Cathedral architecture

From Academic Kids

Montreal (Canada) cathedral
Montreal (Canada) cathedral

Cathedrals are among the most ambitious buildings ever conceived, far exceeding the size and complexity of most other constructions and often requiring many years to complete. This article describes some of the elements of cathedral architecture and how these elements have varied from place to place and time to time.

Cathedral architecture has a unique jargon. Consult the articles in the See also section (below) for more details.

The evolution of styles in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, is dealt with under the general article on architecture. This article deals particularly with the development of the eastern end of English and foreign cathedrals, as it was in those that the greatest changes took place from the middle of the 11th century to the close of the 14th century.


Differences with smaller churches

There are cases when a church or abbey is a comparatively small building (like the old cathedral at Athens), and some parish churches and abbeys are larger than many cathedrals. In recent times some English abbeys or minsters, such as those of Ripon, Manchester, St Albans and Southwell, partly on account of their dimensions, have been raised to the rank of cathedrals, in consequence of the demand for additional sees. Others, such as those of Bristol, Gloucester, Oxford, Chester and Peterborough, became cathedrals only on the Dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII of England.

Basic elements

The essential element of a cathedral is the cathedra, the throne of the bishop. Also, there are usually 2 separate areas or chapels, one which houses the Blessed Sacrament, and the other which is used for the singing of the Holy Office. Non-Cathedral churches would usually have only one central area.

Missing image
The choir stalls of Bristol Cathedral, Bristol, England. The high altar lies beyond.

The earliest extended development of the eastern end of the cathedral is that which was first set out in Edward the Confessor's church at Westminster, probably borrowed from the ancient church of St Martin at Tours; in this church, dating probably back to the 10th century, two new elements are found:

  • The carry of the choir aisle round a circular apse so as to provide a occasional aisle round the eastern end of the church
  • Five apsidal chapels, constituting the germ of the chevet, which formed the eastern terminations of the French cathedrals of the 12th and 13th centuries.

Gloucester (1089) also had three chapels, two of which, on the north and south sides of the aisle, still remain; the same is found in Canterbury (1096-1107) and Norwich (1089-1119), the stern chapel in all three cases having been taken down to make way for the Lady-chapel in Gloucester and Norwich, and the Trinity chapel in Canterbury cathedral.

The semicircular aisle is said to have existed in the Anglo-Norman cathedral of Winchester, but the eastern end being square, two chapels were arranged filling the north and south ends, and an apsidal chapel projecting beyond the east wall. This semicircular processional aisle with chevet chapels was the favourite plan in the Anglo-Norman cathedrals, and was followed until about the middle of the 12th century, when the English builders in some cases returned to the square east end instead of semicircular apsidal termination. The earliest example of this exists in Romsey Abbey (c, 1130), where the processional crosses behind the presbytery, there being eastern apsidal chapels in the axis of the presbytery aisle and a central rectangular chapel beyond.

A similar arrangement is found in Hereford cathedral, and exists in Winchester, Salisbury, Durham, Albans, Exeter, Ely, Wells and Peterborough, except that in those cases (except Wells) the eastern chapels are square; in Wells cathedral the most eastern chapel (the Lady Chapel) has a polygonal termination; in Durham, the chapels are all in one line, constituting the chapel of the altars, which was probably borrowed from the eastern end of Fountains Abbey.

Toledo (Spain) cathedral
Toledo (Spain) cathedral

In some of the above designs, original design has been transformed in rebuilding; thus in Albans, Durham, York and Exeter cathedrals, there was no ambulatory but three parallel apses, in some cases rectangular externally. In Southwell, Rochester and Ely, there was no processional path or ambulatory round the end; in Carlisle no eastern chapels; and in Oxford only one central apse.

In Ely cathedral the great central tower built by the first Norman abbot (1082-1094) fell down in 1321, taking with it portions of the adjoining bays of the nave, transept and choir. Instead of attempting to rebuild the tower, Alan of Walsingham conceived the idea of obtaining a much larger area in the centre of the cathedral, and instead of rebuilding the piers of the tower he took as the base of his design a central octagonal space, the width of which was equal to that of nave and aisles, with wide arches to nave, transepts and choir, and smaller arches across the octagonal sides; from shafts in the eight pier angles, ribs in wood project forward and carry a smaller octagon on which the lantern rests. Internally the effect of this central octagon is of great beauty and originality, and it is the only instance of such a feature in English Gothic architecture.


The earliest example of the chevet is probably to be found in the church of St Martin at Tours; this was followed by others at Tournus, Clermont-Ferrand, Auxerre, Chartres, Le Mans and other churches built during the great church-building period of the 11th century. In the still greater movement in the 12th century, when the episcopacy, supported by the emancipated communes, undertook the erection of cathedrals of greater dimensions and the reconstruction of others. In some cases they used the old foundations, as in Chartres, Coutances and Auxerre cathedrals. In others, such as at Le Mans, they extended the eastern termination, much in the same way as in many of the early examples in England, except with this important difference: when the apsidal east end was given up in the middle of the 12th century in favour of the square east end in England, the French developed it by doubling the choir aisles and adding to the number of extra chapels. This is demonstrated by the number of apsidal chapels in various churchs:

Double aisles round the choir, of which there are no examples in England, are found in the cathedrals of Paris, Bourges and Le Mans. The cathedral of Sens (1144-1168) possesses one feature which is almost unique: the coupled columns of the alternate bays of nave and choir and of the apse. These were introduced into the chapel of the Trinity in Canterbury cathedral, probably from the designs of William of Sens, by his successor William the Englishman. The square east end found no favour in France, with Laon, Poitiers, and Dol being the only cathedral examples. Of the triapsal arrangement, which has apses in the aisle and a central apse, the only example is that of the cathedral of Autun.

