Thursday, 1 February 2007

Ten top French cathedrals (from

France is well known for its Gothic cathedrals. Indeed the Gothic style was invented in France. But with well over a hundred cathedrals to choose from, France presents a problem for the traveller; which ones to visit? And why?

My top ten cathedrals would include a couple of Romanesque cathedrals, as well as masterpieces of the Gothic style. And I'd want to include a couple in the south, as well as the better known cathedrals of the Ile-de-France.

1. Laon. This lovely early Gothic cathedral would deserve a mention just for its setting, on an isolated hill above the plains of northern France. The thirteenth century architect Villard de Honnecourt called its towers the most beautiful in the world, and it's hard to disagree. The unknown master who built this cathedral achieved a magnificent effect with these transparent towers, and the interior of the church is a magnificently simple piece of early Gothic, almost completely unchanged since its original construction. At the top of the towers, you can still see the statues of the oxen, honoured for their hard work in pulling the stone for the building up the hill.

2. Albi. This cathedral makes it on the list for its amazing exterior. Built entirely in brick, with huge buttresses and round turrets, it seems to be more a fortress than a church. Indeed it's been claimed to be the biggest brick building in the world. Go inside, though, and you find yourself in a beautifully decorated interior with a delicate stone screen closing the choir, and Italian renaissance frescoes on the vault.

3. Chartres. How could you have a list of French cathedrals and not include Chartres? Rebuilt after a fire gutted the earlier cathedral, Chartres was probably the most influential work of the developed Gothic style. Its portals are a treasurehouse of statues, almost an encyclopedia of medieval life and religion. Its original stained glass windows survive, casting their strongly coloured light on the interior whenever the sun shines. And the whole cathedral is a masterpiece of construction. Its unmistakable, mismatched towers can be seen from far across the cornlands of the Beauce.

4. Autun, in Burgundy, is not well known, but it's a gorgeous Romanesque building which allies ambitious size with delicate style. The Burgundian builders took many of their forms from Roman ruins – fluted columns and classical capitals – but it's the cathedral's height which most impresses. Fine sculptures by Gislebertus, including the famous 'Eve', decorate the portal and many capitals – and the originals can be seen close up in one of the tower rooms.

5. Bourges. This cathedral was built at about the same time as Chartres but it's a much more radical design, with a vast single space – no transepts or crossing tower. The immensely high nave is flanked by an inner aisle with its own three-storey elevation, almost as if an existing church had been cut in two and a new, higher, nave dropped into the space. As if this architectural daring weren't enough, the original windows of the choir and ambulatory form one of the most complete sets of early glass in Europe.

6. Beauvais. Beethoven and Schubert had their unfinished symphonies, and France has an unfinished cathedral. Beauvais' builders wanted it to be the highest cathedral in France, but they were too daring and not cautious enough. After the choir, then the tower, collapsed, the money ran out, and the nave was never built. But what's left is still amazing – nearly four hundred years' worth of building work.

7. Le Puy. The entrance to the Romanesque cathedral is one of the most impressive pieces of townscape in France; a flight of steps ascends through huge arch at the west end, coming up inside the nave. The multi-coloured stonework of both cathedral and cloister recalls Mozarabic work – and indeed the Saracens did get as far as Le Puy – mixed with Byzantine influences. There is nothing else quite like Le Puy.

8. Rouen. This cathedral gets a vote for the daintiest, lightest, facade of all; it's like lace, with transparent parapets and gables that seem to be cut out of paper. Monet painted it numerous times, attracted by its flamboyant late Gothic architecture.

9. Reims. This is the church where coronations were always held, so it occupies a special place in French history. Its enigmatically smiling angels are celebrated; less well known is the unique carving on the inside of the west front. Tall, graceful, and transparent, it's a fine work of High Gothic.

10. Nice. Now this is a bit different. It's not Romanesque, it's not Gothic, and it's not French. It's a Russian Orthodox cathedral of truly impressive flamboyance, modelled on the churches of Moscow with its onion domes and colourful ornamentation. Many wealthy Russians emigrated to the south of France or took holidays here, and the cathedral was built for them in 1912.

I must admit I have left many lovely cathedrals out of the equation. The Romanesque, domed churches of Cahors and Angouleme; the fine Gothic cathedrals of Amiens, Noyon, Soissons and Sens. Then there's the modern Evry cathedral, with its strange swirly spiral shape and trees growing on top, or the immense, strange neo-Byzantine cathedral of Marseille (with its Romanesque predecessor still standing in its shadow).

I'm courting controversy, too, by leaving out Notre Dame, Paris. But I really don't think it's in the top flight of French cathedrals. It lost many of its monuments in the Revolution, and it's been restored and messed around with over the centuries. It's pretty dark inside, too. Still, if you only have time for a stop in Paris, it's worth the visit.



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