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Cologne Cathedral, Germany, bearing the tallest paired spires in the world.
Salisbury Cathedral from the east. 1220-1380. An essay in Early English Gothic with the tallest spire in England.

The cathedral architecture of Western Europe is the architecture of a large group of church buildings, occupying a specific ecclesiastical role, and following a tradition of form, function and style that stems initially from Early Christian traditions of the Roman Empire. The word cathedral takes its name from the word cathedra, or "bishop's throne" (in Latin: ecclesia cathedralis). A cathedral has a specific ecclesiatical role and administrative purpose as the seat of a bishop. It is frequently much larger than a parish church, is architecturally one of the finest structures within its region and is a focus of local pride. Many cathedrals are among the most renowned works of architecture on the planet. These include Notre Dame de Paris, Milan Cathedral, Cologne Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral, Barcelona Cathedral, Ely Cathedral and many more.

The earliest cathedrals date from the Roman Empire. As Christianity and the construction of churches and cathedral spread throughout the world, their manner of building was dependent upon local materials and local techniques. Different styles of architecture developed and their fashion spread, carried by the establishment of monastic orders, by the posting of bishops from one region to another and by the travelling of master stonemasons who served as architects.[1] The styles of the great church buildings are successively known as Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, various Revival styles of the late 18th to early 20th centuries and Modern.[2] Overlaid on each of the academic styles are the regional characteristics. Some of these characteristics are so typical of a particular country or region that they appear, regardless of style, in the architecture of cathedrals designed many centuries apart.[2]

Because this article is primarily concerned with architectural form, several non-episcopal ancient churches, the architecture of which is part of the cathedral oeuvre, are discussed here among the cathedrals. They include the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome; the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna; St Mark's Basilica, Venice; Westminster Abbey, London and St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. Also included here as a modern stylistic representative is Gaudí's incomplete Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.



Coutances Cathedral, the spectacular Gothic interior, looking toward the crossing and chancel.

The role of bishop as administrator of local clergy came into being in the 1st century.[3] It was two hundred years before the first cathedral building was constructed in Rome. With the legalising of Christianity in 313 CE by the Emperor Constantine I, churches were built rapidly. Five very large churches were founded in Rome and, though much altered or rebuilt, still exist today, including the Cathedral of Rome which is San Giovanni in Laterano and also the better-known St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.[4]

The architectural form which cathedrals took was largely dependent upon their ritual function as the seat of a bishop. Cathedrals are places where, in common with other Christian churches, the Eucharist is celebrated, the Bible is read, the Order of Service is said or sung, prayers are offered and sermons are preached. But in a cathedral, in general, these things are done with a greater amount of elaboration, pageantry and procession than in lesser churches. This elaboration is particularly present during important liturgical rites performed by a Bishop, such as Confirmation and Ordination. A cathedral is often the site of rituals associated with local or national Government, the Bishops performing the tasks of all sorts from the induction of a mayor to the coronation of a monarch. Some of these tasks are apparent in the form and fittings of particular cathedrals.[5]

The church that has the function of cathedral is not of necessity a large building. It might be as small as Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford or Chur Cathedral, Switzerland. But frequently, the cathedral, along with some of the abbey churches, was the largest building in any region.[6]

There were a number of reasons for this:

  • The cathedral was created to the Glory of God. It was seen as appropriate that it should be as grand and as beautiful as wealth and skill could make it.[5]
  • As the seat of a Bishop, the Cathedral was the location for certain liturgical rites, such as the Ordination of Priests, which brought together large numbers of clergy and people.
  • It functioned as an ecclesiastical and social meeting-place for many people, not just those of the town in which it stood, but also, on occasions, for the entire region.
  • The cathedral often had its origins in a monastic foundation and was a place of worship for members of a holy order who said the mass privately at a number of small chapels within the cathedral.
  • The cathedral often became a place of worship and burial for wealthy local patrons. These patrons often endowed the cathedrals with money for successive enlargements and building programs.
  • Cathedrals are also traditionally places of pilgrimage, to which people travel from afar to celebrate certain important feast days or to visit the shrine associated with a particular saint. An extended eastern end is often found at cathedrals where the remains of a saint are interred behind the High Altar.[7]

Origins and development of the cathedral building

Plan of old St Peter's, showing atrium (courtyard), narthex (vestibule), central nave with double aisles, a bema for the clergy extending into a transept, and an exedra or semi-circular apse.

The cathedral building grew out of a number of features of the Ancient Roman period-

  • The house church
  • The atrium
  • The basilica
  • The bema
  • The mausoleum - centrally-planned building
  • The cruciform ground plan - Latin or Greek cross

From house church to church

The first very large Christian churches were built in Rome and have their origins in the early 4th century, when the Emperor Constantine first legalised Christianity. Several of Rome's largest churches, notably Santa Maria Maggiore and San Giovanni in Laterano, have their foundation in the 4th century. It is San Giovanni (St John's) and not the more famous St. Peter's Basilica which is the cathedral church of Rome. St Peter's is also of 4th century foundation, though nothing of that appears above the ground.[8]

San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome. The cloister, an arcaded courtyard decorated by the Cosmati family.


The early Christian communities of Rome worshipped secretly in private houses. Eventually churches were built on the sites of many of these houses and still exist today. The churches bore little resemblance to the houses that preceded them, but they drew on one feature, the atrium, or courtyard with a colonnade surrounding it. Most of these atriums have disappeared. A fine example remains at the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome. We see the descendants of these atria in the large square cloisters that can be found beside many cathedrals, and in the huge colonnaded squares or piazze at the Basilicas of St Peter's in Rome and St Mark's in Venice and the Camposanto (Holy Field) at the Cathedral of Pisa.


Cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano. Basilical plan terminates in an apse. Nave transformed by Borromini, 17th century.

