It took a village to build Europe’s Gothic cathedrals

Life in many medieval towns revolved around constructing a cathedral, a massive undertaking that took generations of work by everyone from artists and architects to prisoners of war.

By Miguel Sobrino González
Published 1 Dec 2022, 13:55 GMT
Work in progress
Cathedrals could sit partially unfinished for decades, as shown in a painting of 15th-century Dordrecht, Netherlands.
Photograph by Album

Gothic cathedrals can often render spectators speechless—awestruck by dazzling stained glass, towering ceilings, and engineering marvels. Other visitors might be moved to eloquence, like American filmmaker Orson Welles. He once described France’s Chartres Cathedral as “this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand, choiring shout of affirmation.”

Built between the 12th and 16th centuries, these soaring sacred spaces are among Europe’s most popular tourist attractions today. From Notre-Dame de Paris in France to Canterbury Cathedral in England, they attract people from all over the world to gaze at their intricate sculptures, pointed arches, and the marriage between light and air.

Uplifting
Construction of the soaring Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul in Troyes, France, began around 1200.
Photograph by Robert Harding Picture Library

The Gothic is perhaps Europe’s most iconic style of Christian architecture. It first emerged in France in the 12th century and then spread across the continent. The Gothic is sometimes described as the ultimate expression of the medieval spirit, reflecting a society so fixated on heaven that it developed pointed arches and buttresses to aspire to the realm of God.

While it is certainly true that a deep spiritual fervour inspired such projects, Gothic cathedrals were created by more mundane forces too. Taking centuries to complete, they required dedicated funding, political support, and a skilled labour force. How Gothic cathedrals were built tells historians not only about the organisation of medieval societies but also that these buildings were shaped by the character, economy, and available natural resources endemic to the places where they rose into the sky.

Uplifting
A 15th-century miniature shows the many stages of raising a cathedral.
Photograph by Granger, Album

Power and prestige

The term “cathedral” has evolved into a sort of catch-all descriptor for large, grand churches. It’s technical definition is a church that houses a cathedra (Latin for “bishop’s throne”). One of Europe’s first cathedrals is the fourth-century Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome, the seat of the pope in his capacity as bishop of Rome.

Cathedrals not only were used to celebrate Christian rites but also became hubs of political power during the Middle Ages. Inside the sacred space, there was also a fair amount of day-to-day governance going on. The chapter (formed by the canons or priests of the cathedral) would meet to discuss diocesan matters in the cathedral choir, a space that at other times was dedicated to prayer. They also managed the deduction of funds for the cathedral from the collection of rents and local taxes. Part of this money was also channelled back to the community in the form of improvements, such as hospitals, roads and bridges.

The master builder
The master builder directs masons on a 14th-century decorative relief tile.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

In some ways, a cathedral was the medieval equivalent of a public forum. Merchants used cathedrals as places to meet clients and close deals. Guild members negotiated there. Shops and businesses sprang up along the outer walls, and the first university schools were housed within cathedral complexes. Members of the municipal council met in the cathedral and justice was sometimes administered at its doors.

This role had been established long before the Gothic age. Monumental stone-built cathedrals also predated the Gothic: These were built in the style known as Romanesque and emerged in the 11th century thanks to the wealth brought to European cities by the emergence of an extensive network of pilgrimage routes.

The Gothic emerged from the Romanesque (which was distinctive for rounded arches), and relied on a different visual style developed in the Islamic world: pointed arches, which could bear more stress than the rounded. Employing this technique could allow walls to stretch even higher than before. Directing the gaze heavenward, the pointed arch helped emphasise the height of naves, and their use drove the development of another key feature of the Gothic: ribbed vaults in the ceiling.

Birth of the Gothic
Europe’s first fully Gothic structure, the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis, near Paris, was built under the direction of Abbot Suger in the mid-12th century. Large stained glass windows, enabled by engineering advances, create a play of colored light across the interior.
Photograph by Alamy, ACI

Flying buttresses are perhaps the Gothic’s most iconic architectural advance. These structures are built on the outside of a cathedral and help distribute the weight of ceilings and upper structures. This, in turn, meant that cathedral walls could be thinner, and penetrated by large glass windows, allowing more light and air inside the building.

The building generally considered to be the first, true Gothic structure is the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis near Paris, parts of which were completed in the mid-1100s. From there, the Gothic style spread through France, then Spain, Italy, Germany, the Low Countries, and England.

Building these soaring churches took centuries. A craftsperson could begin work on the project and never live to see its completion. Construction of Frances’s Notre Dame de Paris took nearly two centuries, lasting from 1163 to 1345. In the German city of Cologne, the magnificent Gothic cathedral was begun in 1248; its iconic twin spires were not completed until the 1800s, clocking in at more than 600 years later.

