Ten Cathedrals to see before you die

Bob Borson —  April 19, 2011 — 118 Comments

This is a topic that has been sitting in my draft box for almost a year – and I thought I should finish it up. Originally I was going to title this the “Top 10 Cathedrals You Should See Before You Stop Seeing Cathedrals” because that’s really what this list is – churches worth going to and checking out – but that title isn’t very good. The list could also have been 100 cathedrals long – I had a hard time stopping with the ones on this list. I suppose what I am trying to say is that this is not my list of the top ten cathedrals, rather it is the first ten cathedrals on this list.

Another reason this post sat in the ‘draft’ section for so long is that I would rather write a single post on each of these cathedrals – except I haven’t been to all of these cathedrals before. That also means I had to go get other people’s photo’s (which I hate doing) to show you what these buildings looked like. I have seen a few of these in person and they are all magnificent … well worth the effort to see them before you stop making the effort to see things.

Right, enough of that, let’s get started. Feel free to add a cathedral to the list in the comment section. I would be interested in hearing what cathedrals you would have put one here (if any). Oh – and for the record, there can only be one cathedral per city for all you La Sainte-Chapelle fans (but feel free to list churches, chapels and the lot as you wish).

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Nidaros Cathedral

Nidaros Cathedral

Trondheim in Sør-Trøndelag county, Norway

Work on the Nidaros Cathedral began in 1070 and was finished sometime around 1300. This is a good example of a Romanesque and Gothic style cathedral and the only one I could think of in Norway.

Nidaros Cathedral is the largest cathedral in Norway and is regarded both as a national shrine and a coronation church. Together with the Archbishop’s Palace, it is one of the largest tourist attractions in the country. Not really sure that’s a good thing but since I’m half Norwegian I can say stuff like that….

image courtesy Merowig Flickr stream

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Sagrada Familia Cathedral

Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Sagrada Familia)

Barcelona, Spain

Sagrada Família is a large Roman Catholic church (not a cathedral but I am including it anyways) in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, and was designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926). Although incomplete, the church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in November 2010 was consecrated and proclaimed a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI.

Though construction of Sagrada Família had commenced in 1882, Gaudí became involved in 1883, taking over the project and transforming the project with his architectural and engineering style—combining Gothic and curvilinear, Art Nouveau forms with ambitious structural columns and arches. Gaudí devoted his last years to the project and at the time of his death in 1926, less than a quarter of the project was complete. Sagrada Família’s construction progressed slowly as it relied on private donations and was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War—only to resume intermittent progress in the 1950s. Construction passed the mid-point in 2010 with some of the project’s greatest challenges remainingand an anticipated completion date of 2026—the centennial of Gaudí’s death.

The completion of the spires will make Sagrada Família the tallest church building in the world as well as the church with the tallest spire in the world.

image courtesy Wolfgang Staudt Flickr stream

Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona

image courtesy Perrimoon Flickr stream

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Notre Dame Cathedral Exterior

Notre Dame de Paris (Notre Dame Cathedral)

Paris, France

Notre Dame de Paris is widely considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture in France and in Europe, and the naturalism of its sculptures and stained glass are in contrast with earlier Romanesque architecture. The first period of construction from 1163 into the 1240’s coincided with the musical experiments of the Notre Dame school.

Notre Dame de Paris was among the first buildings in the world to use the flying buttress (arched exterior supports). The building was not originally designed to include the flying buttresses around the choir and nave, but after the construction began and the thinner walls (popularized in the Gothic style) grew ever higher, stress fractures began to occur as the walls pushed outward. In response, the cathedral’s architects built supports around the outside walls, and later additions continued the pattern. The cathedral was essentially complete by 1345.

I took about a million pictures of this cathedral when I was there in the Summer of 2009, there are so many beautiful things to look at here. Even at 6 years old (then) my daughter enjoyed exploring around this cathedral.

Notre Dame Cathedral Interior

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 Exterior Night

Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of Florence)

Florence, Italy

Santa Maria del Fiore, the Cathedral of Florence, is built as a basilica, having a wide central nave of four square bays, with an aisle on either side. The chancel and transepts are of identical polygonal plan, separated by two smaller polygonal chapels. The whole plan forms a Latin cross. The nave and aisles are separated by wide pointed Gothic arches resting on composite piers.

