The facade of Notre Dame de Paris. Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay.
Religion is a very important part of French history and culture. For hundreds of years, the most impressive buildings built in France (or anywhere else for that matter) were cathedrals. The architecture of the great cathedrals of France says a lot about the history and technology of the past, and it says a lot about French society. That is why I have chosen to study these buildings.
This article is written in English because people in the francophone world, of course, would be more likely to be aware of these cathedrals. People in the United States and other anglophone countries, however, would most likely derive the most benefit from this list. Please feel free to click on any and all images if you wish to enlarge them and view the photo gallery for this article.
I would also like to address why Wikipedia was used as a source for this article. It is my belief that Wikipedia is an accurate and reliable source, especially when it comes to topics of a factual and non-political nature. In addition, with other sources, there is often only one author, one person to scrutinize the facts and get things right. But with Wikipedia, the entire world is the fact-checker, the peer reviewer. In almost every case, a Wikipedia article has many authors and editors. And, as has been verified by personal experience, if any information is not cited well enough or is false, it will be removed in a matter of days.
I hope you enjoy this article about ten magnificent French cathedrals!
10. Cathédrale de Saint Julien
I must admit, I placed this cathedral all the way at number ten because it seemed to be one of the more boring cathedrals in France. I was wrong. This cathedral is a very fine example of gothic and romanesque architecture. In addition, it is one of the oldest structures on this list.
Saint Julian Cathedral, also known as Le Mans Cathedral, is an ancient cathedral located in Le Mans, a city in the northwestern quadrant of France. This cathedral was built over four centuries; construction was begun in the 11th century and ended in the 15th century. Amazingly, we know that the church was already under construction in 1096, because it was visited and consecrated that year by Pope Urban II. Of course, the cathedral was not finished yet, so he only would have seen the beginnings of the large structure.
The present building was not the first church built in Le Mans; there were structures on the site beforehand. The first Holy Cross church was established nearby in around the year 600. However, those structures do not exist anymore (sanctuairebasilemoreau.org).
The cathedral is built in both the Romanesque and the Gothic styles. The choir, the closer end of the cathedral in the picture above, is built in the gothic style, and the main sanctuary nave part is built in the Romanesque style. As the choir was built in the 13th century (Britannica.com), it seems that the building was begun in the Romanesque style, but as the popular style of architecture shifted over the years, some parts were constructed in the Gothic style. Because these cathedrals were built over the course of many centuries, different parts of the building were completed in different styles as architecture evolved. On top of this, most architects would never live to see the building completed. Upon the death of one architect, a new one would take their place and would sometimes change construction plans. That is why different parts of these old cathedrals look so different. I find this very interesting.
The building has many important relics and tombs inside, and it also has original 13th century stained glass windows and statues along with a portal (fancy door) from the 1100s (Britannica.com).
Finally, some dimensions. The cathedral is 440 feet long (Wikipedia.org) and the tower is 210 feet tall (Britannica.com). The nave ceiling is 108 ft above the floor (Wikipedia).
All in all, this is a very fine cathedral. They really did build things to last back in the medieval age.
9. St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Nice
This cathedral is very special because of its unique architectural design. I would imagine that there are not too many Russian orthodox churches in France. Its turrets, roof tiling, and gilding make it look very special. On top of this, it is considered one of the most important orthodox buildings outside of Russia (atlasobscura.com), and it is the largest Eastern Orthodox church in Western Europe (destimap.com).
This cathedral is fairly new compared to some of the other buildings on this list. The cathedral began to be built as early as 1903 (wikipedia.org) and was finished in 1912. None other than Tsar Nicholas II oversaw the construction of the building.
There was a demand for a Russian Orthodox church in Nice because the Russian community there was fast growing. They wanted a nicer and bigger place to worship, so they started the construction of this cathedral (atlasobscura.com). Nice, however, is very far from Russia. It is located on the southeast coast of France.