Cranes
Cranes were innovations used in the construction of Gothic cathedrals, shown in this illustration.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

The importance of place

Cathedrals arose for different reasons. Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain is believed to lie over the resting place of St. James the Great, the patron saint of Spain. Other Gothic structures were built to house sacred treasures, such as Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, which was commissioned by King Louis IX to hold holy relics from the Passion. A grand cathedral with strong sacred ties could attract pilgrims to a town, bringing in commerce and attention. Cathedrals were often built on top of older structures. Sometimes the intention was to send a message. In Spain some cathedrals—such as the 13th-century cathedral of Toledo—were built over the site of mosques, to hammer home the symbolism that Spain was now a Christian country.

Often Gothic cathedrals were replacing older Christian structures. At Amiens, in France, for example, the 13th-century Gothic cathedral replaced the previous Romanesque structure, which had been destroyed by fire. After an 1174 fire destroyed the choir of England’s Canterbury Cathedral, the damaged part of the building was rebuilt over the next decade in the Gothic style. An unusual example of a cathedral that was relocated to another site within the city is that of Segovia in Spain. In the 16th century, after the old cathedral was destroyed in a regional rebellion, a vast, late Gothic structure was built in the former Jewish quarter, where—as a result of the recent expulsion of the Jews—land was available and affordable.

The purchase and transportation of materials that cathedral construction entailed could bring wealth and strategic importance to cities. Begun in 1401, the cathedral of Seville in Spain is the largest Gothic structure in the world. The church authorities set up a huge crane in Seville’s river port to unload the blocks arriving from the quarry sited downriver, near the coast. This crane became a source of income for the church (which rented the crane to other merchants) and a stimulus that helped turn the city into a naval and commercial power.

In the quarry
Workers extract stone in a 15th-century illustration from the encyclopedia "On the Properties of Things" by Bartholomaeus Anglicus.
Photograph by AKG, Album

Local resources also had a dramatic impact on a cathedral’s outer appearance. The local availability of marble in Italy determined the look of many Italian cathedrals. The Gothic cathedral in Siena, for example, is faced in coloured marble that provides a dramatic finish.

Cathedral craftspeople

Behind the religious fervour that inspired the Gothic cathedrals, hard-headed realities had to be tackled to get these immense, often centuries-long building projects off the ground. Authorities had to recruit and manage engineers, artists, craftspeople, and labourers, as well as secure and transport the raw materials to the site. Bringing everything together and keeping the project running required a lot of political will and a lot of money.

Romanesque architecture, which preceded the Gothic, could be built by large teams of relatively unskilled workers. Gothic construction, on the other hand, required smaller, well-trained groups of professional craftspeople. Enslaved labourers, usually prisoners of war, were sometimes employed. Most cathedral builders were adequately paid and some even enjoyed privileges such as tax exemption. They were often provided with housing, and there are examples of workers organising strikes and protests against low wages or poor conditions.

Building materials
Workers load a cart with stone that was transported to Paris via the river in a 15th-century miniature from the Ordinances of the Provost of Merchants of Paris.
Photograph by Kharbine Tapabor, Album

Each working group was led by a master builder who acted as a primus inter pares—a first among equals. The master builder would be adept at the day-to-day practicalities: shaping the wedge-shaped stone block used to construct an arch or carving a relief. They also had to project manage, directing and coordinating the team. An experienced master builder might move away from hands-on work and instead give directions from the scaffolding, a habit that could provoke resentment. Shoulder to shoulder with the master builder worked another essential figure, the foreman, who maintained quality, kept the project on budget, and ensured deadlines were met.

Up to a third of cathedral workers were women. Although they usually took on ancillary roles, carrying materials or mixing mortar, there is some evidence of female master builders. In Cuenca, Spain, records show that a woman called María directed the stained glass workshop. In 13th-century Strasbourg (then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, and today in France), the sculptress Sabina von Steinbach is believed to have created the doorway of the city’s cathedral, although some historians argue she may be legendary.

Once the site had been chosen and cleared, the master builder measured and marked out the ground plan and deep foundations were excavated. Although architectural plans were made in advance, the building process tended to be dynamic, with many cathedrals adapting and improvising around the original plans as new techniques became available. Sources show that when technical problems arose during the construction, the master builder would meet with other officials to exchange ideas and decide how the work should proceed. Some of these conclaves are well documented, such as those that took place in Girona, Spain, where the audacious idea of trying to construct an extra wide nave was raised and eventually adopted. It led to the building of the widest Gothic nave in the world.