Early church architecture did not draw its form from Roman temples, as the latter were not places for massed gatherings. They did not usually have large internal spaces where a worshipping congregation could meet. It was the Roman basilica, used for meetings, markets and courts of law that provided a model for the large Christian church and that gave its name to the Christian basilica. Both Roman basilicas and Roman bath houses had at their core a large vaulted building with a high roof, braced on either side by a series of lower chambers or a wide arcaded passage. An important feature of the Roman basilica was that at either end it had a projecting exedra, or apse, a semicircular space roofed with a half-dome. This was where the magistrates sat to hold court. It passed into the church architecture of the Roman world and was adapted in different ways as a feature of cathedral architecture.[8]

The earliest large churches, such as the Cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome, consisted of a single-ended basilica with one aspidal end and a courtyard, or atrium, at the other end. As Christian liturgy developed, processions became part of the proceedings. The processional door was that which led from the furthest end of the building, while the door most used by the public might be that central to one side of the building, as in a basilica of law. This is the case in many cathedrals and churches.[9]


As numbers of clergy increased, the small apse which contained the altar, or table upon which the sacramental bread and wine were offered in the rite of Holy Communion, was not sufficient to accommodate them. A raised dais called a bema formed part of many large basilican churches. In the case of St. Peter's Basilica and San Paolo fuori le Mura (St Paul's outside the Walls) in Rome, this bema extended laterally beyond the main meeting hall, forming two arms so that the building took on the shape of a T with a projecting apse. From this beginning, the plan of the church developed into the so-called Latin Cross which is the shape of most Western Cathedrals and large churches. The arms of the cross are called the transept.[9]

Mausoleum of Santa Costanza in Rome, a circular chapel built by Constantine in the 4th century.


One of the influences on church architecture was the mausoleum. The mausoleum of a noble Roman was a square or circular domed structure which housed a sarcophagus. The Emperor Constantine built for his daughter Costanza a mausoleum which has a circular central space surrounded by a lower ambulatory or passageway separated by a colonnade. Santa Costanza's burial place became a place of worship as well as a tomb. It is one of the earliest church buildings that was centrally, rather than longitudinally planned. There was another significant place of worship in Rome that was also circular, the vast Pantheon, with its numerous statue-filled niches. This too was to become a Christian church and lend its style to the development of Cathedral architecture.[4][8]

Plan of the Renaissance St Peter's Basilica, showing elements of both central and longitudinal plan.

Latin Cross and Greek Cross

While the churches of Western Europe favoured the longitudinal plan of the so-called Latin cross, the churches of Byzantium favoured the centrally-planned Greek cross surmounted by a dome and with several apses. The greatest of all such buildings is the church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul. These buildings were to later play a part in the development of cathedral architecture in Western Europe.[2][8]

Architectural forms common to most Cathedrals

Note- Because of the diversity in the individual building history of the cathedrals of Western Europe, this list is a generalised one and not all the characteristics pertain to every building. This list is compiled from Banister Fletcher.[2]

Plan of Peterborough Cathedral, 12th century, with later elaboration of both east and west ends.


Most cathedrals have a cruciform groundplan with a nave crossed by a transept. The transept may be as strongly projecting as at York Minster or not project beyond the aisles as at Amiens.


The axis is generally east/west with external emphasis upon the west front, normally the main entrance, and internal emphasis upon the eastern end so that the congregation faces the direction of the coming of Christ. Because it is also the direction of the rising sun, the architectural features of the east end focus on enhancing interior illumination by the sun. Not every church or cathedral maintains a strict east/west axis, but even in those that do not, the terms East End and West Front are used.[10]

Vertical emphasis

There is generally a prominent external feature that rises upwards. It may be a dome, a central tower, two western towers or towers at both ends as at Speyer Cathedral. The towers may be finished with pinnacles or spires or a small dome.

West front of Wells Cathedral showing twin towers and gallery of statues.

West front

The west front is the most ornate part of the exterior with the processional doors, often three in number, and often richly decorated with sculpture, marble or stone tracery. The facade often has a large window, sometimes a rose window or an impressive sculptural group as its central feature. There are frequently twin towers framing the facade.


The majority of cathedrals have a high wide nave with a lower aisle separated by an arcade on either side. Occasionally the aisles are as high as the nave, forming a hall church. Many cathedrals have two aisles on either side. Notre Dame de Paris has two aisles and a row of chapels.


The transept forms the arms of the cathedral. In English cathedrals of monastic foundation there are often two transepts. The intersection where the nave and transept meet is called the crossing and is often surmounted by a small spire called a flèche, a dome or, particularly in England, a large tower with or without a spire.

East end

The east end is the part of the building which shows the greatest diversity of architectural form. At the eastern end, internally, lies the sanctuary where the altar of the cathedral is located.

East end of Bayeux Cathedral showing its high apse and ambulatory, and ornate central tower.
  • Italy and German Romanesque- A rounded end. It may be a lower apse projecting from a higher square end, usual in Italian and German Romanesque. In Italian Gothic there is a high apsidal end, without ambulatory.
  • France, Spain, and German Gothic- The eastern end is long and extends into a high vaulted apsidal end. The eastern aisles are continued around this apse, making a lower passage or ambulatory. There may be a group of projecting, radiating chapels called a chevet.
  • England- The eastern ends show enormous diversity. Several, such as Norwich Cathedral have maintained the apsidal end with ambulatory. Many have projecting chapels of a great variety of forms, sometimes three in number. No English Cathedral prior to the 19th century has a fully developed chevet. In the some, notably Lincoln Cathedral, the east end presents a square, cliff-like form while in most this severity is broken by a projecting Lady Chapel. There are also examples of the lower aisle continuing around the square east end.

Section references:Banister Fletcher,[2] Wim Swaan,[5] Larousse.[11]

See also: Cathedral diagram

Internal features

Nave and aisles of Florence Cathedral

Nave and aisles

The main body of the building, making the longer arm of the cross, where worshippers congregate, is called the nave. The term is from the Latin word for ship. The cathedral is symbolically a ship bearing the people of God through the storms of life. In addition, the high wooden roof of a large church is similarly constructed to the hull of a ship.[12]

The nave is braced on either side by lower aisles, separated from the main space by a row of piers or columns. The aisles facilitate the movement of people, even when the nave is full of worshippers. They also strengthen the structure by buttressing the inner walls that carry the high roof, which in the case of many cathedrals, is made of stone.

