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Cathedrals: Pinnacles of Beauty

Notre Dame, Exeter, St. Peter’s, Saint Paul’s, Salisbury, San Marco’s… all of these are cathedrals, among the most dazzling forms of architecture known to humankind.

Cathedrals are places of Christian worship, more particularly, the church of a bishop’s province. The term cathedral is derived from the Greek word kathedra, meaning “chair” or “bench” since this was the place reserved for the officiating bishop in early Christian times. As the number of Christians and the formality of the rituals increased, cathedrals likewise increased in size, complexity and beauty, reaching what many would consider their pinnacle during the Gothic period (about the twelfth century). Innovations in engineering were also largely responsible for the development of cathedrals from simple wooden structures to soaring stone fantasies.

Early cathedrals were often in the shape of a basilica, a type of large public building with a central meeting hall that was popular in Roman times. Other early cathedral shapes were based on a circle, square, polygon and the Greek cross (with equal arms). The structure of most Gothic cathedrals is based upon the shape of the Christian cross. The longest part of the cross is called the nave. The nave usually faces east and serves as the assembly place for worshippers; it is often divided by one central and two side aisles. The two arms of the cross are called the transepts and these meet the nave at the crossing. The shortest part of the cross is called the apse; it is often semicircular in nature. The apse contains the main altar and the choir.

Several other structures associated with cathedrals are often of significance. A chapel, or chantry, is a recess located on the side aisles of the cathedral. A cloister is an inner courtyard often located on the south side of a cathedral. A cloister is often surrounded by a covered walkway or ambulatory. The crypt of a cathedral is an underground area below the cathedral reserved for burials. Occasionally, relics of the saint in whose honor the cathedral was built reside in the crypt. The chapter house is the administrative center of a cathedral, usually built to organize the construction of the cathedral. The chapter house is often separate from the cathedral.

Several engineering advancements in the twelfth century enabled cathedrals to grow significantly in height and brightness. The pointed arch, and the flying buttress enabled distribution of the load created by walls and roof, therefore allowing increased height in walls and the inclusion of windows. The windows were often composed of stained glass and are considered to be a major decorative component of cathedrals. This “upper story” of a cathedral, composed of light-producing windows, is called the clerestory. The development of the ribbed vault, a type of ceiling, allowed for the use of vertical piers on the inside of the cathedral instead of continuous thick walls, allowing a larger and more open space inside of the cathedral. All of these improvements changed the nature of the space inside of the cathedral, making it remarkably uplifting and inspiring.

Besides stained glass windows, cathedrals employed many other forms of decoration. The most elaborate cathedrals employed embellished columns, walls, ceilings, floors and doors. Methods of decoration most often included carving, mosaic and painting. Free standing sculpture was also a major decorative element. Gothic cathedrals often employed carvings in the shape of gargoyles in their decoration; these demon-like creatures were thought to represent vices and served as warnings to worshippers. Pinnacles, long pointed structures adorning topmost extremities of a structure, were a defining element of Gothic cathedrals and were often highly ornamented.

Although principally places of worship, the world’s most beautiful cathedrals have the power to transcend religious affiliations and inspire awe for the human effort involved in constructing them. Many cathedrals took decades to build and their completion is a monument to the strong beliefs of their creators.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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