The dimensions of the building are enormous: 502 feet long, 124 feet wide, and 295 feet at the crossing. The height of the arches in the aisles is an amazing 75 feet, and the height from pavement to the opening of the lantern in the dome is also 295 tall. I have been in this cathedral several times and I am always amazed at the proportions of the dome and the building. There are all sorts of ingenious engineering feats that went into building a dome this large, far too many to cover here. The thing that I do recall most fondly about these stories is that Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the most renown architects and engineers from the Italian Renaissance, didn’t produce a complete documents on how to actually build his design so that he could maintain control over the builders during construction.

Scoreboard!

image courtesy MarcusObal Flickr stream

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Chartres Cathedral

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Chartres Cathedral)

Chartres, France

What makes the Chartres Cathedral special from an art historical viewpoint is its exceptional state of preservation. The majority of the original stained glass windows survive intact, while the architecture has seen only minor changes since the early 13th century. The building’s exterior is dominated by heavy flying buttresses which allowed the architects to increase the window size significantly, while the west end is dominated by two contrasting spires — one, a 349 foott plain pyramid dating from the 1140s, and the other a 377 foot tall early 16th century spire on top of an older tower. Equally notable are the three great facades, each adorned with hundreds of sculpted figures illustrating key theological themes and narratives. The Chartres Cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of the French High Gothic style.

image courtesy Merowig Flickr stream

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Hagia Sophia Cathedral

Hagia Sophia Cathedral

Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia is a former Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later a mosque, and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey and is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture. There is an incredibly long and complex history associated with the cathedral but of particular note is the size of the building itself and the complex structure of the vast interior. The nave is covered by a central dome 182′-5″ from floor level, supported in part by an arcade of 40 arched windows. Repairs to structure have left the dome somewhat elliptical – with the diameter varying between 102′-6″ and 101′-3″.

That is really, really big – particularly so when you think thaat the walls holding up that dome have more mortar in them than masonry. In fact, I think this was the largest cathedral in the world until The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See (Seville Cathedral) was built some 1,000 years later.

image courtesy onerty Flickr stream

Hagia Sophia Cathedral interiorimage courtesy Jaime Crawley (@falloutstudio)

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Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

Galicia, Spain

I don’t really know anything about this cathedral other than I remember it from my college days. It is a mixture of Romanesque, Baroque, and Gothic and was built between 1075 and 1211. If you are a religious person, the cathedral is significant and has been part of a major historical pilgrimage route since the Middle Ages because it is the reputed burial-place of Saint James the Greater, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ.

The cathedral is impressive in size as well – measuring 318 feet long and 72 feet high. The interior preserves its original barrel-vaulted cruciform Romanesque style layout – meaning it consists of a nave, two lateral aisles, a wide transept and a choir with radiating chapels. Compared with many other important churches, the interior of this cathedral gives a first impression of austerity until one enters further and sees the magnificent organ and the exuberance of the choir. This cathedral, through its monumental dimensions, is the largest Romanesque church in Spain and even one of the largest in Europe.

image courtesy slideshow bob Flickr stream

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Winchester Cathedral

Winchester Cathedral

Winchester, England

Winchester Cathedral at Winchester in Hampshire is one of the largest cathedrals in England, with the longest nave and overall length of any Gothic cathedral in Europe. This is another cathedral that I don’t know anything about – other than Jane Austen is buried here in the North aisle of the nave and the gravestone marker doesn’t list her as an author since most of her work was published after she died. Makes me wonder how she got there in the first place.

I really wanted to include a cathedral in England on this list and since I’ve actually been to Saint Paul’s church in London, I’m thinking I should have gone with that obvious selection. I think Winchester is a beautiful example of Gothic Architecture – maybe someone who has been there can stand up for this building. Based on the image below, the interior really does look spectacular.

image courtesy Charles D P Miller Flickr stream

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Winchester Cathedral Nave

image courtesy David Spender Flickr stream

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St. Basil's Cathedral

The Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat (Saint Basil’s Cathedral)

Moscow, Russia

Saint Basil’s Cathedral is a Russian Orthodox church erected on the Red Square in Moscow in 1555–1561. The most interesting piece of information regarding this cathedral is that the building’s design, shaped as a flame of a bonfire rising into the sky, has no analogues in Russian architecture.