The pulpit in the nave of St. Michael and Gudula Cathedral, Brussels, with a magnificently carved narrative in wood


Font, lectern and pulpit

Towards the western end of the nave stands the font, or water basin at which the rite of Baptism is performed. It is placed towards the door because the Baptism signifies entry into the community of the church. Standing to the front of the nave is a lectern from which the Holy Scripture is read. In many churches this takes the form of an eagle which supports the book on its outstretched wings and is the symbol of John the Evangelist. The third significant furnishing of the nave is the pulpit or rostrum from which the sermon is preached and the biblical readings are expounded. The pulpit might be of marble or wood, and may be a simple structure or represent a highly elaborate carved sermon. It is often decorated with the winged figures of a man, a lion, a bull and an eagle, representing the Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.[13]

The choir stalls and sanctuary of Bristol Cathedral, Bristol, England.


The second main division of a cathedral is the area where the services take place and the Holy Office is sung, often by a choir of men and boys. This area of the cathedral is called the Choir or Quire. It may be separated from the nave by a highly decorated screen of wood or stone upon which sits the organ. It often has finely carved and decorated wooden seats called the stalls. The bishop's throne or cathedra is usually located in this space.

The High Altar of Siena Cathedral, Italy, polychrome marble with bronze ciborium and candelabra.


Beyond the quire is the Sanctuary where the Blessed Sacrament is laid on the altar or communion table for the consecration. 'Sanctuary' means 'Holy Place'. The word has passed into modern English with an altered meaning because a criminal who could gain access to this area without capture was thereby given the sanctuary of the church.

Presbytery and chapels

In many cathedrals there is a further area beyond the sanctuary which is called the Presbytery. This is where the priests or monks could make their private devotions. Often there are many additional chapels located towards the eastern end of the cathedral. The chief among these is the Lady Chapel which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In English cathedrals of monastic foundation, there is often a second transept containing chapels.[14]

Conveying the Word

Regardless of the architectural style, cathedrals were in general designed to make an impression upon the populace. They were designed to awe, to teach and to inspire. To these ends they have certain features, which are also common to many abbeys and parish churches. The decoration of a cathedral often followed a scheme which worked progressively from the exterior to the interior and the west to the east.

Christ in Majesty at Autun, rare in having been signed by its creator, Gislebertus.

Doorways of Christ in Majesty

In Romanesque and Gothic Cathedrals there is often a depiction of Christ in Majesty above the central door. There are many famous examples in France, including those at Chartres and Angers. Another subject was the Last Judgement and the weighing of souls. A fine Romanesque depiction is that at Autun. The message here is to repent because the hour of the Lord's coming is close at hand. A recurring motif associated with this is The Ten Virgins. Around the doors, in niches or arcades, or attached to the shafts surrounding the door are often found statues of the faithful, both biblical and saints of the church.

Several of the English Cathedrals had vast sculpture galleries across the west end. These include Lincoln, Salisbury, Wells and Exeter. Many of these have been destroyed or mutilated or have weathered beyond recognition.[11][15]

Poor Man's Bible

Poor Man's Bible window at Canterbury.

For those people who were unable to read or who could not afford to own a Bible, the stories were illustrated around the cathedral, often linking stories of the Gospels with those of the Old Testament, the Acts of the Apostles and sometimes the lives of Saints, creating a Poor Man's Bible. Stories were frequently paired to show how one prefigured the other, e.g. a depiction of the Crucifixion would be paired with a scene of Moses raising a bronze serpent on a pole, the Deposition into the tomb would be accompanied by a scene of Joseph being thrown down the well and the Resurrection would be paired with Jonah being regurgitated by the great fish. The stories might be illustrated in mosaic, painted murals, sculptured panels or stained glass. They might be found around the walls, across the ceilings or on a screen surrounding the choir or sanctuary. Famous examples in stained glass exist at Canterbury and Chartres Cathedrals.[16]

Signs and Seasons

Part of the decorative scheme is often a depiction of God as the Almighty Creator of the universe. As well as showing the Days of Creation, there is often representation of God's order, with everything in its appointed time and place. To this end are shown the Cycle of the Year with its twelve months depicted by the Signs of the Zodiac and the Labours of the Months. This subject is particularly well suited to rose windows.[5][11]

Gryphons, gargoyles, beasts and cherubs

Cathedrals are decorated with a wide variety of creatures and characters, many of which have no obvious link to Christianity. Often the creature was seen to represent some particular vice or virtue or was believed to have a certain characteristic which could serve as a warning or as an example to the Christian believer. One such motif is that of the pelican. It was believed that a pelican was prepared to peck its own breast in order to feed its hungry young. Thus, the pelican became a symbol for the love of Christ for the Church.[11]

Creatures such as hares, geese, monkeys, foxes, lions, camels, gryphons, unicorns, bees, and storks abound in the decorative carvings of capitals, wall arcading, ceiling bosses and the wooden fittings of cathedrals. Some, like the Gargoyles of Notre Dame, are well known to many. Others, like the Blemyah and Green Man of Ripon Cathedral in England, lurk underneath the folding seats or misericords of the Quire.[5][17]

Holy Rood at Bad Doberan Cathedral, Germany

The Rood

The Rood, from the Old Saxon roda, was a large crucifix placed conspicuously in the church or cathedral, often suspended in the Quire or standing on a screen separating either the Quire or the sanctuary from the rest of the church. The suspended roods could either be painted or carved of wood. In England where rood screens have often survived without the rood itself, it was general for the crucifix to have accompanying figures of Mary the Mother of Christ and either John the Evangelist or John the Baptist carrying a banner bearing the inscription "Behold, the Lamb of God". In Italy roods were created by some of the most famous painters and sculptors, such as Giotto, Brunelleschi and Donatello.

