French Gothic cathedrals are one of the great glories of the country. They dominate the landscape, testimony to an extraordinary architectural movement. A traveler in France in the 11th to 13th centuries would have been astounded at the vast cathedrals being constructed all over the country. And rightly so. These were massive projects, ambitious, technically demanding and hugely expensive.
The French Gothic cathedral architectural style began in northern France, where you find the most important and outstandingly beautiful Gothic buildings in the country. From the mid 12th century onwards the style spread throughout France and northern Europe, challenging the architects and the masons to build ever higher and more delicately.
The Birth of the new Gothic Style
French gothic cathedral architecture began in Laon in the Aisne. But it was the renovation of the eastern end of the abbey of Saint-Denis in Paris, instituted by Abbot Suger (c. 1081-1151) that brought the outrageous new style to the rest of the world. The choir was one of the first structures to use all the elements found in Gothic architecture.
From Saint-Dennis, Gothic architecture spread rapidly and other great Gothic cathedrals were started in the 12th century: Notre-Dame in Paris, Bourges, Chartres, and Reims.
The Gothic style took in more than the structure of the buildings, glorious though these were with their slender flying buttresses, soaring height and space. Churches became works of art with lifelike sculptures carved of stone, metalwork, painted walls and the crowning glory of their stained glass.
In the summer and at Christmas most of these great buildings have wonderful sound and light shows that flicker across the façades. They bring the story of the cathedral to life with many of them showing how the cathedral was built. Well worth checking out with the local tourist office.
Nine Great French Gothic Cathedrals
Here are nine great French Gothic cathedrals of France. There are more than these in France, plus cathedrals and churches with Gothic elements.
Notre-Dame de Paris 1163-1245
Notre Dame d’Amiens 1220-1270
Saint Pierre de Beauvais 1225-1573
Saint-Étienne de Bourges 1195-1230
Notre-Dame de Chartres 1194-1260
Notre-Dame de Laon 1150s-1230
Notre-Dame de Reims Mid 1211-1299
Notre-Dame de Rouen 1144-16th century
Notre-Dame de Strasbourg 1015-1493
Notre-Dame de Paris, Paris
Notre-Dame is one of France’s great gothic cathedrals. However many images you may have seen of this great 12th-century building, you still get a ‘wow’ moment at first sight, even though it is now partially destroyed.
Located on the Ile de la Cité island in the Seine river, the cathedral was begun in 1163 and completed around 1245. It has fabulous architecture: wonderful external portals; intricate stone gargoyles; high towers, with the south one housing Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Disaster in Paris
On April 15, 2019 disaster struck. The cathedral was being renovated when a fire started in the roof. It burnt for around 15 hours and the damage was severe. The timber spire above the crossing was destroyed along with most of the lead-covered wooden roof above the stone vaulted ceiling.
Outside crowds stood watching as firefighters tackled the blaze and cathedral staff risked much to rescue some of the priceless treasures. The main structure of the cathedral was saved.
President Macron hopes the building will be able to reopen in time for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Experts however reckon it will take two decades. It will also need craftsmen skilled in traditional building methods. But there’s one possible source. Guédelon in Burgundy is a unique project. The owners are building a medieval castle, using all those traditional crafts that they have learnt for the work.
Outside the cathedral a markation point on the ground shows the starting point of distances to all cities in France.
Notre-Dame d’Amiens, Somme, Hauts de France
The French Gothic cathedral of Amiens is the largest in France and also has the rare quality of being pretty uniform in its architecture. Most unusually at a time when cathedrals took decades, if not centuries to build and had an alarming tendency to fall down, catch fire or lose the odd tower, it took just 50 years to build Amiens. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
Step inside to a structure that carries your eyes upwards; the nave is the highest in France at 42.3 meters (139 ft) high, while light streams in through the large windows. The interior is as elaborate as the outside with glorious stone carvings and 16th-century choir stalls.
It was restored in 1849 by Viollet-le-Duc, then in 1999, the three west front portals were laser cleaned, revealing some of the original polychrome exterior. You get an idea of the richness of the decoration of the past at the sound and light show which floods the façade with colors each summer night from mid June to mid September and at Christmas.
If you have the energy, climb one of the towers for a superb view over the city.