What?! That’s right. There is no documented precedent for this style of architecture in Russia. Other than that, you know that this cathedral had to be on the list – it had to! I’m sure that many of the people who might accidentally read this post – regardless of where they came from – have seen this building before. I would also venture a guess that not one person in a hundred (Russian’s excluded) could have told me the name. A mega-bonus up points if you knew the real name – The Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat – and not just Saint Basil’s.

Don’t lie – you didn’t know it.

image courtesy Erik Charlton Flickr stream

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Washington National Cathedral

Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul (Washington National Cathedral)

Washington D.C., United States

Of neogothic design, it is the sixth largest cathedral in the world and the second largest in the United States.  Unlike most of the cathedrals on this list, the Washington National Cathedral was built with many intentional “flaws” in keeping with an apocryphal medieval custom that sought to illustrate that only God can be perfect – most of these flaws are in the form of assymetries.

I did a little “research” and read up on this cathedral on wikipedia and found out that there is a sculpture of Darth Vader placed up high in the northwest tower – the result of a competition for children to design decorative sculptures.

Really? … Anybody in DC want to send me a picture of that? If I get one, I’ll add it in here for everybody else to see.

image courtesy DeusXFlorida Flickr stream

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Washington National Cathedral

image courtesy eviltomthai Flickr stream

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So that’s my inagural list of cathedrals, I tried to spread things out a little so cathedrals here weren’t all in France or Italy. Like I said, there are amazing architectural cathedrals all over the world, probably 100x more that I don’t know about than the ones I do. I’m also sure that I will hear from someone about the over-representation of Romanesque and Gothic style buildings. Oh well, what can I say? These are the ones that came to mind – feel free to list some of your favorites in the comment section.

Cheers

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  • HJ777

    I would add to your list (indeed, I would put it top) Durham Cathedral, which is not only Europe’s greatest Norman building, but has the most spectacular setting, along with Durham Castle, of any cathedral in the world.

    Arrive at Durham railway station and look across at the city – there is no cityscape in Europe like it. You can never forget that view.

    Only Lincoln comes close. The gothic cathedral is just as extraordinary and is set on top of the ‘cliff’ of Lincoln above the low lying land to the west and south. Approach it from the south west and it looms above the landscape from tens of miles away. The side view of the cathedral, perched above the city is simply astonishing.

    And in the rest of Europe, Cologne, surely.

  • Mmanfull

    What a fun and informative read this has been. I’m a lover of Gothic, especially the English variety.

  • http://www.gapingvoid.com gapingvoid

    I would also include Durham Cathedral on the list. Not only is it truly magnicicent, like Chatres it’s not dwarfed by surrounding tall buildings, a-la St Paul’s in London, or St Patrick’s in New York.

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  • JoeB

    in the USA that is……just as cool as some of the euro’s though prob not in sheer scale

  • JoeB

    there is a little known & spectacularly magnificent cathedral in newark, NJ usa of all places…..in my opinion much nicer then any of the more well knowns

  • Lel

    Lel

  • ?

    I am in 8th grade and will build one of these (or others) for a project. I have visited two of these and a few more cathedrals already.

  • Asif Farid

    the big black box is only showing up in chrome.

  • Asif Farid

    FIX YOUR SITE! i’ll guess this is on WordPress. check your plugins and stuff. this might be a popup or simply some add ware messing with the site. might even be a virus messin up the codes.

  • Pablo

    One of my favorite Gaudi quotes is that “beauty is the glitter of truth”. Never more appropriate than when one visits these works of art. As a religious person (Catholic) I have always been taken by the great effort it took the community at that time to build such an incredible work. It is more of a monument to their spirituality of that time and that place than it is a marvel of construction. A friend of mine, a catholic missionary priest, commented that some of the more remarkable churches he had ever visited were the simple thatched huts in South America that the people had prepared for mass and community meetings. Which reminds me that the real beauty, were the people that were a part of these great buildings.