The Ghent Altarpiece of the Adoration of the Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, 1432, is a polyptych, made of many panels.

The altar

The culmination of the decorative scheme in a cathedral is associated with the East End, the Sanctuary and High Altar. The message conveyed is always that of Salvation through Christ Jesus, but the method and form that the message takes might vary a great deal. In Italy the eastern focal point of the cathedral might be a glittering gold mosaic in the apse above the altar. In Germany or Spain there might be an enormously ornate Baroque altarpiece, such as the so-called "Transparente" at Toledo.[18] A reredos of carved wood with illustrative panels is found in many cathedrals of France and Germany with several also in England. More frequently, in England, the large stained glass window of the eastern end serves this purpose. There is a magnificent example representing the Apocalypse of St John in York Minster.

Section reference: Clifton-Taylor,[19] Pevsner.[18]

Architectural style in cathedral buildings in Western Europe

Early Christian

The church providing the best idea of an Early Christian cathedral is the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. It has retained much of its original internal arrangement, its vast basilical proportions, its simple apsidal end, its great colonnade supporting a straight cornice rather than arches and some very early mosaic decoration. Santa Sabina, also in Rome, and the Cathedral of Aquileia are some of the few surviving examples of the simplicity of decoration that characterized many of the early Christian basilicas, as did the use of antique parts taken from Roman edifices.[2][4][8]


Ravenna, on the eastern coast of Italy, is home to several vast churches of basilica plan dating from the age of the Emperor Justinian (6th century CE). San Apollinare Nuovo is in plan similar to Santa Maria Maggiore, but the details of the carvings are no longer in the classical Roman style. The capitals are like fat lacy stone cushions. Many of the mosaics are intact.

In the same town stands the uniquely-structured centrally-planned and domed church of San Vitale, of the same date. Its main internal space is 25 m across. The central dome is surrounded by eight apsidal semi-domes like the petals of a flower. There is a complex arrangement of curving arcades on several levels which gives a spatial effect only equalled by the Baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute built a thousand years later a few miles north in Venice. San Vitale was to be imitated in the 9th century in a simplified form by Charlemagne at Aachen, Germany.

In Venice stands the world's best known Byzantine-style church, decorated over many centuries but maintaining its centrally-planned Byzantine form, San Marco's. It is called St Mark's Basilica, not because it is of basilical shape, but because it has been awarded that title. It has a Greek Cross plan, a large dome being surrounded by four somewhat smaller ones. Its decoration, both inside and out, is typical of the Byzantine period in its lavish use of mosaics and polychrome marble veneers.[2][11]

Romanesque- Angoulême Cathedral, France, has a richly decorated facade.


After the decline of the Roman Empire, the building of large churches in Western Europe gradually gained momentum with the spread of organised monasticism under the rule of Saint Benedict and others. A huge monastery at Cluny, only a fraction of which still exists, was built using a simplified Roman style, stout columns, thick walls, small window openings and semi-circular arches. The style spread with monasticism throughout Europe. The technique of building high vaults in masonry was revived. A treatment of decoration evolved that had elements drawn from local Pre-Christian traditions and incorporated zig-zags, spirals and fierce animal heads. The typical wall decorations were painted murals. The Romanesque building techniques spread to England at about the time of the Norman conquest.

Representative of the period are Abbaye aux Hommes (the Abbey of the Men) in Caen, France; Worms Cathedral in Germany, the Cathedral of Pisa with its famous leaning campanile (bell tower), Modena Cathedral and the Parma Cathedral in Italy, and Durham Cathedral and Peterborough Cathedral in England.[2][11][15]


See main article: Gothic architecture
Gothic- Notre Dame de Paris, the most famous Gothic west front in the world.

By the mid 12th century many large cathedrals and abbey churches had been constructed and the engineering skills required to build high arches, stone vaults, tall towers and the like, were well established. The style evolved to one that was less heavy, had larger windows, lighter-weight vaulting supported on stone ribs and above all, the pointed arch which is the defining characteristic of the style now known as Gothic. With thinner walls, larger windows and high pointed arched vaults, the distinctive flying buttresses developed as a means of support. The huge windows were ornamented with stone tracery and filled with stained glass illustrating Bible stories for the edification of those who could not read.

Buildings representative of this period include Notre Dame, Paris; Chartres Cathedral, Reims Cathedral, Rouen Cathedral, Strasbourg Cathedral in France, Antwerp Cathedral in Belgium, Cologne Cathedral in Germany, St Stephen's Cathedral Vienna in Austria, Florence Cathedral, Siena Cathedral, Milan Cathedral in Italy, Burgos Cathedral, Toledo Cathedral and Leon Cathedral in Spain, Guarda Cathedral in Portugal, Salisbury Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral in England.[2][5][11][19]

Early Renaissance- the dome of Florence Cathedral


In the early 15th century a competition was held in Florence for a plan to roof the central crossing of the huge, unfinished Gothic Cathedral. It was won by the artist Brunelleschi who, inspired by domes that he had seen on his travels, such as that of San Vitale in Ravenna and the enormous dome of the Roman period which roofed the Pantheon, he designed a huge dome which is regarded as the first building of the Renaissance period. Its style, visually however, is ribbed and pointed and purely Gothic. It was Renaissance (a rebirth) in its audacity and the fact that it looked back to Roman structural techniques. Brunelleschi, and others like him, developed a passion for the highly refined style of Roman architecture, in which the forms and decorations followed rules of placement and proportion that had long been neglected. They sought to rediscover and apply these rules. It was a time of architectural theorising and experimentation. Brunelleschi built two large churches in Florence demonstrating how the new style could be applied, San Lorenzo's and Santo Spirito. They are essays in the Classical, with rows of cylindrical columns, Corinthian capitals, entablatures, semi-circular arches and apsidal chapels.[20]

High Renaissance- St. Peter's Basilica with Maderno's facade and Michelangelo's Dome.

