Top Ten French Gothic Cathedrals
The Gothic style originated in France; the Ile de France and Picardy are dotted with fine cathedrals.These ten cathedrals represent the heights of the Gothic style. But warning; if you get addicted, you’re going to want to search out the others too – Sens and Senlis, Soissons, Noyon, Mantes… you might never stop!
- Laon is one of the earliest Gothic cathedrals, but its architect created marvellous effects of transparence and depth in the faade and the famous towers. At the top of the towers are the famous bulls of Laon, said to be statues of the oxen which dragged the stone from the quarries up the hill to the cathedral. The church is filled with light, and the pristine simplicity of the architecture makes this little visited cathedral an obligatory stop for any traveller who wants to understand the aspirations of the early Gothic.
- Chartres cathedral rises on a hill above the river Eure and the cornfields of Beauce. This is Gothic style at its most classic and powerful. The west front and transept porches are finely carved with figures of prophets and saints, and much of the original stained glass survives. The little figures of the donors at the bottoms of the windows, all exercising their trades – furriers, carpenters, bakers – are worth seeking out for an unusually realistic view of medieval life.
- Notre Dame, Paris is perhaps not the finest of the Gothic cathedrals, and lost most of its furnishings in the French Revolution. But the faade, an almost square, monumental form, shows perfectly how the Gothic style uses geometrical proportions to create strongly articulated architecture.
- Bourges is the most visionary of French cathedrals – a single, huge, open space without transept or narthex to break the pattern. Its double aisles are arranged so that the central aisle is a miniature copy of the nave of the church, with its own triforium and clerestory – as if the cathedral had been sliced in two and a new one inserted into the middle. As at Chartres, the stained glass is original – and since much of it is in the side chapels, close-up viewing is possible.
- Amiens cathedral is massive – the biggest Gothic cathedral in France. And it’s a very pure Gothic style – simple, light, serene. The west front is full of carved detail, including symbols of the labours of the months and the virtues and vices as well as Biblical personages and local saints.
- Reims cathedral was where the French kings were crowned; royal patronage made it a wealthy and strikingly beautiful building. The statues of the west faade – particularly the ‘smiling angel’ – have a grace and plasticity that make them the summit of the Gothic style in sculpture. Inside, the sheer height of the church is amazing.
- Strasbourg cathedral’s lace like faade is a marvel, particularly when the setting sun brings out the redness of the sandstone. Inside, the famous astronomical clock provides a kitsch counterpoint to the glories of the Gothic nave.
- Beauvais was the most ambitious of the Gothic cathedrals. Pride becomes before a fall, though, and after two separate vault collapses, the masons just gave up – the building was never finished. Even the stub of the church, though, is impressive – the highest and lightest work that the Gothic ever produced.
- Albi cathedral is very different from any of the northern cathedrals. Its southern Gothic style is massive and ponderous, not light and transparent, and as if to stress the difference, it’s built in brick, not stone. But though the exterior looks like a fortress, inside it’s a treasure house of art, including fine frescoes, a painted vault, and a rood screen covered in painted statues.
- The little-known Saint-Bertrand de Comminges isn’t one of the architectural masterpieces of France. But with its mixture of Romanesque narthex and Gothic nave, and its fine stained glass and Renaissance choir stalls, it’s one of those delightful places where every age has left its impression and every glance discovers new beauties. And how could you miss out a cathedral with its own stuffed crocodile?
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