The cathedral was built in the Old Russian style but has a few modern flairs. One cool architectural feature is the five domes. There is one large one to represent Jesus and four smaller ones that represent the four evangelists. There is also a lot of beautiful artwork inside, as can be seen below.
So, this cathedral is very beautiful and impressive. I hope to be able to visit it one day. It is very interesting how Christians from different countries have found different ways to express their faith through architecture.
8. Cathedral Notre Dame de Strasbourg
Strasbourg cathedral is notable because of its extremely tall spire, reaching 466 feet into the air. This cathedral was the tallest human-made structure in the world for around 227 years (starting in 1647) and is the tallest building made entirely in the middle ages. Because of its extreme height, it can be seen from many miles away, even from the Black Forest located across the Rhine river. Writer Victor Hugo called it a “gigantic and delicate marvel” (wikipedia.org).
The cathedral is located in Strasbourg, in France, a city that is very close to Germany. It is located in the far east of France.
Construction of the cathedral began in 1015, but fires and other disasters caused construction to have to restart in the 11th century. It took the entire 13th century to construct the nave, and the spire wasn’t finished until 1439 (theculturetrip.com). The spire was the last part of the cathedral to be constructed.
It is a little hard to see in the picture above, but the spire is actually twice as tall as the rest of the cathedral’s facade (theculturetrip.com).
The image above is a picture of the inside of the cathedral, in the transept (the crossways part). The cathedral is said to be built in the early Gothic style (culturetrip.com), right when this architectural style began to develop out of the Romanesque style (iconeye.com). This can be seen clearly in the picture above because the columns look very Romanesque.
I find this painting very interesting because it depicts a scene of almost chaos. People are rushing in every direction, and one man is riding a sort of demonic horse. All of this disarray comes against the backdrop of a giant building, built by these same humans. When I saw this painting, it evoked in me a sense of wonder. It is so amazing that in those ancient times, way before the industrial revolution, humans were able to build such a large and majestic structure.
7. Notre Dame de Chartres
Chartres cathedral is very well preserved, which is why it is regarded as being pretty special. Construction began in 1126 in the Romanesque style, but a fire in 1194 destroyed almost every part of the cathedral. This caused the builders to have to start over. In the same year, they began to build the cathedral in the Gothic style.
The cathedral was finished in 1252, at which time it had already begun to become an attraction for visitors. In 1594, King Henry the IV of France was crowned at Chartres cathedral. This was the only coronation that took place at Chartres.
The cathedral suffered a fire in 1836 and also was attacked briefly by a mob during the French Revolution (although townspeople did successfully stop the mob). But overall, it retains much of its original stained glass and statues.
A few images have been included below. One shows the fire of 1836 and another shows the choir of Chartres with its vaulted ceiling.
This is a very good painting, in my opinion, because it really captures the orange glow of the flame.
Overall, Chartres cathedral is an excellent and well-preserved example of the French Gothic style. It was designated a UNESCO world heritage site because of its authenticity and completeness (unesco.org). An angry mob and even fire couldn’t harm it too much. Hopefully, it will remain undamaged for many more centuries to come.
6. Cathedral St-Pierre de Beauvais
This cathedral made its way onto this list mainly because it has the highest nave ceiling in the world, higher than any other cathedral or church. According to Wikipedia, the nave is 154 feet high, even higher than St. Peter’s basilica (the largest church in the world)! This is amazing.
Beauvais cathedral began to be constructed in 1225, but work was stopped in 1600. The cathedral was never completed – the builders just seem to have given up. I cannot believe that it was under construction for that long, 375 years! It is hard to imagine a building being under construction for over 15 generations.
Beauvais’ choir, completed in 1272, was described by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc as “the Parthenon of French Gothic” arcitecture, and is widely admired. In addition, the dimensions of this cathedral were very unusual, specifically the extreme height of the nave and the central tower. Despite the builders’ best efforts, however, part of the choir collapsed in 1284 and had to be repaired. The collapse was perhaps in part due to the fact that the ceiling’s immense height was pushing the envelope of medieval engineering. Then, in the 1400s, the cathedral had to be extensively strengthened because of its scale. Even today, there are many braces on the inside of Beauvais, trying to keep the massive structure together.
