Situated all over the country and by no means confined to Paris, French Gothic cathedrals are some of the greatest in Europe. These buildings are hallmarks of the Gothic architectural style, which evolved from the Romanesque period. They place emphasis on height and natural light, usually incorporating pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, exuberant stonework, and flying buttresses into their design.
As well as being great achievements of the medieval period and integral parts of French heritage, these cathedrals are also sacred places to Christians living both within and outside of France.
Here’s our list of five of France’s best Gothic cathedrals, along with a bit of their histories.
Reims Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Reims, is located in the city of Reims, in the Grand Est région. It’s unclear precisely what year construction of the cathedral began. Historians traditionally thought it was built immediately after a fire in 1210 that destroyed an earlier church, but recent archaeological analysis has suggested construction began several years prior.
Reims Cathedral is perhaps most famed as a coronation site of French kings. From Louis VIII in 1223 to Charles X in 1825, 25 coronations took place at Reims Cathedral, including that of Charles VII in the presence of Joan of Arc.
During World War One, Reims Cathedral suffered tremendous damage from shelling, and was reduced to little more than ruins. The cathedral (and Reims itself) were first bombed on 4th September 1914, shortly before the German army besieged the city. After the French took back Reims, the German shelling resumed. A shell fell onto the north tower of Reims Cathedral on September 19th, causing a fire to break out and engulf the entirety of the building.
Among the damage, the lead roof melted, causing molten lead to pour through the mouths of the cathedral’s gargoyles. (These can be viewed at the Palais du Tau museum next door to the cathedral). This attack also beheaded the Smiling Angel statue, which had stood near the front entrance, and destroyed many glass windows. After much debate over whether or not the cathedral should be left as ruins, reconstruction began in 1919, and the cathedral was reopened to the public in 1938. The Smiling Angel was also repaired and returned to her place.
The construction of Amiens Cathedral was commissioned by Bishop Edvard de Fouilloy to replace a smaller Romanesque cathedral that had been destroyed by a fire in 1218. The building of the nave began in 1220, and by around 1270, the main construction of the cathedral was almost complete.
Because it was built so quickly, Amiens Cathedral has a pure High Gothic style, which was also achieved because of the links between the master-masons of the cathedral. The first master-mason was Robert de Luzarches; he was succeeded in c.1235 by his assistant Thomas de Cormont; de Cormont was then succeeded himself in c.1240 by his son, Renaud de Cormont.
Naturally, subsequent additions have taken place, including the building of a series of chapels between 1292-1375 and the construction of a 112m spire in the 16th century. The cathedral was also extensively restored in the 19th century by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. However, the stylistic harmony of the architecture has always been preserved.
The cathedral has remained remarkably intact throughout the centuries, even during the Wars of Religion, and the two world wars. The most substantial damage it has suffered is that to its stained glass windows. A significant amount of this occurred during the French Wars of Religion, when the Huguenots destroyed them. The windows were also damaged by hurricanes in 1627 and 1705 and the explosion of a powder mill in the area in 1675. The most recent substantial damage came during World War One: the windows were taken out of the cathedral and placed in a studio in case of shelling, but a fire sadly broke out in that studio later on.
Like many other of the famed Gothic cathedrals, Chartres Cathedral is located on a site where earlier cathedrals had been built (and destroyed). The present Chartres Cathedral (completed in 1220) was constructed on the foundations of a Romanesque cathedral built in the 11th and 12th centuries that had been badly damaged by a fire in 1194. The current west portal and crypt are remainders of this cathedral.
In the Middle Ages, the Chartres Cathedral was a popular pilgrimage destination because it houses in its treasury a veil or cloth known as the Sancta Camisia that is believed to have been worn by the Virgin Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. This veil was given by one of Charlemagne’s grandsons, Charles the Bald, in the 9th century to another former cathedral on this site.
The cathedral is also famed for having the most complete group of stained glass windows from the Middle Ages anywhere in the world. These windows show a variety of figures and scenes, many of which are from the Bible. The Good Samaritan window shows scenes from this particular parable, such as when the lone Jewish traveller is robbed; the Noah window depicts scenes from the story of Noah, such as the arrival of the animals before they were put onto the Ark; the Blue Virgin window depicts Mary at her throne with the baby Jesus; and the Passion and Resurrection window shows events from Jesus’s life, such as the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.
The cathedral also has three rose windows; the West Rose window is the biggest of these with a diameter of 15.4m, and illustrates scenes from the Last Judgement. Biblical scenes are also depicted in the Gothic sculptures that adorn the cathedral, which have been noted for their delicate balance of realism and idealism.
Along with the D-Day landing beaches, Rouen Cathedral is one of the most historical sites in Normandy, and was famously painted by Claude Monet in an iconic series. The present cathedral is situated on a site where a stone cathedral was built in the 4th century under the oversight of Saint Victricius (who was the bishop of Rouen at that time). This cathedral was destroyed centuries later by the invading Normans, who replaced it with a Romanesque cathedral that was consecrated in 1063 in the presence of William the Conqueror.
This Romanesque cathedral when then rebuilt in 1145 under the direction of Bishop Hugues d’Amiens, who had admired the Gothic style at Saint-Denis Basilica in Paris. However, a fire in 1200 destroyed much of the main construction of this rebuilt cathedral, sparing only the nave arcades, the Saint-Romain tower and the left portal. Reconstruction began immediately and was completed in the mid-13th century. Despite all this upheaval, various later changes and additions to the cathedral and damage from the Wars of Religion, World War One and Two and a storm in 1999, the Romanesque vault still remains to this day.
Rouen Cathedral also contains the mummified heart of the medieval English king Richard the Lionheart, who was also the Duke of Normandy. After his death in 1199, his heart was embalmed and buried separately in a small lead box that bears the inscription “Here is the heart of Richard, king of England”. However, this box only resurfaced in the 19th century during an excavation, and only underwent a forensic analysis in 2013. Some of the other main features of Rouen Cathedral include its stained glass windows and cast iron spire.
Notre-Dame de Paris
Construction of Notre Dame begun in the 12th century after the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, decided to create a new cathedral in the French capital. He himself had witnessed the building of the Basilica de Saint-Denis and admired its Gothic style, characterised chiefly by tall ceilings and an emphasis on allowing in natural light. The first stone of Notre Dame was laid in 1163, and it was only in the 1300s that the main structures of the building were completed.
In more recent centuries, Notre Dame has been through the wars. During the reign of Louis XIV, it underwent some controversial changes that are now generally considered regrettable, including the removal of the rood screen and stained glass windows dating back to the 1100s and 1200s. More severe and deliberate damage came during the French Revolution. Revolutionaries who saw the cathedral as a symbol of unjust monarchical and ecclesiastical power destroyed its statues and its windows, stole lead from the roof for bullets, and melted its bronze bells (save only the Emmanuel bell) for cannon. However, after its return to the Catholic Church in 1801, repair began.
Extensive restoration however only began in the 1840s, after the publication of Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which is set in and around the cathedral. The book and its poetic descriptions of the building led to the public and civil authorities alike to campaign for it to be saved. The restoration was led by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who notably added a tall spire, sculptures depicting the 12 Apostles, and the gargoyle and chimera statues.
In April 2019, a huge fire caused devastation to the cathedral, leading to the collapse of Viollet-le-Duc’s spire and the destruction of the lead-covered wooden roof. Fortunately though, the stone structure of the building escaped any serious damage, and the medieval rose windows and the Grand Organ were spared. Although some relics were lost, the Crown of Thorns was saved.