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"Dom", "Kathedrale" and "Münster" all translate as "cathedral" in English. When I searched online, all explanations were in German and I could not quite understand them.

Is there any difference in meaning between these three words, or is it just a matter of habit which one is chosen?

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Dom == Kathedrale ("Kölner Dom",e.g., is translated as "Cologne Cathedral") -> episcopal church. Münster is translated as minster. It's not connected to bishops, it's a "monastery church". –  Em1 Apr 19 '13 at 10:31
Ich frage mich, ob ein Münster nicht auch eine Bauform mit nur einer Spitze/einem Turm ist, und ob ein Dom nicht zwingend eine runde Kuppel haben muss. –  user unknown Apr 21 '13 at 22:55

5 Answers 5

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I would translate "Münster" as Minster, "Dom" as Duomo and "Kathedrale" as Cathedral. The difference is:

  • A Münster is a old german word for 'big church' and is not used today, execpt in proper names.
  • A Dom (or Domkirche) is used for special and important churches (it also occurs in proper names but not only).
  • A Kathedrale is a church which contains the seat of a bishop.
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According to the standard reference guide to European architecture Baustilkunde by Wilfried Koch (2005), a „Kathedrale“ (English: cathedral; French: cathédrale; Spanish: catedral; Italian: cattedrale) is a church that contains the seat of a bishop. A „Kathedrale“ is called „Dom“ in North Germany or „Münster“ in South Germany. However, in Germany, „Dom“ and „Münster“ may also refer to a city’s main church without a bishop:

Kathedrale, Bischofskirche einer Stadt, in Norddeutschland → Dom, in Süddeutschland → Münster genannt.

Dom (lat. domus Die = Haus Gottes), Bischofskirche, in Deutschland auch Hauptkirche einer Stadt ohne Bischof. In Süddeutschland auch → Münster genannt. → Kathedrale

Münster (lat. monasterium = Kloster), süddeutsche Bez. für → Dom. M. hieß ursprünglich die gesamte Klosteranlage, dann nur die Klosterkirche. Heute Name einer → Kathedrale oder städtischen Hauptkirche.

Note: The part „Dom“ of some German names for foreign religious buildings is not necessarily related to “cathedral”, but maybe to “dome”, e.g.:

  • Invalidendom (French: Dôme des Invalides), Napoleon I’s tomb in Paris
  • Felsendom (English: Dome of the Rock), a shrine located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

Since the correct German word for “dome” (an element of architecture that resembles the upper half of a sphere) is „Kuppel“ (from Latin “cupula”; similar to English “cupola”), such names might be considered false friends.

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The use of "Münster" is not restricted to South Germany. The famous Doberaner Münster is quite up in the North. AFAIK it has never been a bishop's seat, the name clearly comes from being a monastery church. Bad Doberan has been a city only since 1879, so a "a city's main church" doesn't fit well either. –  Matthias Oct 23 '14 at 8:58

I recently visited the tallest church in Germany - the "Ulmer Münster". The guide told us that the citizen of the city of Ulm paid for the church (medieval crowd sourcing :-)). It was considered a citizen's church - therefore it was not called Dom. According to the same lady a Dom would be a church with a bishop.

The problem with this explanation is that - to my knowledge - the Münster of Freiburg i. Br. is the place of an arch bishop.

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Never trust a city tour guide. I once attended a tour of Dresden, whose guide claimed easily debunkable stuff like Dresden being the third-largest German city by area. –  Wrzlprmft Apr 23 '13 at 19:17

I just read the wikipedia entry, what would be correct (which was interesting).

The following information is more from common language: "Münster" is normally not used in germany on its own. It is more used on places of interest that kept it as a special name. ( Another reason might be a city called "Münster" which might lead to confusion )

"Kathedrale" is also (beside the usage of a bishops seat) used just for expressing the size of a church.

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I disagree. The is a church in Rheinmünster-Schwarzach which was a monastry until 1806 which is just called "Das Münster". No location names attached :-). –  Steffen Roller Apr 23 '13 at 3:37

They are quite similar, but the etymology is different.

A "Kathedrale" is a church of a bishop's see. "Münster" and "Dom" not necessarily, like the Ulmer Münster and the Petersdom (St. Peter's basilica).

"Dom" comes from Latin "domus dei" - "house of God". "Münster" was derived from Latin "monasterium" - monastery. In English, it formed the word "minster" (at least in British English).

Basically, most churches simply have their names and there just happen to be 3 names for bigger churches. When you talk about churches in general, you still call them "Kirche", sometimes "Kathedrale" if you want to stress that it's a monumental building. So this should answer the habit part of your question. In everyday talking, people might even call a "Dom" or a "Münster" a "Kathedrale" - just because this is the most common word.

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In my experience oftentimes it's the other way around: People call the seat of a bishop a "Dom", even if the term "Kathedrale" would be correct as well. So maybe it's a regional thing which term is used more often? –  0x6d64 Apr 19 '13 at 12:50
Like I said, people use whatever they like - most of the time. Maybe it also depends on your religion... The German wikipedia agrees with what I wrote: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathedrale#Benennungen –  Anke Apr 19 '13 at 13:17
In my experience there are no german "Kathedralen" - all of these churches in Germany(/Austria/Switzerland?) are called "Dom". "Kathedrale" is used for foreign churches called "cathedral". –  Martin Schröder May 1 '13 at 14:05
That's just because lots of German cathedrals are named "Dom" or "Münster". None of these specific names involve "Kathedrale", as far as I know, so it is used less for German than for foreign churches. –  Anke May 2 '13 at 6:19

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