The greatest cathedral building of the age was the rebuilding of St Peter's Basilica in Rome, the combined work of the architects Bramante, Raphael, Sangallo, Maderno and surmounted by Michelangelo's glorious dome, taller but just one foot narrower than the one that Brunelleschi had built a hundred years earlier in Florence. The dome is both an external and an internal focus. The chancel and transept arms are identical in shape, thus recalling the Greek Cross plan of Byzantine churches. The nave was, in fact, an addition.

Pope Julius II could command the greatest artists of his day as designers. (The role of architect had not yet become a separate one from painter, sculptor or builder.) The product of these many minds is a massive, glorious and unified whole.[2][4][21]


Baroque, St Paul's Cathedral, London, uses a motif of paired columns to create dynamic interplay of spaces.

By the time that St Peter's was completed, a style of architecture was developed by architects who knew all the rules that had been so carefully recovered, and chose to break them. The effect was a dynamic style of architecture in which the forms seem to take on life of their own, moving, swaying and undulating. The name baroque means 'mis-shapen pearl'.

There are many large churches built in this style, but few cathedrals in Western Europe, the notable exceptions being St Paul's Cathedral in London and the Abbey of St Gall (now a cathedral) in Switzerland. Many cathedrals have baroque features, high altars, facades and chapels. The facades of Santiago de Compostela, Jaen Cathedral and Valladolid Cathedral in Spain was rebuilt at this time.

St Paul's is an unusual cathedral in that is was designed by a single individual and completed in a short time. The architect was Sir Christopher Wren and the building replaced the ancient cathedral which burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666. It is in the Baroque style, but it is a very controlled and English sort of Baroque in which Wren creates surprising and dramatic spatial effects, particularly in his use of the dome, which, like Brunelleschi's dome in Florence, spans not only the nave but also the aisles, opening the whole centre of the church into a vast light space.[18][19][22]


Revival styles were not always Gothic. Westminster Cathedral is Byzantine.

The 18th and 19th centuries were a time of expansion and colonisation by Western Europeans. It was also a time of much Christian revival and in England, a considerable growth in the Roman Catholic Church. There was also much industrialisation and the growth of towns. New churches and cathedrals were needed. The Medieval styles, and particularly Gothic, were seen as the most suitable for the building of new cathedrals, both in Europe and in the colonies.

Cathedrals in the Gothic Revival style include Liverpool Anglican Cathedral in England, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York and St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne in Australia.

Not all of the cathedrals that are in a revivalist style are Gothic. Westminster Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, is an eclectic design of predominantly Byzantine style with polychrome walls, domes and a very tall Italian-style campanile. Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral in Canada is a Renaissance revival building based on St Peter's, Rome.[2][19]


In the 20th century building in the Medieval style continued, but in a stripped-down, cleanly functional form, often in brick. A fine example is Guildford Cathedral in England. Another is Armidale Cathedral in Australia.

After World War II traditionalist ideas were abandoned for the rebuilding of the bombed cathedral in Coventry. The old cathedral was actually a large parish church that had been elevated to cathedral status. Its glorious spire fortunately escaped severe damage. The new Coventry Cathedral, of alternating slabs of masonry and stained glass attempts to capture symbolically the sense of an old cathedral church, without attempting to reproduce it. Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral is the 20th century's answer to the centrally-planned church, a vast circular structure with the sanctuary at the centre.[19]

Regional examples

Note- The lists which follow aim to give, in point form, those characteristics of each selected example which typify the architecture of the region. This section does not aim to give a detailed description of each building.

Each list deals with plan, eastern end, crossing, emphasis, special features, sunlight and shadow, decoration, narrative features and things that make the building distinct from those of another region. For more detail, look up the particular building on List of Cathedrals. The method of comparison used here is based upon the descriptions of regional "architectural character" by Banister Fletcher.[2]

The Cathedral of Pisa, with its Baptistry and famous Bell Tower, showing the cruciform plan, apsidal ends, decorative arcading and oval dome.


The Cathedral or Duomo of Pisa with the complex of buildings that surrounds it in the Piazza dei Miracoli is the epitome of the Italian Cathedral. It is a building of the Romanesque Style, built mostly between 1063 and 1092 with some Gothic additions. Many of the features that characterise this building as Italian continued to be employed right through to the Baroque period. Sir Banister Fletcher describes this cathedral as "one of the finest of the Romanesque period" with "marked individuality" and "beauty and delicacy of ornamental features".[2]

Note- This list presents a brief analysis of regional characteristics found in the particular building.[2] For a complete description follow the link to the web page.

  • The plan is a simple well-defined Latin cross.
  • The eastern end of the building and the terminals of the transept have semi-circular apses with no surrounding ambulatory.
  • The crossing is surmounted by a dome which is unusual in being oval, thus prefiguring the flexible use of architectural form of the Baroque period.
  • The various parts of the building are well defined by projection and delineation. The ornamentation serves to define separate architectural units, rather than to merge them, e.g. the vertical stages are separated by horizontal courses, the horizontal bays are defined externally by attached shafts, internally the arcade is separated from the clerestorey level by a cornice.
  • Various functions of the cathedral are isolated in separate buildings. The famous free-standing Campanile demonstrates why this was often the case in Italy- the soft soil of river valleys causes subsidence, while Italy also has a greater frequency of seismic movement than other parts of Western Europe. The Baptistry is an enormous free-standing building with a central space surrounded by a two-storey gallery.
  • The arcade is the dominant decorative feature, running in bands around the cathedral, the baptistry and, most notably, the campanile where it defines each of the eight levels. In the bright sunlight and high sun angle of southern Europe, the effect is to cast horizontal definition across the surface of the building.
  • Architectural details draw upon the Roman art, with capitals of a Corinthian type.
  • Polychrome decoration in stripes of white marble alternating with green, grey or red gives a richness to the surface of the building.
  • The media used for figurative story-telling includes mosaic, sculpture in defined rectangular panels such as the sides of an octacgonal marble pulpit and the panels of the bronze doors.