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  • Felo

    Just as Chartres gives Notre Dame in Paris a run for its money, the Cathedral in Siena (Santa Maria Assunta) with its mosaic floors, Bernini’s gilded lantern, Piccolomini library, and early works by Michaelangelo and Donatello easily trumps the Florence’s Duomo. Anyone visiting Tuscany should make the comparison.

  • Gillian

    A beautiful cathedral is the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. The largest Anglican Cathedral in Europe.

  • Deepak Bhandari

    I was very impressed the Church of Europe when i was attending RI convention in Portugal ,2013. Specially Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Sagrada Familia). I would like to visit the church once again . For this i need the invitation of the church to apply from here. so please …., if it possible please send it on my email address: antivirus_02004@yahoo.com

  • Wannabeartiste

    I regret that I have no comment to compare from the eloquent and articulate submissions below. I must say how much I enjoyed looking at these exquisite photos of such majestic cathedrals which seem so larger than life to us humans but represent only a small speck comared to the infinite beauty that is Almighty God. But I am so grateful to God for giving those very talented humans the architectural monuments that celebrate His Glory and Greatness. Well, I outdid myself. I didn’t think I would be able to come up with a comment as intelligent as this one. Anyone thanks so much for sharing your photos with us. I wish more of these types of sites were available on the “net”.

  • Addict

    So many Cathedrals to choose from! A good worldwide list though Bob. I’ve visited most of the medieval cathedrals in Uk and some in Europe, and I’d like to recommend a book if you’ve never read it – The Cathedrals of England by Alec Clifton-Taylor. For my money the best book on the English Cathedrals from an art historical viewpoint. For the record Clifton-Taylor rates Lincoln and Wells as his favourites, and I agree.
    The only one on your list that I’d strongly disagree with, and that I’ve been to is the sagrada familia in Barcelona. Last time I visited it was a building site.

  • Ben Parker

    Not a well-known cathedral, but one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen: The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Dali, Yunnan Province, China. Built in the 18th century by Jesuit missionaries; fantastic combination of Chinese with Western sacred architecture.

  • DJ

    Where would you suggest a memorable Christmas Eve/or Christmas Day mass?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      hard to say since I don’t know where you are located … so I’m going to say any one of the catholic cathedrals listed in this post would be wonderful to attend mass

  • Robert

    Hi Bob

    We have visited 44 Cathedrals in our travels over 40 years. The ones that stay in our minds are; Ely and Koln (Cologne).
    If you need any Pics we have lots, let me know what you need and I will try to help.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      If you want to pick out your single most favorite image from both Ely and Koln, I can use them in the current list of cathedrals I am making.

      bob@lifeofanarchitect.com is the address you should use

  • Wendy

    Beauvais, France will also be worth your time.

  • Ben10

    Awesome cathedrals in 7th grade and doing one of these for my project

  • Bill Reeves

    You have great taste. I’ve visited a few and would like to go back .

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Bill – this is a good bucket list but if I can get to more I certainly would like it

  • Rachel

    If you want a breathtaking cathedral in the UK then I would have chosen York Minster. From the outside to each inside corner, it is amazing and is also full of pre-cathedral history in its foundations dating back to the 4th century AD and earlier.
    If you want a modern and unique cathedral then the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral is worth a look, even if it isn’t as detailed and historical as others.

  • David Jones

    My own top ten that i have fond memories of and have been lucky to visit. In no particular order
    1. Seville. For the giralda alone i would place it here.
    2. Cologne. The big daddy of the gothic cathedrals. Will never forget first seeing this magnificent edifice. Imo top 5 structure in the world.
    3. Santa Maria Del Fiore, Florence. An architectural wonder. Stunning from every single angle.
    4. Strasbourg.
    5. Alexander Nevsky, Tallinn. The only orthodox cathedral i have seen, impressive but no doubt bettered by its Russian and Ukrainian peers.
    6. Cadiz. A baroque masterpiece, in the most delighful of squares and framed almost always by a cobalt blue sky.
    7. La Sagrada familia.
    8. Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
    9. Cathedral of Lima (at night, a wonderful sight)
    10. Cathedral of Orvieto, Italy. Top cathedrals dont have to be in major cities, Perched up high atop an Umbrian hillside, this Romanesque-Gothic cathedral has the most fantastic golden tinted facade which sparkles on a sunny afternoon.
    Photos do not do this wonder justice. Also has very Impressive frescoes of the last judgement by Signorelli, Michaelangelo studied here and is thought to have had a significant influence upon the great man.