Beauvais originally had a central tower reaching an amazing 502 feet into the air. This tower made the cathedral the tallest structure in the world! Sadly, it collapsed in 1573 (wikipedia.org).
The cathedral also houses a giant mechanical wonder. The Beauvais astronomical clock is an amazing 40 feet high and 20 feet wide! It was built in the 1800s and is regarded as almost more impressive than the cathedral itself. It has 52 dials that display information about the tides, the time in 18 cities around the world, and the position of the planets. It is an engineering marvel because of its complexity (wikipedia.org).
Beauvais cathedral pushed the limits of engineering with its central tower and high ceiling. It was almost too big, which is probably why it suffered so many collapses and was never completed. But, I am glad that they tried to build it.
5. Basilique Cathédrale Notre Dame d’Amiens
Notre Dame d’Amiens is really a very special cathedral. For starters, it is the largest cathedral in all of France. Two cathedrals the size of Notre Dame de Paris could fit inside its cavernous walls (wikipedia.org). In addition, this cathedral, unlike any of the others on this list, is classified as a Basilica (an internationally important center of worship)!
Amiens is a very amazing example of Gothic architecture. The construction of the cathedral began around 1220 and ended circa 1270. In the 1400s, an additional set of flying buttresses had to be added to support the high walls. The cathedral was built to give a sense of lightness as if the ceiling was supported just by the bright windows and thin walls. This feeling of lightness was a key element of Gothic architecture which sought to do away with the heaviness of the Romanesque (Smart History).
During the French Revolution, the cathedral suffered a lot of damage. People went around whacking the structure with hammers and broke off the heads of statues (wikipedia.org). I wish that they wouldn’t have done that, but they were very angry and took their anger out on buildings.
Here the three portals of the cathedral, the two towers, and the statues set into the gothic facade can be seen.
And finally, I will finish this section with this great video about Amiens cathedral that I stumbled across while doing research. It explains in great detail, among other things, the sculptures above the three portals and their significance. This is a very interesting resource, and I would recommend watching it.
4. Notre Dame de Paris
This list would be incomplete without Notre Dame de Paris (our lady of Paris). Notre Dame is one of the most famous cathedrals in France. It is so famous that people just say “Notre Dame” and it is understood that they are talking about this cathedral.
Notre Dame is located on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the fourth arrondissement of Paris. it was begun in the 1100s and wasn’t finished until the 1400s. This led to the presence of multiple architectural styles. The cathedral is mainly built in the French Gothic style but also exhibits elements of the Naturalism and Renaissance eras (notredamecathedralparis.com). This cathedral is massive, but two Notre Dames could still fit inside Amiens Cathedral. That is amazing. I really like Notre Dame because of how perfect it looks. The facade, pictured in this article’s featured image, is symmetrical and elegant. Notre Dame is truly a prime specimen of French Gothic architecture.
Notre Dame caught on fire on April 15, 2019, and burned for many hours. The roof and spire took the most damage, with the spire completely collapsing. But, the two pipe organs, rose windows, and altar were fortunately not harmed that much by the fire.
People all over the world were very sad about the damage. Because of the fame of the cathedral, over one billion euros (around 1.14 billion USD) were raised in just seven days. This money was used (and is still being used) to fund the restoration efforts. Restoration is still ongoing (wikipedia.org).
3. Notre Dame de Reims
Reims cathedral has an outside length of 489 feet and a nave length of 377 feet. And, the towers are 266 feet tall. So, this is a massive structure. It was built over the course of 80 years (relatively quickly) and was begun in 1211. The design was modeled after Notre Dame de Chartres, which had begun construction in 1194 (britannica.org).