Saint Pierre de Beauvais, Oise, Hauts de France
Construction began in 1225 with the aim of making Beauvais the highest building in Europe and the most impressive French Gothic cathedral in the known world. In 1272 it was the highest, then in 1282 ambition came crashing down along with the tower that inconveniently collapsed.
There was further construction: the choir was rebuilt and a new central tower made the church once again the tallest structure in the world. That record lasted from 1569 to 1573. However financial problems meant that the cathedral was never added to or finished so there is no nave.
But it’s still very impressive. The interior vaults are over 155 metres high; there are some magnificent sculpted doorways, 13th to 15th-century stained glass and two extraordinary clocks.
Unique to Beauvais is the Basse-Oeuvre, a ninth-century Carolingian church incorporated into the new Gothic building. Stand just outside, it’s dwarfed by the magnificent cathedral.
Saint-Étienne de Bourges, Cher, Centre-Val de Loire
The Cathedral of St-Étienne is another great French Gothic cathedral, modeled on Notre-Dame in Paris. Right in the center of medieval Bourges, its flying buttresses take center stage, looking like filigree work holding up the massive walls and towers. Walk through the west front where the tympanum above the doorway shows the Last Judgement – a warning to the wicked of their fate.
The cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992, is known for its great size and height and the unusual unity of the interior. And there’s much to see as you step into the glorious spacious cathedral.
The Stained Glass of Bourges
The stained glass windows are one of the glories of Bourges. The windows around the choir, created between 1215 and 1225 tell the stories of the Old Testament. Built around the same time as Chartres, Bourges also used similar techniques as the master glass-makers of Chartres. They created the same remarkable blues that no other stained glass makers in France could achieve. Remarkably, 22 of the original 25 windows have survived.
In 1422 Charles VII married Marie d’Anjou here; the cathedral marked the occasion with a great astronomical clock which stands in the nave.
The Duc de Berry
In the crypt lie the remaining parts of the tomb of Jean de Berry, the powerful John the Magnificent, Duc de Berry. A notable patron of the arts, he is known for commissioning the priceless Les Très Riches Heures from the Limbourg brothers. The book of hours is exquisite and in the collection of the Condé Museum in the Château de Chantilly, just north of Paris.
Notre-Dame de Chartres, Eure-et-Loire, Centre-Val de Loire
Notre-Dame in Chartres is one of the great cathedrals of France, exceptionally well preserved. The cathedral was neither looted nor damaged during the French Revolution and remained intact during two World Wars. Built in around 70 years, the cathedral is a uniform design which is rare. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Notre-Dame de Chartres was regarded as one of the great buildings of all Christendom, housing countless treasures. One of the most revered was the tunic of the Virgin Mary, the Sancta Camisisa, supposedly worn when she gave birth to Jesus. Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela flocked here on their way to Spain, enriching the coffers of the church.
Stained Glass Glory
It’s the luminous, wonderful, 13th-century stained glass that draws visitors to the Gothic masterpiece. The windows – an astonishing 167 of them – tell stories not just of the Bible, but also take in medieval trades and guilds. If you’re visiting take a pair of binoculars with you; some of the windows are so high up you won’t see the details without help. There’s scaffolding for the inevitable repairs and sadly chairs fill the nave, covering up the extraordinary 13th-century labrynth on the floor.
On the floor the early 1200s labrynth, still surviving, symbolizes the long path to salvation. Walking it, step by step, was one of the aims of medieval pilgrims.
Walk around the outside to get the full glory of the cathedral and don’t miss the small structure at the base of the North Tower containing a Renaissance twenty-four hour clock, built in 1520 by Jean Texier.
Notre-Dame de Laon, Aisne, Hauts de France
Notre-Dame de Laon has a fascinating history though it’s not as well known as many of the other great Gothic cathedrals. Started in the mid 12th century, Laon led the way in the design of this new, outrageous Gothic architecture. Its porches, towers and gallery of arcades above the west front appeared in the later cathedrals of Chartres, Reims and Paris. It’s magnificent and on a human scale as well.
Look up to the creatures carved on the uppermost ledges. They are said to have been carved in memory of the mountain goats who carried the huge stones up the hill to this dramatic city.
