French Gothic Cathedrals


French Gothic cathedrals I, from top to bottom and from left to right: Chartres (1194-1220), Noyon (begun in 1140), Laon (1160-1215), Amiens (1220-1270), Reims (1211-1275) and Narbonne (begun in 1272).

All the French gothic cathedrals were stripped of their liturgical furniture, altars, images and choirs during the time of the Revolution but the buildings remained intact. The first French Gothic cathedrals were built in the late twelfth century. The Chartres cathedral erected in place of the old Romanesque cathedral burned in 1193 was consecrated in 1198. One of the first French gothic cathedrals, the Noyon cathedral was also built in a short period of time in ten years from 1140 to 1150. The Laon cathedral, also begun in the twelfth century, was consecrated in 1215. The Amiens cathedral, the most perfect of the French cathedrals, was built between 1220 and 1270. The Reims cathedral, begun in 1211, had a slow development until 1400 and its grand plan and decorative richness remained unfinished in many parts of the building. The Narbonne cathedral which was originally planned to be a great church it is reduced solely to the apse, later during the Renaissance Catholic Canons added additional constructions.

If it is difficult to pinpoint artistic schools and influence during the Romanesque period, it is even more difficult to do so during the Gothic period, in which royal power imposed a unity that didn’t exist before. This artistic uniformity was a partial consequence of the universality of Gothic period, of its encyclopedic ambition, and of the resulting universalization of ideas: the Western Christianity, not yet disintegrated by Protestantism, had a common ideal. In any case, some famous monuments should have served as canons to be followed. The church of Saint-Denis evidently served as a model for the cathedrals of Sens, Senlis and Chilons. The construction of Saint-Denis began in 1132 under the direction of its Abbot Suger, and the chancel and façade were already finished in 1144 when the temple was consecrated in the presence of Louis VII and his Queen. The Senlis Cathedral, built by Bishop Thibaud a friend of Suger and Louis VII, was consecrated in 1191.

French Gothic cathedrals II, from top to bottom and from left to right: Saint Denis (completed in 1144), Sens (1135-1534), Senlis (1153-1191), Châlons (consecrated in 1147), St. Germanus of Auxerre and Notre Dame de Paris (1163-1345).

Paris, then the center of Gothic life, still retains abundant monuments from the Gothic period. Its cathedral stands on an island reflecting on the Seine its magnificent towers, pinnacles and buttresses. Bishop Maurice de Sully laid the foundation stone of Notre-Dame in 1163 and although the chancel was consecrated in 1182, the main nave was not completed until 1250. A few years later architects Pierre of Montreuil and Jean de Chelles built the transept’s north and south facades. During the last years of the XII century the church of St. Germanus of Auxerre was also constructed across the Seine and today only one tower stands from its original construction. But in the time of Saint Louis, between 1242 and 1248, in Paris was built the most admirable jewel of all French artwork: the Sainte-Chapelle intended to guard relics of the Passion especially the crown of thorns. Sainte-Chapelle is a true reliquary: it has a low crypt that extends the entire length of the floor plan in order to raise the whole chapel in the air. On its top floor, in which the real chapel is located, the walls have disappeared to give place to large windows with beautiful stained glass through which sunlight enters in all directions, and so this completely open and splendid sanctuary, with the mere contrast of beams and columns, produces an effect of even more intense luminosity than that of the natural light coming from outside. The Sainte-Chapelle of Paris can only be compared with the Erechtheus of Athens for its service, beauty and size.

The Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) a royal chapel located within the medieval Palais de la Cité, the official residence of the Kings of France until the 14th century (Île de la Cité, Paris). Groundbreaking occurred in 1242 and was consecrated on 26 April 1248. It housed a collection of Passion relics, including the reputed Christ’s Crown of Thorns, one of the most important relics in medieval Christendom. The Sainte-Chapelle has one of the most extensive 13th-century stained glass collection in the world. Left: External view of the chapel; top right: stained glass interior in the top floor; bottom right: the ceiling of the lower chapel.

The French cathedrals were built almost simultaneously, with a very similar floor plan and elevation, and at first glance look all the same, as ancient Greek temples did, but each one has its own variety and spirit depending on their ultimate purpose and services. The construction of the cathedrals sometimes lasted across several generations and master architects succeeded each other, respectfully working in implementing the same original design. We have no details about the lives of the great master architects who built the cathedrals of Paris, Amiens and Reims, we know nothing more than their names. What is undeniable is that most were laymen in continuous relation with the church. They passed to each other the principles of their constructive art and all their lives were dedicated to the analysis and resolution of construction problems.

Interior of French Gothic cathedrals: left, Chartres; right top, Amiens; right bottom, Notre-Dame; below, Reims.

One of them wrote a notebook now kept in the National Library in Paris. It is an album of sketches showing annotations made without literary pretension or any academic order. “Villard of Honnecourt greets you and begs you all who work in the different genres of manual work related in this book, that you all pray for his soul and may remember him.” We don’t know for sure of any architectural work by Villard of Honnecourt still existing in these days, but his notes illustrate us about his artistic education and life. This master French constructor from the thirteenth century should have learned from the Cistercian monks: he worked for them, studied their churches, and for what can be concluded from his book, was in constant contact with the Cistercian Order. He undertook long journeys, in which he eagerly drew whatever he found along the way, especially architectures, plant forms interesting to him and original solutions that he carefully wrote in his album. This unique album of drawings by a French architect of the thirteenth century sheds much light on the life and soul of medieval architects, and is even more precious because we lack their writings, their rules and constructive laws.

The album of Villard de Honnecourt (c.1225-1235) now housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Paris). Here are shown two of its folios: left, “transverse section of Reims Cathedral illustrating the flying buttress”; right, Folio 61 “external elevation of the apsidal chapels of the Reims Cathedral”.

It is very unfortunate that there isn’t, nor has it ever existed, a treaty of architecture from the Gothic period like those we have from the times of Ionian Greece made by Hippodamus during the time of Phidias, or by Hermogenes during the life of Alexander, or that by Vitruvius during the period of Augustan Rome…


Notre Dame de Paris at night. This cathedral, widely considered as one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, is among the largest and most well-known churches in the world. The cathedral treasury holds a reliquary containing some of Catholicism’s most important relics, including the purported Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails. Notre-Dame is also popular because of its gargoyles and chimeras*.


Chimera: A monster from the Greek mythology, a fire-breathing hybrid creature and offspring of Typhon and Echidna and sibling of Cerberus and the Lernaean Hydra. It was composed of the parts of more than one animal. In art at the beginning it was depicted as a lion, with the head of a goat arising from its back, and a tail that might end with a snake’s head.  In later artistic representations after ancient times, the chimera has come to represent any mythical or fictional animal with parts taken from various animals, or to describe anything composed of very disparate parts.