The Church built the pyramids of Europe

There are few people who can walk past a Gothic cathedral without tilting their heads back in bewilderment, admiring the genius of the medieval master builders and wondering how they…

There are few people who can walk past a Gothic cathedral without tilting their heads back in bewilderment, admiring the genius of the medieval master builders and wondering how they carried themselves. The answers lie in new construction techniques, incredible hard work – and luck.

June 11, 1144 was a significant day in history – not only for the monastery of St-Denis north of Paris, where a new monastery church was consecrated that day, but for the whole of Europe.

Abbot Suger had invited kings, nobles and archbishops to the consecration, and all who were present looked in amazement at this new masterpiece, because the church was built in a new revolutionary, bright and refined style that was incomparable to the low-rise and dark Romanesque churches.

By integrating several architectural inventions, Suger had created the world’s first Gothic church.

Many of these thoughtful visitors headed home from St-Denis with their heads full of new ideas.

The Milan Cathedral is a magnificent example of the Gothic style that allowed men to build huge and bright churches.

Everyone dreamed of building Gothic cathedrals that were bigger, more beautiful and more impressive than anything the world had seen so far, and in the following years new cathedrals sprung up all over Europe.

Wonder in misery

Even for the wealthiest men of the day, building a Gothic cathedral would be a mammoth task.

And the Gothic cathedrals were not built in the organized and developed societies of our time either – they were built in a time where one in three children died before the age of five, where the average age of the population was under 30, and where crop failures and disease were the order of the day.

Under the best conditions, the harvest could feed the population just fine, but if the weather turned out to be unfavorable, famine was just as imminent.

And even without the famine, the medieval inhabitants had to contend with numerous dangers. The shacks most of them lived in had dirt floors, and the smoke from open fireplaces filled the lungs of the people and farm animals who shared their quarters.

The combination of low-rise wooden houses, straw on the floor and open fireplaces meant that fires were frequent.

In towns where the houses were close together, it was almost impossible to put out the fire once it started.

New construction methods

Innovations in architecture allowed medieval architects to build huge cathedrals with lots of light in the church space.

Odd arc

Pointed arches replaced the Romanesque circular arch. They could carry more weight and provided a variety of possibilities regarding the height and width of the space.

Rib vault

The ribbed vault brought light and airiness into the nave. Unlike massive barrel vaults, the ribbed vault could rest on freestanding columns.

Wall modulus

Wall studs acted like giant resistors that supported the walls. As a result, it was possible to build much higher ceilings.

Poor and contaminated drinking water also caused typhus, cholera and dysentery, and the devastating epidemics that ravaged Europe from around 1350 killed between 33 and 50% of the population.


In the midst of all these disasters, Europeans nevertheless found the courage to build sky-high cathedrals, but one of Abbot Suger’s main ideas with the new Gothic church was to give the public a glimpse into heaven.


The abbot, like most others at the time, had ideas that heaven must be composed according to strict geometrical rules, full of lovely light and characterized by order and coherence. This is how the nave in the new cathedral was also meant to be.


Compared to this new architectural style, the heavy Romanesque cathedral was considered woefully old-fashioned, and in the years following the consecration at St-Denis, numerous other bishops began to renovate their Romanesque cathedrals.


And they weren’t content with a church the size of St-Denis Cathedral.


Cathedrals extended reigns

The height of the nave, the decorations of the towers and the beautifully decorated windows with stained glass became status symbols among the bishops in France who began to compete with each other to see who could build the largest and tallest cathedral.


For example, the archbishop of Reims tore down the new vestibule of his church so he could build another larger than the one his rival in Amiens had just dedicated.


Gradually, however, it was not possible to raise money from kings, members and the public for a construction project unless it was bigger than all other planned, ready or just started construction projects.


The bishops of the British Isles also took part in this race. And despite the fact that it was about building long, but not particularly high, churches, the cathedrals there had the same aesthetic ideas of perfect geometry as the French.


In Salisbury Cathedral, for example, the height from the ground to the top of the tower is the same as the length of the church.


The entire foundation of the cathedral can be divided into squares of 11.9 m per side, and almost all other measurements in the building are related to this number.

“To measure a toe is to measure a giant”
The poet Victor Hugo on the proportions of a cathedral.

Most other cathedrals are built according to the same basic rules, but not with the same units of measurement that can be distinguished from one church to another because there was no common unit of measurement in the Middle Ages.

This repetition of the proportions was important to the architects.

