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What is a Gothic Cathedral, and 9 Great Examples of Gothic Cathedrals

When visiting Europe, one of the things everybody expects to see is the one many Gothic Cathedrals that adorn the cities. 

We love them, they are beautiful, detailed, and historical, and take us back in time to a pretty far-away period. Everything goes fine until someone asks you: What is a Gothic Cathedral? 

Although we love to see them, few of us know what makes a cathedral “gothic”, or what gothic architecture is in general. 

Don’t worry, to help you out with this, I wrote this post, that will guide you through all the information you need to finally know what gothic architecture is, what makes a building “gothic” and the best examples of gothic cathedrals to visit. So that when someone in your group asks any of those questions, you will feel confident enough to express your tourist guide personality hiding inside. 

PIN: What is a Gothic Cathedral?

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What is a Gothic Cathedral

Gothic architecture is a style that became very popular in Europe during the 12th century. It first appeared in France, when the Saint-Denis Abbey was rebuilt using this innovative style. 

After Saint-Denis, the Gothic style was replicated in different churches and Cathedrals in France and later Europe. 

What is a Cathedral? Essentially, a Church is a place of worship for Christians, run by a group of priests or clergymen. Cathedrals are just like churches but run by a bishop, they are usually bigger than churches, as well.

Back in that time, most of the Cathedrals in France were built using the Romanesque style: big buildings, very symmetrical, with high towers, plain walls, and simple decoration. As for the less popular churches, they were essentially just small wooden structures, that proved vulnerable and not very resistant against fire. The overall appearance of churches was of simplicity. 

A list comparing the differences between Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals architecture.

With more people moving to the cities each year, there was a need for the construction of bigger churches to accommodate the ever-growing population.  

Money was not a problem, as the population grew, so did the wealth, and nothing better to show power than erecting massive, well-decorated Cathedrals.

Patrons then started to invest in new techniques and architecture. As a means of building bigger structures, rib vaults, flying buttresses, and pointed arches were added to the buildings. 

A Gothic Cathedral draw showcasing the elements that compose a Gothic Cathedral

The style is notable, especially for its arches, high ceilings, and excessive usage of stained glass. Allowing much more light inside the massive churches. 

Why is it called “Gothic” architecture? The style received its name after the Goths, a Germanic Tribe that invaded Rome and played a role in the fall of the Roman Empire. It was a pejorative term, coined in the 15th century by Italians who opposed this style, claiming it was offensive to the Vitruvian style, a concept created in Italy during the Renaissance. Before receiving this name, Gothic architecture was known as French architecture or Modern architecture. 


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9 Great Examples of Gothic Cathedrals

Here you will see the best examples of Gothic cathedrals to visit in Europe.

Saint-Denis Cathedral

Saint-Denis Cathedral in Paris was the first church ever built in a Gothic style. In 475 AD, the abbey of Saint-Denis was erected on this site, a wooden structure that was partially rebuilt in the 12th century to accommodate the ever-growing number of pilgrims that visited the site every year. 

Abbot Suger, then abbot of Saint-Denis Cathedral, decided to add some innovative structures, and decorative motifs, leading the path to what we know today as the Gothic Style. 

Saint-Denis Cathedral’s historical importance goes beyond its architecture though, as it has served as a royal necropolis from the 10th century to the 19th century. 

Saint-Denis Cathedral is also famous for being the resting place of Queen Marie Antoinette and her husband King Luis XV, who died in the guillotine, during the French Revolution.

Notre Dame Cathedral de Paris

This iconic landmark of Paris is one of the best examples of French Gothic architecture, it was the first Gothic church to have a rib vault and flying buttress, two attributes that became very characteristic of the Gothic style. 

Another highlight of its gothic architecture is the rose windows. Notre Dame has one rose window on each side of the church, with strained glasses depicting scenes of the gospels, angels, and saints. 

To learn more about Paris, check out this 3 day guide to Paris, which covers Notre Dame Cathedral and also Sainte-Chapelle, another great example of Gothic architecture.

Reims Cathedral

Reims Cathedral although not as famous, is one of the most important churches in France. It was here that the coronation took place for over 1,000 years. 

It was founded in the 5th century but the building we see today was designed in the 13th  century in a Gothic style to replace the old medieval church that was destroyed by a fire in 1210. 

Why French kings were crowned in Reims? Clovis King of Franks was baptized here by St Remigius, bishop of Reims, in 498, becoming West’s first catholic sovereign. Clovis is considered the first king of France and although he was not coronated here, his baptism was the first time a Royal Anointing took place in Reims Cathedral, opening the path to this tradition. 

Canterbury Cathedral

One of the oldest churches in England. Canterbury was founded in 597 but rebuilt in a Gothic style in the 12th century when a fire partially destroyed the old structure. 

The style as well as the new techniques were brought by a master stonemason coming from France to Canterbury. 

With its high ceiling, tall windows decorated with fine stained glasses telling religious stories, and buttresses outside the cathedral, Canterbury is one of the finest and oldest examples of Gothic architecture in England. 

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey was rebuilt by orders of King Henry III in 1245, using the French Gothic style, highly influenced by Reims Cathedral in France. 

Different from the French Gothic, The English Gothic style emphasizes elaborated towers, with many pinnacles and statues, while the towers of the French Gothic style tend to have simplistic towers. Westminster Abbey though, didn’t have towers until the 18th century. 

Westminster Abbey is one of the main tourist points in London, we cover it and much more in this 3 days guide to London for beginners.

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral is the second tallest church in Germany and one of the most visited sites in the country. Its construction began in 1164, when the Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald of Dassel, acquired the relics of the Three Kings, and saw a necessity to rebuild the local church that was too small to receive the pilgrims. 

Looking for a new style to use in the rebuild program, the project began with a gothic architecture influenced by the Amiens Cathedral in France. 

Although the program was paused many times during the years, the church was completed in 1880 using the original Gothic style plan.

Santa Maria del Fiore

Santa Maria del Fiore is a good example of the Italian Gothic style. Although very different from the French Gothic style, some Gothic elements, such as a pointed arch and cross-ribbed vault are notable. 

The construction of the Santa Maria del Fiore began in 1296 and took 140 to be completed. 

Besides its importance in the development of Italian Gothic architecture, Santa Maria del Fiore also stands out for its dome, as it was the first octagonal dome built without a temporary wooden support frame in history. For years it was considered the biggest dome in the world. 

Check out our Guide for 2 days in Florence, which covers Florence Cathedral and many more interesting places to visit in Florence.

Milan Cathedral

The largest church in Italy and one of the most dramatic as well. The Milan Cathedral is famous for its extravagant façade, with many pinnacles and statues. 

The construction of the Milan Cathedral began in 1386. At first, the engineers intended to build it in Lombard Gothic style but ended up opting for the newest trend, following the Cologne Cathedral and the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the Rayonnant Gothic style. 

Candoglia marble was chosen for the construction, instead of the traditional Lombard bricks, which completely revolutionized the Gothic architecture in Italy, as a result, architects, sculptors, and stone-cutters were brought from all over Europe to help in the development of this project. 

The cathedral was only fully completed in 1965. 

Milan Cathedral can be easily visited during a long layover in Milan, so don’t miss the chance, if you are passing by the city, do take your time to visit this iconic gothic cathedral.

Seville Cathedral

The Cathedral stands today on the site of a Moorish mosque, the building was converted to a Catholic church in 1248 following the city’s conquest by Ferdinand III. 

A great part of the old building was then destroyed and a new one was erected in 1403. Gothic architecture was chosen for the project, however, the presence of Moorish elements, part of the legacy of the church’s past, gives it a unique appearance. 

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