When it comes to places of Christian worship, there are two main schools of thought – one is that the act of worship itself is the important bit, and the surroundings are unimportant. The other is that the building is part of the worship, and by maintaining God’s church, you are demonstrating a little of God’s glory here on Earth. Over the years, that difference in opinions has divided people roughly into Protestant and Catholic camps, although it is the doctrinal differences that have caused the unholy amount of fighting between the two.
You can certainly see the appeal of the stripped-down approach – all that gold leaf doesn’t maintain itself, and it takes a lot of effort and money to keep Cathedrals looking shiny. But then there’s something about a gorgeous Cathedral that will help people feel closer to God. And the revenue from merchandise comes in handy too. And that’s why only the most spectacular make it into our Top 10 Most Ornate Cathedrals.
10. St. John Lateran Archbasilica, Rome
Contrary to popular belief, the ornate splendor of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is not actually a cathedral. In order to have cathedral status, it must be the seat of a Bishop rather than just a big church. And St Peter’s doesn’t fall into that category. The Arcibasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano (or the Basilica of St John Lateran), however, does and it’s grand and glorious enough to justify the status. Huge gold columns befitting a Greek temple stand below an intricate painting of Jesus, while statues around the building depict the major saints. It also contains the Holy Steps – a set of marble steps encased in wood that are said to have come from the court of Pontius Pilate,and therefore trodden upon by Jesus Himself. It’s an impressive building, which is not surprising given that the Bishop whose seat it is is none other than the Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope.
9. St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna
An unusual-looking Cathedral next, in Vienna, Austria. Known as “Steffi” to Vienna residents, this Cathedral’s distinguishing feature is its huge mosaic-ed roof, which comprises of 230,000 tiles. The mosaic includes the Hapsburg Empire’s double-headed eagle as well as coats of arms for Vienna and Austria.
Inside, it’s as ornate as you’d expect from a cathedral. It has 18 altars, including the gilded Wiener Neustädter Altar, which opens its panels on a Sunday to reveal wooden figures depicting the life of the Virgn Mary. Mary also stars in another feature of the cathedral – its very own miraculous painting, the Maria Pötsch Icon. This was brought from Hungary to the cathedral after it was seen to shed real tears. Sadly, the icon has not cried in its new home although a copy of the picture that was sent back to Hungary reportedly has done. Still, the Austrians claim that the picture has brought them luck and has answered many prayers. Worth a visit if you’re in need of a miracle!
8. Puebla Cathedral
From the outside, the cathedral in Puebla, Mexico doesn’t look anything special with its dark grey stone. But inside is completely different, with 14 altars beautifully decorated, and high arches. There are statues of several major saints, as well as four Spanish kings, all of the same line that planted that eagle on the roof in Vienna (the Hapsburgs). The cathedral also comes with its own legend – one of the two towers has no bell in it, and it’s said that if a bell was ever installed the tower would collapse into the secret underground river below. That’s a theory that’s probably best left untested….
7. St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow
Another building that looks completely unconventional, the candy-striped towers of St Basil’s are famous around the world. It was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible, and it is said that Ivan had the architect’s eyes gouged out after completion so that he would never build anything as beautiful for anyone else. In fact, the architect, Postnik Yakovlev, went on to design many more buildings although he could have done it from memory.
The building was seized from the Russian Orthodox community under Soviet rule, as a communist society was meant to be strictly secular. It remains under government ownership and operates as a museum. It is architecturally unique, so we can only be grateful that the planned demolition under Stalin in the 1930s never happened and tourists can still view its multicolored twisted towers today.
6. Braga Cathedral
The cathedral in Braga, Portugal, is another one that doesn’t impress from the outside but has some beautiful features on the inside, such as two elaborate gold organs. The altar is a majestic red and gold, with an impressive number of candles, and there are three aisles and five chapels. It also has a renowned statue called Our Lady of the Milk, with Mary nursing the baby Jesus. One of the most important cathedrals in Portugal.
5. Notre Dame, Paris
Every cathedral on our list has seen a lot of events in its life, but none has suffered quite as much as Notre Dame in Paris. After the French Revolution, the cathedral was desecrated and its treasures stolen. The revolutionaries used it first as a meeting place for their new state religions and then eventually as a warehouse. It was later restored, but then damaged by stray bullets during the occupation of Paris in the Second World War. Still, it remains standing and has been gently restored to its former, gilded glory with an impressive 7,374-pipe organ.
4. Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo
The grandly titled Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo is sometimes called the “Magnum Opus” of the Gothic style. It’s certainly impressive, with its centerpiece being the retable (above), which stretches behind the altar for five stories and depicts events in the life of Christ, topped with his Crucifixion. The retable was commissioned by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros in 1497, and took seven years to complete, with many notable artists of the day working on it.
The construction of the cathedral itself took 267 years, from work beginning in 1226, to the vaults of the nave being completed in 1493. The first master builder was traditionally said to be Petrus Petri, as implied by these words on his tombstone: “Petrus Petri, deceased in 1291, master of the church of Saint Mary of Toledo, whose fame was propagated by his good examples and customs, who constructed this temple and rests here, for what an admirable building he made, he will not feel the wrath of God” Latterly, however, it has been suggested that there was a master before Petri and that Petri may have received a disproportionate amount of credit for this magnificent building.
3. Albi Cathedral
Another building that took over 200 years to construct, this French cathedral was formerly known as Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d’Albi but St Cecilia lost her billing. It’s said to be the largest brick building in the world and was built to demonstrate the strength of God and the church in the face of rebellions. As intended, it dominates the town with its 78-meter belltower that dates from 1492. While the outside looks almost like a fortress, the French Gothic interior is elaborate and gilded with a painted ceiling. It may have been a symbol of strength, but there is delicacy and beauty to be found here too.
2. Milan Cathedral
Rome doesn’t have the monopoly on beautiful cathedrals – the Duomo di Milano is the fifth largest in the world and is home to a number of famous features, such as the statue of San Bartolomeo Flayed. Construction took almost 600 years to complete, starting in 1386 and finally being finished in 1965. As such, it is a bit of a mixture of architectural styles, which both adds to its charm and deters purists. For example, the British art critic John Ruskin described it as stealing “from every style in the world: and every style spoiled”. Nonetheless, it is an impressive sight and is rightly famous, with the Madonna statue on the roof inspiring a song – “O mia bela Madunina” . The interior is also impressive, with three altars and a Renasissance-era presbytery. It may have offended Ruskin, but it’s well worth a visit.
1. Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, Seville
Another cathedral that is almost excessive in its size and ornamentation, it contains this magnificent altar that seems to stretch most of the way up to Heaven. It’s unsurprising then to find out that the cathedral was built to demonstrate the wealth of the city in 1402. Apparently, the founders said “Let us build a church so beautiful and so great that those who see it built will think we were mad”, and the church is beautiful and great to an almost insane extent, so their mission was accomplished. It’s the third largest church in the world, and the largest Gothic cathedral, with 80 chapels and the 343-foot bell tower known as the Giralda. The interior drips with opulence and there is gilding on every side. It certainly does demonstrate wealth, if not modesty.