The immense development given to the eastern limb of the French cathedrals was some times obtained at the expense of the nave, so that, notwithstanding the much greater dimensions compared with English examples, in the latter the naves are much longer and consist of more bays than those in France. In one of the French cathedrals, Bourges, there is no transept; on the other hand there are many examples in which this part of the cathedral church is emphasized by aisles on each side, as at Laon, Soissons, Chartres, Reims, Amiens, Rouen and Clermont cathedrals. Transept aisles in England are found in Ely, York, Wells and Winchester cathedrals, in the last being carried round the south additional altars, exist in Durham, Salisbury, Lichfield, Peterborough and Ripon cathedrals; and on the north side only in Hereford cathedral.

Missing image
The Cathedral Church of Saints Peter and Paul, a Roman Catholic cathedral in Clifton, Bristol, England. The building was constructed between 1970 and 1973. The walls are reinforced white concrete

In Rouen cathedral, east of the transept aisles, there are apsidal chapels, which with the three chapels in the chevet make up the usual number. The cathedral of Poitiers has been referred to as an example of a square east end, but a sort of compromise has been made by the provision of three segmental apses, and there are no windows in the east front; the most remarkable divergence from the usual design is found here in the absence of any triforium or clerestory, owing to the fact that the vault of the aisles is nearly as high as that of the nave, so that it constitutes an example of what in Germany (where there are many) are called Hallenkirchen; the light being obtained through the aisle windows only gives a gloomy effect to the nave.

Another departure from the usual plan is that found in Albi cathedral (1350), in which there are no aisles, their place being taken by chapels between the buttresses which were required to resist the thrust of the nave vault, the widest in France. The cathedral is built in brick and externally has the appearance of a fortress. In the cathedrals of the southwest of France, where the naves are covered with a series of domes - as at Cahors, Angoulême and St Front de Périgueux - the immense piers required to carry them made it necessary to dispense with aisles. The cathedral of Angouléme consists of a nave covered with three domes, a transept of great length with lofty towers over the north and south ends, and an apsidal choir with four chevet chapels. In St Front de Périgueux (1150), based on St Mark's at Venice, the plan consists of nave, transept and choir, all of equal dimensions, each of them, as well as the crossing, vaulted over with a dome, while originally there was a simple apsidal choir.

Returning to the great cathedrals in the north of France, Amiens cathedral shows the disposition of a cathedral, with its nave-arches, triforium, clerestory windows and vault, the flying buttresses which were required to carry the thrust of the vault to the outer buttresses which flanked the aisle walls, and the lofty pinnacles which surmounted them. In this case there was no triforium gallery, owing to the greater height given to the aisles.

In Notre Dame at Paris the triforium was nearly as high as the aisles; in large towns this feature gave increased accommodation for the congregation, especially on the occasion of great fetes, and it is found in Noyon, Laon, Senlis and Soissons cathedrals, built in the latter part of the 12th century; later it was omitted, and a narrow passage in the thickness of the wall only represented the triforium; at a still later period the aisles were covered with a stone pavement of slight fall so as to allow of loftier clerestory windows.

The cathedrals in Spain follow the same lines as those in France. The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is virtually a copy of St Sernin at Toulouse, consisting of nave and aisles, transepts and aisles, and a choir with five chapels; at Leon there is a chevet with five apsidal chapels, and at Toledo an east end with double aisles round the apse with originally seven small apsidal chapels, two of them rebuilt at a very late period. At Leon, Barcelona and Toledo the processional passage round the apse with apsidal chapels recalls the French disposition, there being a double aisle around the latter, but in Leon and Toledo cathedrals the east end is masked.

At Avila and Salamanca (old cathedral) the triapsal arrangement is adopted, and the same is found in the German cathedrals, with one important exception, the gigantic cathedral of Cologne, Germany, der Koelner Dom, which was based on that of Amiens, the comparative height of the former, however, being so exaggerated that scale has been lost, and externally it has the appearance of an overgrown monster.

Many of Germany's great cathedrals of the Rhine Region, such as the six-spired Mainz Cathedral or der Mainzer Dom as it is known in German, are wonderful examples of 11th and 12th Century Romanesque Architecture. Along with the cathedrals of Worms and Speyer, Mainz Cathedral represents the highpoint of Romanesque Architecture of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the articles Vault, Flying buttress, Pinnacle, Clerestory and Triforium definitions are given of these chief components of a cathedral or church; but as their design varies materially in almost every example, without a very large number of drawings it would be impossible to treat them more in detail. The perspective view, taken from Viollet-le-Duc's dictionary, of the interior of the nave of Amiens cathedral illustrates the principal features:

  • The vault, in this case quadripartite, with flying buttresses and pinnacle,
  • The triforium, in this case limited to a narrow passage in the thickness of the wall,
  • The nave-arches, with the side aisles, beneath the windows of which is the decorative arcade.

Monster and human forms in Cathedral architecture

  • Spouting water-Gargoyle
  • Holding a pillar-Atlas (male)
  • Decorating wood or stone-(unknown as yet)

See also


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