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Understanding Cathedral Architecture

written by: Raunekk•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 2/1/2013

Cathedrals are ancient structures for worship that are famous for their beautiful architecture and design. Usually found in Europe, cathedrals are noticeable for several distinctive characteristics.

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    wells cathedral 

    An emblem of God, a cathedral is not just a place of worship, but symbolic of many religious rites. A cathedral is a sacred place for worship, generally huge and beautiful in order to represent a huge and beautiful God. While most cathedrals have lost their sheen with time, those that remain are a witness to a great history.

    Although the size of the cathedral depended on the finance that the public and the bishop had in a particular territory, in Europe, where most of the cathedrals are found, cathedrals are gigantic in size as the bishops there were rich and the public was openhanded. It is also said that there used to be a ritual wherein before a person dies, he was asked to donate his wealth to building a cathedral.

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    Understanding Cathedral Structures

    Cathedrals are marvelous structures. To construct these massive buildings, the main substance used at that time was stone, largely limestone. Enormous amounts of rocks were gathered prior to the construction process. Bricks were not widely used at that time, with the exception of some countries like Germany and France.

    Earlier, when cement was nonexistent, mortar was used to hold the stones or the bricks together, whereas wood was employed to clutch the roof, flying buttresses and doors. The kind of wood used in the construction process depended upon its availability. Moreover, stained glass windows added to the charm and were one of the characteristics of cathedrals that made them stand out before all other architectural structures.

    The beauty of cathedral architecture was enhanced by figurines of flora, fauna and gargoyles. During rains, it would apear that the gargoyle figures were sputtering water on the floor. For this reason they were erected on the buttress that was joined to gutters at the end of the roofs.

    Gothic vaults are also one of the main features of cathedral architecture. Though complicated to construct, especially when made from stone, Gothic vaults are extremely beautiful. Due to lack of machinery, the practice of making arches was initiated, which included the positioning of blunted stones on the frame. These vaults were a protection against fire. However, the vaults are heavy and put a lot of pressure on the foundation.

    Flying buttresses supported the structure from the exteriors. This was done to equalize the pressure from the vaults or else the walls would bend towards the exterior. For flying buttresses, initially “centering," or impermanent wooden frames, were erected. This would hold the burden of stones along with sustaining the contour of arch until the mortar dried. Centering was erected on the foundation, then raised into place and tied to the piers between one buttress and another. Thus, they acted like temporary flying buttresses until the actual stone arch was completed.

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    Roofs and Interiors


    What largely differentiates one cathedral from the other is the roof, which varies from being pointed, flat or even dome-shaped. The color of the cathedrals also varied. Some features remained the same for all roof types. For example, all of them had figurines which helped castles withstand extreme climatic conditions. The roofs, often tied together with wooden beams, also helped to hold the building together and prevent collapsing. Apart from this, stones (largely limestone) were also utilized to erect the roofs. Lead, tiles, and slate were other materials employed, mainly because they were light in weight. Gutters were also built for protection during rainy season.

    The interiors of the cathedrals were adorned with arches, statues, and stained glass windows, of which, the stained glass windows were found in each and every cathedral. The process of making stained glass involved heating sand in a furnace until it melted and then a hollow tube was stuck inside the furnace. The tube was then blown till the glass became a ball. The ball was spun until it became flat. After this, the ball was removed and the glass was cut. It was later dyed, painted, or colored. This procedure generally took more than a month, depending on the size of the glass required.

    Each of these little things added to the beauty of a cathedral, and they remain examples of architectural splendor and enjoyment for many.

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