• World

The Never-Ending Facelift

4 minute read

In the first of his famous epistles to the recalcitrant Corinthians, the Apostle Paul decreed: Mulier taceat in ecclesia [women should be silent in church]. To Barbara Schock-Werner, however, his command does not apply. Ever since she became Europe’s first female cathedral master builder in 1999 — at Cologne’s mighty Gothic cathedral — the 54-year-old has been expected to raise her voice loudly in church every day, if only to the congregation of artisans she supervises.

Aside from fulfilling the main prerequisites of a cathedral master builder — “being Catholic and having a good head for heights” — Schock-Werner has a professional versatility that cut her out for the challenging job of caring for the 753-year-old sandstone colossus, whose crumbling walls and 157-m-high twin spires require the permanent attention of some 100 stonecutters, roofers, smiths, glaziers and sculptors. An apprenticeship as a draftswoman, an engineering degree and a subsequent job in an architect’s office prepared her for the innumerable construction needs of the ancient edifice, but her Ph.D. and professorship in art history have stood her in good stead when it comes to restoring as faithfully as possible the cathedral’s many statues and ornaments.

Besides being an accomplished scholar Schock-Werner, who comes from a family of craftsmen, is a hands-on artisan. Since she learned how to put trowel to mortar and saw to plank in a 15-month bricklaying and carpentry internship, she doesn’t hesitate to get her hands dirty in the details of renovation work. “This job is not only fascinating because it allows me to interact with a truly important objet d’art every day,” she enthuses. “It calls on all my skills, practical, scientific and organizational.”

Heading the Cologne cathedral construction workshop — the largest in the country — has another important attraction, for both Schock-Werner the artisan and Schock-Werner the art historian. “Here old crafts traditions are not only in great demand,” she says, “but are passed on in great diversity.” These days self-employed stonecutters, for instance, usually spend their working hours producing nothing but simple tombstones and marble slabs. Those who work under the Ludwigsburg-born master builder, however, have the rare opportunity to try their hand at ornate Gothic finials and capitals, grotesque gargoyles and smiling saints.

Reconciling the demands of an edifice that is simultaneously “a house of God, a historical monument and a major tourist attraction” is one of the most difficult challenges Schock-Werner faces. More than 20,000 people visit the cathedral every day, dragging in dirt and dust along with them. Aside from repairing the still-visible war damage to the building’s façade, fixing what the tourists ruin is what keeps Schock-Werner and her colleagues busy most of the time. “We have to remember that the Dom is a church first and foremost,” she says. “So sometimes we have to protect it from its many admirers.”

Although work on Germany’s oldest building site can often resemble the labors of Sisyphus, Schock-Werner is humbled by the thought that she’s “just one link” in the long chain of master builders who have cared for the cathedral since its foundations were laid in 1248. And she’s undaunted by the never-ending list of renovations. “Everyone who owns a house knows that there’ll always be chores to do,” she says. “The same goes for a historical edifice like our cathedral. As long as we can manage to keep pace with the dilapidation process, we’re okay. So far, we’ve been able to do so.” Perhaps it’s fortunate that Schock-Werner doesn’t expect ever to run out of things to do at Cologne’s most famous landmark. After all, as a local adage has it, “When the cathedral is finished, the world will come to an end.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com