Section references: Banister Fletcher,[2] Larousse.[11]

Examples of Cathedrals in Italy:

See also List of Cathedrals in Italy


Amiens Cathedral is a Gothic building, 1220–1288, which typifies the cathedrals of northern France. Wim Swaan writes "In the nave of Amiens, Gothic structure and the treatment of the classic, three-stage interior elevation established at Chartres, achieved perfection."[5]

Note- This list presents a brief analysis of regional characteristics found in the particular building.[2] For a complete description follow the link to the web page.

Amiens Cathedral showing the three portals and rose window.
  • The plan is cruciform but the transepts do not project beyond the aisles, giving the church a compact appearance.
  • The eastern end of the building has an apse surrounded by a cluster of lower radiating chapels called a chevet.
  • There is an emphasis on verticality. The vault is supported by flying buttresses.
  • The crossing is surmounted by a delicate open-work spire called a flèche.
  • The various parts of the building are united by architectural features and decoration which emphasise a verticality of design, e.g. there are shafts attached to the columns which commence at the floor and carry upwards through all the vertical stages (arcade, triforium and clerestory) to become the ribs of the vault.
  • The West Front is a very significant feature having three enormous decorated portals, two towers and a rose window. There is an arbitrary quality about the proportions and the towers are of different heights.
  • The façade is divided by vertical buttresses and horizontal courses into a grid of decoration which causes the shadow to fall both vertically and horizontally.
  • The dominant decorative feature is the lace-like stonework which screens the front, decorates the parapets and fills the windows with tracery. The flying buttresses and their pinnacles form a structural lacework which surrounds the exterior.
  • The media used for story-telling are the stained-glass windows and the architectural statuary that surrounds the doors and fills the stone screens of the facade.

Section references: Banister Fletcher,[2] Larousse,[11] Swaan.[5]

Examples of Cathedrals in France:

See also List of cathedrals in France


Lincoln Cathedral is typically English in both style and diversity having been commenced in 1074 and not reaching its final state until the 1540s. Alec Clifton-Taylor described it as: "Probably, all things considered, the finest of English Cathedrals".[19]

Note- This list presents a brief analysis of regional characteristics found in the particular building.[2] For a complete description follow the link to the web page.

Lincoln Cathedral showing Norman portals, Gothic screen and towers in two stages.
  • The plan is a double cross with a large boldly projecting transept and a secondary transept with apsidal chapels towards the eastern end. It has a separate cloister and a decagonal chapter house with enormous flying buttresses.
  • The eastern end is square and is filled by an enormous Gothic window with Geometric tracery.
  • Internally, there is an emphasis upon length and horizontality. The vertical divisions of arcade, triforium and clerestorey are defined by strong horizontal courses. There is a very heavy ridge-rib which runs the length of the Gothic vaulting, carrying the eye along the nave.
  • The crossing of the large transept is surmounted by a 270 ft tower, which for three hundred years supported a spire.
  • The West Front has a sense of disharmonious grandeur, its gable and two tall towers rising in two building stages, Norman and Gothic, behind a vast Gothic screen with niches for hundreds of statues, which terminates in two polygonal pinnacles, each large enough to make a sizable church tower. At the centre three enormous arches frame the windows and the Norman portal.
  • The towers have a very strong vertical emphasis with massive polygonal buttress which cast vertical shadows in the slanting sun. The deeply recessed archways have the same effect, while the sculpture screen is opposingly horizontal.
  • The dominant decorative features internally are the contrast of the dark marble mouldings and ribs against the pale masonry, the regular repetition of arcading and the multiplicity of rib vaults. The effect of regular repetition of simple forms is seen externally on the screen and in the arrangement of windows.
  • The media used for story telling were the stained-glass windows and the carvings. Unfortunately, these were devastated during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Section references: Banister Fletcher,[2] Larousse,[11] Clifton-Taylor.[19]

Examples of Cathedrals in the United Kingdom:

See also List of cathedrals in the United Kingdom


Worms Cathedral dates from 1110 to 1181. With the Cathedrals of Speyer and Mainz it represents a pinnacle of German Romanesque and has spatial qualities and what Banister Fletcher describes as "a picturesque character" which were later skillfully adapted in the many German Baroque churches.[2]

Note- This list presents a brief analysis of regional characteristics found in the particular building.[2] For a complete description follow the link to the web page.

Worms Cathedral showing contrasting forms.
  • The plan is that of a modified Latin cross with slight projection of the transept. The entrance is through a southern porch.
  • The eastern end has an apse, without ambulatory, and the western end has second lower apse, typical of German Romanesque and possibly derived from a free-standing baptistry.
  • Above the crossing and at the western end are short octagonal towers. There are two taller towers flanking the building at either end. Each has a steeply pointed roof, either conical or octagonal.
  • The various sections of the building are massive, clearly-defined units, neatly assembled into a harmonious whole as if built from a child's set of building blocks. There is the sense that the building could be disassembled and rearranged. The massing together of the various parts emphasises the geometric three-dimensionality of each part.
  • The entrance is an ornate Gothic porch, sandwiched between two chapels in a way that emphasises the integrity of each unit. There is no west front, no facade. The building requires looking at as a three dimensional object.
  • The sunlight falls over surfaces that are alternately broad and flat or circular. The details are minimal and the structure of the building is emphasised rather than its features.
  • Externally, it is very simply decorated by flat pilasters and several courses of judiciously-placed blind arcading in the manner of Pisa. Internally space and clarity take precedence over decoration, with the exception of the altarpiece.
  • The media used for story-telling here is the riotous Baroque altarpiece which bursts out of the eastern apse with swathes and cherubs and statues.

Section references: Banister Fletcher,[2] Larousse,[11] Toman.[15]

Examples of Cathedrals in Germany:

See also List of cathedrals in Germany


Burgos Cathedral, commenced in 1221, represents many of the characteristics and is described by Banister Fletcher as "the most poetic of Spanish cathedrals."[2] Note- This list presents a brief analysis of regional characteristics found in the particular building.[2] For a complete description follow the link to the web page.