Every single part of the building is thus connected to the overall picture – and each of them reflects a whole. The French poet Victor Hugo said of Notre Dame in Paris:

“To measure a toe is to measure the giant” and this technique made life easier for the master mason. Once he had built one part of the building, he was able to calculate in a relatively simple way how the rest of the church should be.

Although Gothic cathedrals are impressive on the outside, the high walls are only built to create a beautiful interior space.

The German art historian Otto von Simpson thus compared the exterior of a Gothic cathedral to the raw back of a film – the main beauty could be found inside the church.

Gothic architecture had the main goal of creating as much light as possible inside the church.

Expertise in cathedral construction

Long preparation of building

The architects used three architectural principles to bring as much light into the church as possible: odd arches, ribbed vaulting and wall columns.

Odd arches could carry much more weight than previous round arches and gave the architect the opportunity to change the ratio between the height of the arch and its width.

The rib vault, unlike the barrel vaults of Romanesque churches, was not supposed to support the length of the vault, but was placed on columns. In addition, the construction of the building became easier and the space could be expanded in width and height. As a result, you can get a lot of space between the columns.

Wall studs on the outside of the building made it possible to build higher, make the outer walls thinner and also pierce them with large windows.

Roof support arches transferred the weight from the wall and roof to the wall studs, which are located outside the building and support the masonry.

Canterbury Cathedral is 160 meters long, making it one of the longest churches of the Middle Ages.

Work stopped many times

Sketches, drawings and other documents from the construction of Canterbury Cathedral show that although it took a full 343 years to build this mighty church, all construction was down in more than half the construction time.


– 1175 – 1185

The building started with the high choir in the east.


– 1218 – 1220

Abbot’s Chapel.


– 1236 – 1238

Colonnade and monks’ dining room.


– 1304 – 1320

Choir gate and chapel house


– 1335

Windows in the chapel of St. Amsel


– 1341 – 1343

Hospital, Table Hall rebuilt.


– 1363 – 1366

Chapel of the Black Prince and Chapel of Our Lady.


– 1377 – 1468

Burial vault, southwest tower, balcony, chapel, etc


– 1490 – 1517

Central tower and roof kick arches

Without them, these tall, thin churches would collapse, and buttresses, along with pointed arches and ribbed vaults, are the main characteristics of the Gothic style.


These engineering conquests, however, did not diminish the enormous preparations that had to be made.


It was necessary to raise a lot of money for labor costs and building materials, to call in specialized craftsmen and plan the progress of the building in a hurry.


It could take many generations to build one cathedral, making it difficult for architects to pass on their ideas to their successors.


Only a fraction of the population of Europe could read and even fewer could write.


In addition, parchment was extremely expensive and book printing did not appear until around 1450, so people had to rely on oral explanations to preserve the building plans.


The Leaning Tower of Salisbury

Without detailed drawings, it was important to have an experienced construction manager on site, and his responsibility was great.


In order to build a Gothic cathedral, thousands of tons of building materials were needed. For example, 2,800 tons of wood went into the roof of Salisbury Cathedral.


The largest beam is 1.5 meters thick and 25 meters long. He was transported quite a distance from a nearby forest to the construction site.


The roof of the church is made of lead and weighs about 400 tons. The church also contains about 3,000 square meters of stained glass, and hundreds of tons of lime and sand were needed for the stone glue that holds it all together.


The cathedral’s 123-meter tower is one of the tallest to be built in the Middle Ages, and a combination of a weight of 7,000 tons and unstable strata has caused the tower to lean 75 cm to one side.

The cathedrals were decorated with diabolical stone spiers that were perhaps intended to scare away evil spirits.

A total of 60,000 tons of limestone and 12,000 tons of marble were used for the cathedral, and this was brought by cart to various stone quarries, some of which were 20 kilometers away from the building.


These transports of stones cost a lot of shillings, and in order to facilitate the transport as much as possible, the stones were roughly hewn in the quarry.


There, the subcontractor worked with his men constantly to cut stones and place them on carts.


Written sources from an English monastery report that in three years 12,000 carts were sent a year from a stone quarry in the neighborhood.


This corresponds to about one trailer per quarter. Where it was possible, people often chose to transport these heavy stones over water.


For example, Canterbury Cathedral southeast of London is built of stone from Caen in Normandy, which is on the other side of the English Channel.


The work took many generations

Under the best of circumstances, where epidemics, famines or wars did not delay the construction work, it took 50 years of non-stop toil to build a Gothic cathedral.


Generally, however, the construction time was much longer, sometimes 200 to 300 years and in some cases an almost endless time.