    I will give a sneaky mention to the cathedral of Cordoba, … but mostly because it was placed slap bang in the heart of the jewel that is the Mezquita!

  • Andy Bittner

    To add more material on Washington National Cathedral… The Darth Vader carving, high on the east face of the northwest tower, is the result of a contest the Cathedral held in conjunction with National Geographic’s children’s magazine, World, for children to design cathedral art. Four entries were chosen. The first three chosen entries were original art (after all it WAS a design competition), but the fourth entry was chosen from a suggestion that was more intellectual than artistic. A young man named Chris Raeder (I have no idea if the rhyme was a factor) suggested that there were so many odd, vaguely evil looking sculptures on the outside of the ancient cathedrals, at which we are guessing today, put Darth on Washington National Cathedral and let people guess about him in 1,000 years. In the years I’ve been working and guiding at Washington National Cathedral, I’ve also has some additional thoughts on the matter. While I’m not suggesting that George Lucas had Christianity in mind, when he devised “The Force”, Anakin Skywalker is a great example of a deathbed redemption, an alternative fondly regarded in most Christian sects. Furthermore, I’ve decided that -Washington National Cathedral being a Christian church, where forgiveness is paramount- we probably shouldn’t even call him Darth Vader. Maybe we should just call him “Anakin Skywalker in a bad moment”.

    The moon rock in the Space Window, pictured elsewhere in this Comments thread, is just one example of the many thought-provoking stones incorporated into Washington National Cathedral’s fabric. Beginning with the first Episcopal bishop of Washington, The Right Reverend Henry Yates Satterlee (whose dream it was that WNC would be a Gothic building), there was a recognition that, as a Protestant Christian church, Washington National Cathedral did not have its own roots in Rome (as did all of WNC’s ancient Gothic siblings), and would lack, somehow, for the absence of relics. While there is no arguing that some rock in a Protestant church is theologically the same as a Roman Catholic relic, Satterlee felt the presence of thought-provoking stones from great places in Christian, American and world history might strike a similar chord in our hearts and souls. As a result, Washington National Cathedral’s pulpit is built from stones that were originally part of the Bell Harry Tower at Canterbury Cathedral. The main altar is 12 stones, quarried at Solomon’s Quarry in Jerusalem, from which, legend suggests, Solomon’s Temple was quarried. In the floor in front of the altar are ten stones from the Chapel of Moses on Mt. Sinai. Symbolically, the Jerusalem Altar stands founded on the Ten Commandments. The official seat of the Episcopal Bishop of Washington is the Glastonbury Cathedra. The stones for that chair come from the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, legendary birthplace of Christianity in the British isles. More recently, the stones-as-“relics” concept was carried forward by The Very Reverend Francis B. Sayre Jr., sixth dean of the Cathedral. Among other pieces of important stone or masonry at Washington National Cathedral there are pieces of stone from Westminster Abbey, from Cologne Cathedral, from St. David’s Cathedral in Wales, raw stone from Mt. Sinai, a carved first-century stone from the Appian Way in Rome, a brick from the first (1607) church in Jamestown, Virginia, and, of course, the great secular relic of the 20th century, a piece of the moon.

  • johannes nissen

    Divisions:
    1 Best Antiquities.
    Istanbul, Agia sofia (+ 1500 y/o)
    2. Best gothic cathedral
    – Cologne (although built over 500 years), Reims, Antwerp, ‘s Hertogenbosch/Burgos, in that order. ( 1000 to 600 y/o)
    3. Best renaissance:
    – Florence (700 / 600 y/o)
    4. Fake:
    The one in New York.
    But a marvellous tribute to the gothic cathedrals nonetheless!
    In my personal opinion, the epithomy of gothic style is pure unparalleled etsthetics (enormous windows, light structure, sharp edges) alignemend with physical behaviour of building materials (stone, lead, wood), water drainment (arches), and workers ingenuity. To me, lots of its worth is in the story and context of the people who got so much effort in in (albeit forced, etc, as under every sociological system).