The west front of the Burgos Cathedral showing the contrast of plain and decorated surfaces.
  • Its ground plan is a Latin cross, with comparatively wide transept. But the plan is made complex and is visually disguised from the exterior by the accretion of numerous side chapels which cluster around it at different angles, and the abutment of the large Bishop's Palace to the south.
  • The eastern end is apsidal with a chevet in the French manner. Several chapels surround the chevet, including the very large Capilla del Condestable.
  • Internally, the building is marked by the breadth of the nave and the openness of its structure. Flat, plain, broad surfaces alternate with those that are richly and diversely decorated.
  • The internal arrangement is typical of a Spanish cathedral in that the Quire is placed to the west of the crossing. Above the crossing is a richly decorated lantern tower.
  • Externally, the various parts of the building cannot be seen together, except at a distance, from which the massive spires, lantern tower and pinnacles of the Capilla del Condestable combine to make a silhouette of great richness.
  • The West Front is modeled on those of Northern France, but differs in the contrast of areas of plain and decorated surfaces. The twin towers of massive proportion, strongly defined buttresses and rich ornament carry spires of open lacework in the German style. There are two further facades, one at each transept end, each with a richly sculptured doorway.
  • The decoration is of great diversity incorporating elements of French Gothic and German Gothic with earlier semi-circular Romanesque forms, Moorish motifs and in the arch of the central door, a Renaissance pediment. A remarkable feature is the placement of two very large screens which resemble traceried window openings, one of three bays at the south transept front and another of two between the western towers.
  • A wealth of architectural and free-standing sculpture, paintings and stained-glass serve to inform the story of the faith.

Section references: Banister Fletcher,[2] Larousse.[11]

Examples of cathedral architecture in Spain:

See also List of cathedrals in Spain

Summary of characteristics

  • Italian cathedrals - Polychrome, defined forms, symmetric plan, domed crossing, free-standing towers
  • French cathedrals - Vertical, unified appearance, compact plan, delicate spire called flèche at crossing, two towers at west front and sometimes transept fronts.
  • English cathedrals - Horizontal, diverse styles, extending plan, large crossing tower perhaps with spire, two towers at front
  • German cathedrals - Massive, block-like, broad plan, octagonal cupola at crossing, multi-towered, one or two tall spires in Gothic period
  • Spanish cathedrals - Spacious, ornate, complex plan, diverse roofline, two towers at west front

Note This summary does not preclude the diversity which occurred at different dates for a variety of reasons. One of the influences on diversity of style was the immigration of master masons who often served as architects. Thus William of Sens set the style of Canterbury, and Milan Cathedral is predominantly German Gothic in style.

Cathedrals of other countries of Europe

with a summary of characteristics

Cathedrals of the British Isles
Bangor Cathedral, Wales
St Mungo's Cathedral, Glasgow Scotland
Armagh CoI, Northern Ireland
  • Bangor Cathedral, Wales, c.1120-c.1880- Typical of the cathedrals of Britain, this small cathedral demonstrates its long history in its architecture, with no attempt to match the successive styles to each other. Early and late Gothic, Gothic Revival and 20th century sit side by side in a single building.[23]
  • St Mungo's, Glasgow, Scotland, 13th century- Built on the site where the bullock stopped the wagon with the body of the saint, this 13th century building is marked by the proportionally large size of its windows and the single central tower which was once shared by other cathedrals and abbeys of Scotland.[2]
  • St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh (Church of Ireland), Northern Ireland, 1834-1840- Founded in the 5th century, the building has been destroyed many times. The present cathedral is a fine example of pre-Victorian Gothic Revival architecture.
Tall spires of Northern Europe
Cobh Cathedral, Republic of Ireland
Roskilde Cathedral, Denmark
Nidaros Cathedral, Norway
  • Cobh Cathedral, Ireland, 1868-1915- Architect, Edward.W.Pugin and others. Cobh Cathedral is in Early French Decorated Gothic style and is one the best examples of 19th century Gothic Revival in Ireland.
  • Roskilde Cathedral, Denmark, c.1150-1300- The combination of simple unadorned brick architecture with copper spires of fanciful and delicate design is typically Danish.[15]
  • Nidaros Cathedral, Norway, 1070-1300- Norwegian Medieval architecture was strongly influenced by journeymen English builders who have designed the western part of this building along the lines of Lincoln Cathedral which it strongly resembles. The long sloping roof and tall wood and copper spire is typical of Norway.[15]
Cathedrals in the Romanesque style
Lund Cathedral, Sweden
Tournai Cathedral, Belgium
Lisboa Cathedral, Portugal
  • Lund Cathedral, Sweden, 1060-1250- This important example of Romanesque architecture is marked by its adherence to the Italian Latin cross plan with simple apse. The massive western towers with their wooden spires are typical of Romanesque throughout Northern Europe.[15]
  • Tournai Cathedral, Belgium, 1100-1255- The building is a combination of massing of Romanesque forms and multiple towers in the German style with French Gothic style chancel and chevet. The architecture of this building was widely influential.[2]
  • Lisbon Cathedral, Portugal, 1147-1500, 1755-20th century- The fortress-like quality, cavernous single doorway, pointed battlements and highly functional appearance of this cathedral is typical of the Romanesque architecture that prevailed, despite acknowledgement to the Gothic style.[24]
Cathedrals in the Gothic style
Utrecht, Netherlands
St Stephen's, Vienna, Austria,
St Vitus Cathedral, Czech Republic
  • Cathedral of Saint Martin, Utrecht, Netherlands, c.1254-1515- The only Gothic cathedral in The Netherlands and the first Gothic building in that country. Modelled after French examples but with only one tower.
  • Stephan's Dom, Austria, 1147-1557– The cathedral has a huge expanse of steep roof with decorative brightly-coloured tiles, Flamboyant tracery, an asymmetrically placed tower and an open-work spire of German style.[2]
  • St. Vitus Cathedral, Czech Republic, 1344-1927- This ornate Gothic cathedral was left incomplete in the medieval period, and continued in the Gothic style in the 19th century. Some Baroque features appear, such as the landmark spire of the southern tower.
Gniezno Cathedral, Poland
St Stephen's Basilica, Hungary
St Gallen Cathedral, Switzerland
  • Gniezno Cathedral, Poland, 12th-17th century- A Brick Gothic building with substantial Baroque additions such as the characteristic lantern turrets on the towers.
  • St Stephen's Basilica, Budapest, Hungary, 1850-1905- This is one of several large and significant churches in Neo-Classical style in Hungary, marked by a pedimented facade and high dome over the crossing.
  • St Gallen Cathedral, Switzerland, 1755-1768- Architect, Peter Thumb. Superficially this monastic building presents a standard West Front with twin towers framing a gabled end. But this is a Baroque Cathedral. The towers are framing the apsidal eastern end in the manner of a German Romanesque church. Every detail has a curving playful quality typical of the Baroque style which spread throughout central and eastern Europe.[25]

