church for free. Don’t expect opulent decorations, as it is a Protestant church. You can also climb up the tower, which we didn’t.
You can access the garden through a gate between the church and the university building.