Climbing Saint John’s Cathedral in Den Bosch

Saint John’s Cathedral in Den Bosch, officially known as the Cathedral Basilica of Saint John the Evangelist, is one of the largest and most beautiful churches in the Netherlands. This summer, it is possible to climb Saint John’s Cathedral. Of course, travel companion A. and I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.

The city of Den Bosch, The Netherlands, as seen from the adjacent nature reserve
Saint John’s Cathedral as seen from the Bossche Broek

Brabantine Gothic

Saint John’s Cathedral is considered the pinnacle of Brabantine Gothic architecture. Construction of the church took place over a span of three centuries starting from 1220. In the five centuries that followed, the maintenance and restoration of the monument have been a continuous point of attention. To raise funds for this maintenance, the public has the opportunity to climb the cathedral this summer.

Saint John's cathedral in Den Bosch, The Netherlands, as seen from Parade Square
Saint John’s Cathedral with scaffolding and a white van


The event, titled “The Adventurous Ascent,” is made possible due to the replacement of the slate on the roof. The scaffolding installed for this purpose could be adapted with minor adjustments to accommodate a large audience.

Rich gothic ornamentation on the south facade of Saint John's cathedral in Den Bosch, the Netherlands
Brabantine Gothic

Hundred years

Once the slate is replaced, such scaffolding will not be built again for quite some time. According to the website, it is the last opportunity in a hundred years to do the ascent. For travel companion A. and myself, it was a good reason to take the train to Den Bosch. After all, it is highly uncertain if we will still be here at the beginning of the next century, let alone be able to climb all those stairs.

Looking down from the roof of Saint John's cathedral in Den Bosch, The Netherlands towards the gothic elements of the construction
Looking down from the ridge

Ridge and tower

The ascent consists of three parts. The first stop is the landing at approximately 30 meters. From there, the stairs continue upwards to a platform above the ridge of the roof. Finally, there is a little climb to a walkway around the Celebration Tower.

Sculpture of Saint John the Baptist on Saint John's cathedral in Den Bosch, The Netherlands, with the Province office in the background
Saint John the Baptist and the Provincial Government House


At the highest point, we are about fifty meters above ground level. That’s in fact not very high. However, since there aren’t many tall buildings in the city center of Den Bosch, we can see all the way to the horizon in almost every direction. The bridge at Zaltbommel is visible, as well as the Westpoint Tower in Tilburg. The skyline of Rotterdam lies beyond the horizon, but hey, Roffa is sixty kilometers away.

The New Church of Saint Jacob in Den Bosch, The Netherlands, as seen from the tower of Saint John's cathedral
New Saint Jacob’s Church


But there is also plenty to see closer by. Den Bosch, as befits a Catholic city, has quite a number of churches and monasteries. The Bossche Broek, a nature reserve directly adjacent to the city center, is also remarkable.

Two of the many sculptures of craftsmen on Saint John's cathedral in Den Bosch, The Netherlands
Sitting on the flying buttresses


But the best view is of something even closer: the rich detailing of Saint John’s Cathedral itself. The church is adorned on all sides with sculptures that are normally never seen from such a close distance. Countless sculptors have toiled over numerous refined details over the past centuries, and ordinary mortals never get to see them. Except now, during this special event.

Scultpture of a craftsman on a support structure on Saint John's cathedral in Den Bosch, The Netherlands

Flying buttresses

The buttress figures in particular stand out, small statues placed on the support structures of the cathedral. They often depict craftsmen and musicians, as well as a few animals. Sitting astride their flying buttress, they look up in awe at the devilish figures through which rainwater was drained in earlier times.

Sculpture with two figures on a support structure on Saint John's cathedral in Den Bosch, The Netherlands
Monkey with child

Mobile phone

Perhaps the most famous statue on Saint John’s Cathedral is the angel with the mobile phone. Obviously, that’s not a medieval sculpture; this angel, created by sculptor Ton Mooy, has only been there since 2010. Unfortunately, it is not directly along the climbing route, so we couldn’t check whether the angel has the latest model from Apple or Samsung.

The angel with the mobile phone on Saint John's cathedral in Den Bosch, The Netherlands
The angel with the mobile phone


When viewed up close, it becomes immediately clear why a cathedral like this is under constant restoration. Lichens flourish on slates, natural stone, and sculptures. Along with other signs of the times, this creates beautiful and highly photogenic patterns. I could look at them for hours. But I can imagine that in time, little of the monument would remain if the ravages of time were not occasionally held in check.

Stone wall as part of Saint John's cathedral in Den Bosch, The Netherlands, with moss, lichen and other signs of ageing
The ravages of time


In any case, it wasn’t for lack of effort on our part. The proceeds from our admission tickets go directly to the restoration funds. And in return, we have gained a once-in-a-lifetime experience…

Close-up of a roof with slate, largely covered with lichen
Lichen and slate

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