See also

St. Andrew's Cathedral, St. Andrews, Scotland

Architectural styles

Architectural features

Decorative features


  1. ^ John Harvey, The Gothic World.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab Sir Banister Fletcher, History of Architecture on the Comparative Method.
  3. ^ Ignatius of Antioch, in Letter to the Ephesians written c.100 CE.
  4. ^ a b c d Pio V. Pinto, The Pilgrim's Guide to Rome.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Wim Swaan, The Gothic Cathedral
  6. ^ "From the earliest part of the Gothic era it was practically inconceivable to build a cathedral that was less than a hundred yards long" p.23 François Icher,Building the Great Cathedrals
  7. ^ Santiago de Compostella, Canterbury Cathedral.
  8. ^ a b c d e Andre Grabar, The Beginnings of Christian Art.
  9. ^ a b Beny and Gunn, Churches of Rome.
  10. ^ An extreme example of this is the new Coventry Cathedral where the "East End" actually faces north, due to the construction of the new building at right angles to the shell of the old building destroyed in the Second World War
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Larousse Encyclopedia of Byzantine and Medieval Art
  12. ^ W. H. Auden, "Cathedrals, Luxury liners laden with souls, Holding to the East their hulls of stone"
  13. ^ T. Francis Bumpus, The Cathedrals and Churches of Belgium.
  14. ^ Gerald Randall, Church Furnishing and Decoration.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Rolf Toman, Romanesque- Architecture, Sculpture, Painting
  16. ^ Walter P. Snyder
  17. ^ The Green Man
  18. ^ a b c Nikolaus Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture
  19. ^ a b c d e f g Alec Clifton-Taylor, The Cathedrals of England.
  20. ^ Giovanni Fanelli, Brunelleschi.
  21. ^ James Lees-Milne, St Peter's
  22. ^ John Summerson, Architecture in Britain
  23. ^ Bangor Cathedral website
  24. ^ Portuguese Ministry of Culture
  25. ^ Switzerland is yours website


  • Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative method, 2001, Elsevier Science & Technology, ISBN 0-7506-2267-9
  • Helen Gardner, Fred S Kleiner, Christin J Mamiya, Gardner's Art through the Ages, 2004, Thomson Wadsworth, ISBN 0-15-505090-7
  • Nikolaus Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture, 1964, Pelican Books, ISBN
  • Rolof Beny, Peter Gunn, The Churches of Rome, 1981, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-671-43447-0
  • T. Francis Bumpus, The Cathedrals and Churches of Belgium, 1928, T. Werner Laurie Ltd, ISBN
  • Alec Clifton-Taylor, The Cathedrals of England, 1967, Thames and Hudson, ISBN 0-500-20062-9
  • Alain Erlande-Brandenburg, The Cathedral: The Social and Architectural Dynamics of Construction , 2009 (new paperback edition), Cambridge University Press
  • Giovanni Fanelli, Brunelleschi, 1980, Becocci, ISBN
  • Paul Frankl/Paul Crossley, Gothic Architecture, 2001 (2nd revised edition), Yale University Press
  • Andre Grabar, The Beginnings of Christian Art, Thames and Hudson, 1967, ISBN
  • John Harvey, The Gothic World, 1100-1600, 1950, Batsford, ISBN
  • John Harvey, English Cathedrals, 1961, Batsford, ISBN
  • Howard Hibbard, Masterpieces of Western Sculpture, 1966, Thames and Hudson, ISBN
  • Rene Huyghe editor, Larousse Encyclopedia of Byzantine and Medieval Art, 1963, Paul Hamlyn, ISBN
  • François Icher, Building the Great Cathedrals, 1998, Harry N. Abrams, ISBN 0-8109-4017-5
  • James Lees-Milne, Saint Peter's, 1967, Hamish Hamiliton, ISBN
  • Pio V. Pinto, The Pilgrim's Guide to Rome, 1974, Harper and Row, ISBN 0-06-013388-0
  • Gerald Randall, Church Furnishing and Decoration, 1980, Holmes and Meier Publishers, ISBN 0-8419-0602-5
  • John Summerson, Architecture in Britain, 1530-1830, 1983, Pelican History of Art, ISBN 0-14-0560-03-3
  • Wim Swaan, The Gothic Cathedral, 1988, Omega Books, ISBN 978-0-907853-48-0
  • Wim Swaan, Art and Architecture of the Late Middle Ages, Omega Books, ISBN 0-907853-35-8
  • Tim Tatton-Brown, John Crook, The English Cathedral, 2002, New Holland Publishers, ISBN 1-84330-120-2
  • Rolf Toman, editor, Romanesque- Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, 1997, Konemann, ISBN 3-89508-447-6
  • Christopher Wilson, The Gothic Cathedral: The Architecture of the Great Church 1130-1530, 1992 (2nd Edition), Thames and Hudson

External links


Romanesque cathedrals

Early Gothic Cathedrals from late 12th to mid 13th centuries

Gothic Cathedrals from mid 13th to 16th centuries


Baroque Cathedral

19th century

20th century


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