Tools of the trade
In a 15th-century miniature, a craftsman checks the angle of a block with a set square. In his other hand, he holds a stonecutter’s hammer.
Photograph by Granger, Aurimages

During construction of the cathedral of Milan, Italy, numerous meetings were held in the 14th and 15th centuries to find engineering solutions to the ongoing works. Leonardo da Vinci himself presented some proposals. In Milan, and elsewhere, architectural plans being used as a guide were not nearly as detailed as those of a modern-day architectural project, leaving many aspects open for discussion. The design process was solidly practical, based more on the use of compasses, set squares, and experience of what had worked in the past than on abstract calculation.

Workers needed a whole battery of machinery and handheld tools to perform different, specialised tasks, from carving detailed stonework to transporting and lifting heavy materials. Various technological advances were seen for the first time in Europe during this period, such as the rotating crane, the metal-wheeled carriage, various cutting machines, and the humble (but game-changing) wheelbarrow. Carpenters offered essential support in creating scaffolding and falsework (the wooden props that supported arches and vaults during construction).

Damages and delays

Since many cathedrals sought to innovate with forms or structures that had never been attempted before, their builders had to take risks. Even though models or partial full-scale drawings called “mounts” were used, sometimes there was no way of knowing if a building was going to stay upright when scaffolding that provisionally supported roofs was removed. Some of the most daring structures did fall down or at least had to be reinforced.

Reims Cathedral
Reims Cathedral is shown in a 13th-century entry in the sketchbook of French architect Villard de Honnecourt.
Photograph by BNF, RMN-Grand Palais
Coutances Cathedral
Plans for the 13th-century structure in Normandy, France, show its ambitious height.
Photograph by Médiathèque de l'architecture et du patrimoine, RMN-Grand Palais

Domes, especially those topped with heavy lantern towers were particularly precarious. The naves themselves could get wobbly when dimensions outstripped what could be supported by physics. In Beauvais, France, vaulting above the choir near the main altar collapsed at the end of the 13th century, after which it was necessary to double the number of pillars. As soon as the transept was finished the project was halted and has never been completed.

Workers in the cathedral of Palma de Mallorca, Spain, which is almost as tall as that of Beauvais, came up with a system of counterweights under the roof that allowed the immense cathedral nave to be finished successfully. In Amiens, in northern France, a ring of side chapels was built to reinforce the huge central section of the cathedral. But even these were not enough. Master mason to the king of France, Pierre Tarisel was brought in to add further reinforcement. Around 1500, he devised a solution that supports the church to this day: a wrought iron chain that encircles much of the cathedral.

Often, ambitious plans were hampered by a lack of funds. It was common for building work on a cathedral to be halted before it was finished because of budgetary rather than building problems. In southwest France the Gothic Narbonne Cathedral was left half built after the city entered a period of economic and political turmoil. Some half-finished cathedrals may give the jarring impression of a small older church being swallowed within the jaws of a much larger, newer, unfinished one, as in the Beauvais Cathedral in France. In Siena, Italy, a massive extension planned for its nave was never completed, and its unfinished walls and arches still form part of the skyline.

Rise of the Gothic
Constructing a Gothic cathedral created a complex landscape, especially if one were built to replace an older Romanesque church that would be demolished. The stonemasons work in a temporary structure at the base of the building. They use a forge to produce and mend tools. The cathedral is located close to a city wall and a town square where there are merchants and shops. It is linked by a raised bridge to the bishop’s palace. Laborers dig foundation trenches, while sculptors carve statues around the foot of the building or finish details in the stonework. Nearby, a crane hoists construction materials while scaffolding supports the work in progress on the rising cathedral.
Photograph by Illustration by Miguel Sobrino González

Classical spirit

The Gothic never penetrated Italy as much as other parts of western Europe. With the advent of the Renaissance in the 15th century, Italy birthed a new style of cathedral-building that would soon make the Gothic appear old-fashioned rather than innovative. Reflecting the humanistic tenor of the times, the new architecture placed a much greater emphasis on classicism. Looking back to classical architecture from Greece and Rome, pillars and domes became the defining features of a new Renaissance style. Churches, cathedrals, and other civic buildings turned away from the soaring dimensions of the Gothic, exalting more modestly proportioned structures.

Times and styles changed, but the old Gothic structures still stood tall, and huge numbers of them still dominate Europe’s cityscapes. The gravity-defying architectural feats of the period that built them were in some ways similar to the space race in modern times. Fraught with risk and demanding huge investment, cathedral-building enabled European society to explore its limits, test its capabilities, and attempt to outperform its rivals.

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