Notre Dame de Reims is notable because of its history. This cathedral was the site of twenty-five coronations. Basically, it was the Westminster Abbey of France. Every king of France from Louis VIII (crowned in 1223) to Charles X (1825) had their coronation in this same cathedral (britannica.com), although Henry IV was actually crowned in Chartres because Reims did not think him catholic enough (tourisme-en-champagne.co.uk). Notably, Charles VII was crowned at this cathedral with St. Joan of Arc present.
One purpose of the cathedral was to remind monarchs of God’s power and to also give them divine inspiration to aid them in their rule (Harris and Zucker, 2017). That is probably why this cathedral is so impressive.
Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, “Reims Cathedral,” in Smarthistory, April 25, 2017, accessed January 2, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/reims-cathedral/.
2. Saint-Oeun Abbey in St. Roeun
I would like to clear something up right now. No, St. Oeun isn’t a cathedral. Roeun (a city in France) already has a cathedral: Rouen cathedral. But, I feel that this abbey is still deserving of a presence on this list.
I first learned of St. Ouen in Rouen because of its magnificent organ. The abbey boasts an enormous Cavaillé-Coll instrument, its present form completed in 1890. I would say that the long history of organs at St. Oeun is one of the main reasons why this church is number two on the list.
First, some background. The current Abbey is the latest church in a series of churches that were all built on the same spot. There were actually four churches on the same spot before the current structure was built. The first one was built in 558 by King Clotaire II of France (musiqueorguequebec.ca). In 680, St. Oeun was buried at the site, and his name was given to the church.
The church that directly preceded the current Abbey was actually larger than the current building! That is a little hard to imagine. It was built in the Romanesque style, while the current one is more Gothic (normandy-abbeys.com).
Although the organ is one of the major selling points of this cathedral, St. Ouen is also a very impressive and magnificent example of Gothic architecture. It is able to look intricate, delicate, while also looking massive at the same time. The construction of St. Ouen began in 1318 and was completed in 1537. The church is in the Gothic style, but the popular architectural style changed slightly over the course of construction and the towers were finished in the Flamboyant style, which was a form of late Gothic architecture. The history of the abbey is described as “unremarkable” (wikipedia.org), which is a little funny.
But, as I said earlier, the organ was what introduced me to this church. There is a great recording of Charles Marie Widor’s famous toccata which was made on this organ. Here it is:
Now, I will give you a brief history of the organs at St. Ouen, a history that goes back a long while. In the 1500s, there was already an organ in the church. This organ, unfortunately, was destroyed by the Huguenots (Calvinists) in 1562.
In 1630, Crespin Carlier was commissioned to begin work on a new organ. At first, this organ only incorporated eight-foot pipes, but twenty years later, Thomas Morlet expanded the organ and it became a sixteen-foot instrument.
In 1683, a hurricane destroyed the organ. It was restored but never regained its former glory. In 1741, it was disassembled to prevent damage from being caused by the storage of grain in the church. It is not known when or if the organ was reassembled.
Then, in 1803, it was reported that the organ was almost completely destroyed. Almost no pipes remained in the instrument, and almost all the mechanics of the organ had been either sacked or removed. That must have been very sad. Starting in 1803, the organ began to be rebuilt.
In 1851, famed organ builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll came to visit the organ. He described it as being one of the largest instruments in all of France. At the time, it had fifty stops, five manuals (which is unusually large), and a pedalboard.
Over the next few years ending in 1882, many modifications were made, including the installation of a recit division and the removal of the fifth manual (the echo division manual).
Then, in 1888, Cavaille-Coll was hired to do a complete overhaul and restoration of the instrument, its mechanics, and its pipes. He removed all but 20 of the stops and installed new ranks in their place. By 1890, the organ was ready for inauguration. On April 17, the organ was inaugurated by none other than the famous composer and organist Charles-Marie Widor.