Inside it’s incredibly tall with four tiers climbing up to the vaulted roof, and stained glass windows flood the building with colour and drama.
Notre-Dame de Laon
Place du Parvis Gautier de Mortagne
Tel: +33 (0)3 23 20 28 62
Laon Tourist Office Website
Notre-Dame de Reims, Marne, Grand Est
Dominating the city, the late Gothic cathedral of Reims is a glorious site. The site dates back to the 5th-century basilica where Clovis (c.466-511), the first Catholic King of the Franks, was baptized.
The present cathedral was built in the 13th century. Unusually, the names of the cathedral’s original architects are known from the record of a labrynth built into the floor of the nave during the cathedral’s construction. Four master masons were involved: Jean d’Orbais, Jean-le-Loup, Gaucher de Reims and Bernard de Soissons. the labrynth also tells us the number of years they worked here.
Start with the extraordinary façade, covered with figures from the Bible, bishops, angels and French kings from Clovis onwards. Some are original; others are now housed in the Palais du Tau next door.
The interior is equally impressive, suitably so for the 26 French kings who were crowned here between 815 and 1825. The cathedral has other claims to French history fame, most notably through Joan of Arc. It was the Maid of Orleans who was instrumental in getting the Dauphin crowned here as Charles VII in 1492, a highly significant act at a time when England was threatening the very sovereignty of France.
Stained glass windows fill the space with warm light, and don’t miss the windows by Marc Chagall in the east chapel. Reims Cathedral became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
Notre-Dame de Rouen, Normandy
If the Cathedral of Notre-Dame seems familiar it’s probably from one of the over 30 works of the glorious Gothic extravaganza painted by the Impressionist painter Claude Monet. Even so the first sight of Notre-Dame in Rouen always impresses.
The project was launched by the Archbishop of Rouen in 1145 after he had attended the consecration of the Basilica of Saint Denis in Paris, the first Gothic structure. The cathedral is famous for its three towers, each different. It brings home the recurring theme of so much ecclesiastical architecture: construction and destruction and changing architectural styles.
The Tower Saint-Romain remains from the original project though it was altered in 1468, but the rest of the cathedral was totally reconstructed from 1185. The second tower was completed in 1514 and the third in 1882. It was made of iron which led Gustave Flaubert to call it “the dream of a metal-worker in a delirium.” At 151 metres (495 ft) high it made Rouen Cathedral the world’s tallest building until Cologne Cathedral was completed. The claim lasted four years, until the Washington Monument opened. And so the race to be the tallest building in the world goes on.
Walk closer and you see the statues that cover the façade. Some are mythical; others are real people like English Richard Lionheart of 1199. It was carved to symbolize the shared history between England and France in the Middle Ages.
Inside you’ll find Richard Lionheart commemorated in the ambulatory around the choir where his heart is buried. There are some beautiful 13th-century stained glass windows and a chapel to Joan of Arc who was burned at the stake here in Rouen in 1431.
Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, Bas Rhin, Grand Est
Built from the reddish-pink stone of the Vosges, Strasbourg cathedral is a contrast to the other great pale stone Gothic buildings of France. Started in 1015, it still has Romanesque traits. It was added to in the 14th century and its single spire was built in 1439, reaching high up to the heavens. At 142 metres (466 ft) it was the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874.
Today Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, a UNESCO World Heritage Sie since 1988, is the sixth-tallest church in the world. Rising from the plains of Alsace, it can be seen from the Vosges Mountains and as far away as the Black Forest in Germany.
Victor Hugo described it as a “gigantic and delicate marvel”; Goethe described the cathedral as being composed of “a thousand harmonizing details.” The façades tell stories: on the west the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins; the death of the Virgin on the north.
Inside, the stained glass from the 12th to the 14th centuries is gorgeous. Equally astonishing is the astronomical clock. It dates from 1843 but a clock has stood here, recording time, since the 14th century. It fascinates with its automata, perpetual calendar, planetary dial, a display of the real position of the Sun and the Moon and solar and lunar eclipses. Each day at solar noon, 18in-high figures of Christ and the Apostles process while the cockerel crows thrice.
Read about the Great Sacred Sites of France (that are not French Gothic cathedrals!)
More about Normandy