Westminster Abbey. Salisbury Cathedral. St. Paul’s Cathedral. These names conjure images of architectural grandeur. Within these structures, prophets and kings gaze out of stained glass as elaborately carved stonework soars high overhead. These are places made as beautiful and grand as wealth and human skill allow. They are the seat of awe.
These are the great cathedrals of the world.
But why, you might ask, do these ancient places of worship look as they do? In the contemporary American world, Christian churches are often quite plain and unadorned, their linoleum floors, drywall, and florescent lights all but invisible amongst the more notable structures of our towns and cities.
But throughout the much older history of Europe, we can see what the architecture of faith once looked like. Cathedrals dominated the skylines of the past, unsurpassed by anything else in size or complexity. Their resplendent stonework rose through the work of architects, artisans, financiers, and years of the work of countless laborers and members of the community.
The grandeur of these buildings had a very special purpose—one that we can learn from, even today.
Unlike churches and chapels, which are not specific to any Christian tradition, cathedrals fill a specific role—one in the Catholic tradition.
The word cathedral comes from the name of the bishop’s throne, called the cathedra, and so a cathedral is simply the main church within a diocese—an area of influence—where this throne is installed. The bishop oversees the other churches in his territory from this symbolic seat of authority.
And where the bishops go, of course, so does grand architecture.
Roman Catholic cathedrals were, and are, not only the seats of bishops, but are practical places of worship, much like any average church. But there’s one important difference—the worship at a cathedral is often performed with much more elaboration, seriousness, and ceremony. Just as the windows, walls, and pillars are wrought into beautiful, complex patterns, so, too, is the worship.
And so cathedrals are home to some of the most important ceremonies of the Catholic faith, such as the bishop-performed liturgical rites of Confirmation and Ordination. Cathedrals are also often the home of important governmental ceremonies which are overseen by the bishop, such as the coronation of a monarch.
The churches that bear the designation of “cathedral” need not be grand to perform their functions, but they frequently are. And as we’re about to see, the splendid architecture of these buildings isn’t merely for a practical function.
In fact, the soaring stonework serves a much higher purpose than liturgical ceremony and the coronation of kings.
Cathedrals were a massive undertaking in late antiquity. They were built without the aid of our modern technology, yet they surpass many our modern marvels. They took decades, and sometimes centuries, to build—the construction of a cathedral was often not completed by the time of its founder’s death, in fact. And as for costs, to give you an idea, one modern cathedral being built in South America has cost over a billion dollars over the course of 133 years—that’s more than many modern skyscrapers.
No one would go to such lengths for a human cause, not even for a king or a religious leader. No—only a deity could inspire humankind to go to such great lengths.
The great cathedrals were built to glorify an omnipotent, all-powerful God, and so their builders took great pains reflect that in architecture. These buildings represent the very best that the human hand and mind can produce—the most beautiful, the biggest, the most elaborate, and the most pious.
These structures are meant to cause awe, to guide the feelings toward reverence even as their forms guide the eyes upward. Theirs is truly the architecture of faith, meant to inspire devotion through structure.
Most cathedrals have what is known as a cruciform architecture. This simply means that the structure is built in the shape of a cross. Where the two “arms” of the cross meet is the “crossing,” which usually rests beneath a main dome or spire, venerating this holy shape through its height and visibility.
At the east end of a cathedral usually lies the altar, as well as what is usually the largest stained glass window in the structure, through which light may shine in the morning. This symbolizes the coming of Christ from that direction, as described in Matthew 24-27.
Cathedrals were the spiritual heart of the towns and cities they resided within, reminding everyone who passed by of the power of God. They were symbols of divinity, meant to be seen from miles around, meant to dwarf the other institutions of man and visually inspire worship through shape and form. And, largely, they succeeded in reflecting the theology of those within on a grand scale.