|Gloucester Cathedral in 1828, engraved by J. LeKeux after a picture by W. H. Barlett|
|The Cathedral is a Christian church housing the seat of a bishop and so takes its name from the word cathedra, or Bishop's Throne (In Latin: ecclesia cathedralis). The term is often (sometimes improperly) used to refer to a church of great size.
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. But frequently, the cathedral, along with some of the abbey churches, was the largest building in any region.
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.
- It functioned as an ecclesiastical 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.
In some cases abbey churches have become cathedrals, particularly in England and Germany at the time of the Reformation. Some cathedrals have always been associated with houses of clerics and are often designated minster.
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 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.
The 4th Century house church consisted of a nave and two aisles, together with a narthex.
|Plan of the churches: in red the IV century church|
|In a Byzantine church the narthex is the transverse vestibule either preceding nave and aisle as an inner narthex (esonarthex) or preceding the façade as an outer narthex (exonarthex). An esonarthex is separated from the nave and aisle by columns, rails or a wall. An exonarthex may also serve as a terminating transverse portico of a colonnaded atrium or quadriporticus. In a general medieval sense, an enclosed covered antechurch at the main entrance is sometimes called a Galilee.|
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 atria 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 at the Cathedral of Pisa.
|Atrium of Old St. Peter’s in Rome|
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 court of law that provided a model for the large Christian church and gave its name to the Christian basilica.
Both Roman basilicas and Roman Baths of Diocletian 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.
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 often the case in many cathedrals and churches.
|Roman Baths of Diocletian|
|San Giovanni in Laterano|
In ecclesiastical architecture the bema is the semicircular recess or exedra in the basilica where the judges sat and where in after times the altar was placed. It generally is roofed with a half dome. The seats of the priests were against the wall, looking into the body of the church, that of the bishop being in the centre. The bema is generally ascended by steps, and railed off. In Greece the bema was the general name of any raised platform. Thus the word was applied to the tribunal from which orators addressed assemblies of the citizens at Athens. That in the Pnyx, where the Ecclesia often met, was a stone platform from 10 to 11 ft. in height. Again in the Athenian law court counsel addressed the court from such a platform: it is not known whether each had a separate bema or whether there was only one to which each counsel (and the witnesses) in turn ascended. Another bema was the platform on which stood the urns for the reception of the bronze disks by means of which at the end of the 4th century the judges recorded their decisions.
|The Bema or platorm for the speakers ca. 345-335 BC.||Plan - San Paolo F.L.M.|
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 had 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.
|Mausoleum of Santa Costanza|
|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.
|Greek Cross - Plan of Hagia Sophia|
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 and internal emphasis upon the eastern end. 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.
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.
|Wells Cathedral showing twin towers and gallery of statues.|
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.
|Notre Dame - Paris|
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 hallenkirche. Many cathedrals have either two aisles on either side. Notre Dame in Paris has two aisles and a row of chapels.
The transept is the arms of the cathedral. In English cathedrals of monastic foundation there are often two transepts. The place where the nave and transept meet is called the crossing and is often surmounted by a small spire called a fleche, a dome or, particularly in England, a large tower, with or without a spire.
|Transept - Salisbury Cathedral|
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
- 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.
|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.
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 was 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 font, lectern and pulpit|
|Frederiksholm Kirke Font - Copenhagen|
|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.|
|Pulpit - Duomo of Siena|
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 choir stalls and sanctuary of Bristol Cathedral|
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.
|The High Altar of Siena Cathedral, Italy, polychrome marble with bronze ciborium and candelabra.|
|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.
|Lady Chapel - Hereford Cathedral|
|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.|
|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 may be 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.
|Christ in Majesty at Autun, rare in having been signed by its creator,Gislebertus|
|Poor Man's Bible
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 whale.
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.
|Poor Man's Bible window at Canterbury.|
|The 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.
|Rose window - Bristol Cathedral|
|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.
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.
|Gorgoyl Notre Dame - paris|
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- Giotto, Brunelleschi and Donatello.
|Holy Rood at Bad Doberan Cathedral, Germany|
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. 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.
|The Ghent Altarpiece of the Adoration of the Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, 1432|