The organ underwent minor restorations in 1941 and 1955, but overall it remains in its 1890 form. Cavaille-Coll’s work has remained relatively untouched. In 1970, the case of the organ was added to the Historical Landmark list, and in 1976, the instrument itself was also designated a Historical Landmark. And thus ends this account of the long and tumultuous history of the organs at the abbey.
And now, onwards to number one.
1. Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Annonciation et Saint-Sigisbert (Nancy Cathedral)
Interestingly enough, I had originally placed this cathedral at the bottom of the list. I ranked it as number 10 because it was not built very long ago. But, the architecture, artwork, and great organ of this cathedral caused me to have to reconsider, and after reading a lot about this cathedral and the others on this list, I decided that Notre Dame de l’Annonciation et Saint-Sigisbert was deserving of the first-place prize.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Annonciation et Saint-Sigisbert (or Nancy Cathedral as it will be referred to from now on) is a large cathedral located in Nancy, which is in the north-eastern quadrant of France. The cathedral was mainly constructed in the 1700s (18th century), meaning that this is a fairly recent construction compared to some of the other ancients on this list. It is designed in the Baroque architectural style, which is why its appearance differs from many of the other cathedrals on this list, most of which are Gothic. The front of Nancy Cathedral can be seen in the image above.
Other than its interesting architecture and distinctive grandeur, there is one main reason why this cathedral has made it on this list: the great organ.
Construction of the great organ began in 1756. This was long before electro-pneumatic organs were invented, meaning that every pipe had to be mechanically connected to the organ console. Each pipe is connected through wooden linkages to the keyboards and pedalboard of the organ console. This is amazing considering that the Nancy cathedral great organ contains thousands of pipes. Organs were and still are an enormous feat of engineering. According to Encyclopedia.com, pipe organs and clocks were the two most complex machines of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (before the industrial revolution took over).
The organ was built originally by Nicolas Dupont. He was a famous organ builder in the 1700s. The Nancy Cathedral organ was his largest creation, sporting 44 stops. This was a large organ in its day (Wikipedia). The case of the organ is very elegant, with two prominent columns near the center containing 16-foot pipes, most likely some sort of diapason.
In 1808, the great organ was expanded. A thirty-two-foot stop was added to the organ, which is significant because it was the first thirty-two-foot bombarde to be installed. Around 1861, AristideCavaillé-Coll began a restoration and expansion of the organ. He expanded the organ until it had a total of 65 stops. AfterCavaillé-Coll’s expansions, 1/3 of the organ’s pipes were reeds, which was a unique proportion. Most organs have far fewer reeds. In addition, the pedal division has fifteen stops, which was a lot for its time, although nowadays the figure is not too significant. This organ was a special work among the many instruments that Cavaillé-Coll worked on (wikipedia.org).
The organ has been modified slightly over the years, but still retains some of its original pipes. Fortunately, it is still fully playable and is currently receiving restoration. It is very good that this organ did not succumb to the fate of falling into disrepair, like many other old organs have.
Now, I will talk about the fresco, the painting, in the cupola of theCathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Annonciation et Saint-Sigisbert. I personally like this painting a lot, and even made it the desktop background of one of my computers. This beautiful work was painted by Joseph Jacquart over the four years from 1723 to 1727. It is supposed to show “the celestial glory” and depicts 150 figures from the old and new testaments (frenchmoments.eu).
There are a few other paintings in the cathedral, but none compare to this fifteen-meter-wide fresco on the ceiling of Nancy Cathedral.
And that pretty much sums up the cathedral. There is a lot more to learn about this wonderful building, and I would encourage you to peruse the articles listed below about Nancy cathedral.
I noticed something interesting while creating this list. Instead of pews, some French cathedrals tend to have wooden chairs set out in rows on the cathedral floor. Nancy Cathedral and St. Oeun are two notable examples. I personally prefer this way of putting in seating because it keeps the space a little more flexible.
Now, we have come to the end of this article. I hope you enjoyed this carefully made Top 10 list.
If you wish to share any thoughts, feel free to comment below!