For example, it took 632 years to build the cathedral in Cologne, and one cathedral whose foundations were laid in 1218 was finally completed in 1905.


The reason for this incredibly long construction time is due to the fact that work stopped completely for long periods. The stone glue of that time needed several years to dry, and this placed great restrictions on the construction time.


In addition, the treasury could be depleted and work could lie dormant for decades. And when there was money in the coffers again, craftsmen had to be called in, sometimes far away.


Most of those who worked on the construction of cathedrals lived on the site in question, but all the work was carried out under the supervision of specialized craftsmen, each of whom was assisted by five to six unskilled workers.


These skilled craftsmen were professionals who knew the value of their work. If they did not receive the fixed salary for their work, they immediately quit their jobs, because they knew very well that they could always get a job on the construction site of another cathedral somewhere in Europe.

The Spanish are still building the cathedral La Sagrada Familia – its construction began in 1882.

A semi-finished cathedral is a Barcelona landmark

It wasn’t just in previous years that it took a long time to build cathedrals. For about 140 years, the Spanish have been building the gigantic cathedral La Sagrada Familia in the Catalan city of Barcelona.

Already from the beginning, it was a controversial construction that many architects took part in making.

It was only when Antoni Gaudí began to work that the building took on its overall appearance: a gigantic church with organic forms that was to have three facades – each with four bell towers – and in the middle a tower that will tower 170 meters into the air.

However, Gaudí died suddenly in 1926 after being run over by a tram. Gaudí left behind numerous drawings and models of the church, but most of them were lost in a fire in 1936.

Since then, the construction has been down for a long time, and today only two of the three facades are ready.

Often entire families – who were experts in a particular craft – traveled around Europe on these missions and took part in building many different cathedrals.


These wide-ranging departures are one of the reasons why Gothic cathedrals in Europe are so similar to each other.


It only took one craftsman family to leave the construction site for all the construction work to go into reverse, because despite the importance of the work, there weren’t very many people who could do it.


Historian Richard Jones has studied documents from the time when Westminster Abbey was built and he has found that in 1253 an average of 300 people worked on the construction site.


To this number can be added the workers in the stone quarries and all those who transported building materials to the place in question.


Since Westminster Abbey enjoyed the patronage of the royal family, there were probably enough resources to undertake more projects there than in many other places.


The work was largely limited by the seasons. Most of the work was done from April 1 to October 1. Then workers could work outdoors.


In winter, the masonry was covered with straw and straw because the moist stone glue was not allowed to freeze. Instead, the time was spent indoors working on various decorations for the church.


Cheating characterizes many churches

Despite the craftsmanship of the craftsmen and the meticulous planning of the architects, sometimes mistakes were made in the craftsmanship, just as happens in the construction work of our time.


Abbot Suger firmly believed that geometry was the only true way to build a good building.


Geometry would be divine and if everyone followed its rules during construction, the building would be stable and good.


If any weakness could be found in it, it had to be due to incorrect calculations.

Architects used basic geometric principles and modeling in the construction of medieval cathedrals.

This blind faith in geometry and little knowledge of load bearing theory led to many masonry walls toppling over, towers collapsing and roofs as well.


According to the French medieval historian George Duby, such collapses have occurred in almost a fifth of all cathedrals built in the Middle Ages.


In this group you can find, for example, the cathedral in Beauvais in France, which is the tallest Gothic cathedral ever built.


Part of the choir collapsed in 1282 and in 1571 its 89 meter high tower collapsed, so this old medieval church is now without a tower.


The cathedrals shaped Europe

Although individual cathedrals did not survive various persecutions, fortunately most of them still stand as magnificent reminders of the hardships that people had to go through to be able to build the churches.


But the cathedrals also played another important role. The parishioners were able to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life for a peaceful moment and a small glimpse of heaven as they headed into the finished churches.


Their construction may have meant more to the medieval man than he may have realized.


These great buildings united the inhabitants of the towns in abundance. The fact that one generation after another sacrificed so much time and energy in building a church strengthened community relations within and between the generations.


European culture thus created cathedrals, but the cathedrals played their part in creating European culture.


That’s why these incredible buildings are not just ambitious monuments – the cathedrals are as important a part of our history as the pyramids are to the Egyptians.

Read more about the cathedrals of Europe

  • Elizabeth O’Reilly: How France Built Her Cathedrals , Harper & Brothers, 1921
  • S. Jenkins: England’s Cathedrals , Little, Brown Book Group, 2016

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