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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

6 Answers 6

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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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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: – 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

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

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

Short version first: A Dom is cathedral - as a physical building or otherwise. A Kathedrale is a Dom in contexts in which the term edifice is not completely out of place. A Münster is a (south German or Swiss) Dom that has always been named that way though nobody remembers why.

The truth is that most native German speakers just don't know the theoretical difference and don't care, and it appears that those people and reference works who have an opinion don't agree with each other. My impression is that, whatever else one can say, the following aspects dominate how the words are used in practice:

  • Today, the word Münster is generally treated as something that only occurs in proper names. You use it precisely for those individual cathedrals for which it has always been used. And possibly when referring in German to a British cathedral known there as a minster. (It's clear from Wikipedia's explanation that that word is similarly problematic, even though its history is a bit different.)
  • Dom is generally used as a short, crisp synonym of Kathedrale, and whenever you are referring to the cathedral in something approaching a figurative sense, rather than the physical edifice itself. A cathedral choir is always a Domchor, never a Kathedralchor (or Münsterchor). Search results for 'Kathedralchor' are dominated by a single choir from Russia which seems to be known under this mistranslated name. Similarly, a cathedral chapter is always a Domkapitel. And so on.
  • With its four syllables, the word Kathedrale is almost four times as long as Dom. And the th makes its Greek origin obvious. Nowadays use of the word is in practice restricted to the building itself in its physical aspects. It seems to be the preferred, more 'neutral' term when talking about architecture. But due to its length and foreign feel people tend not to use it when they tell you to turn right after the cathedral.
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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 Dei = 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

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