Cathedral or Cathedra is the seat of the bishop in Christian liturgy. By its physical appearance, it symbolizes the glory of God and serves as a place where the bishop and dignitaries perform their specific functions, closely related to the community it is built-in. They are imposing structures, with distinctive architectural styles called Cathedral Architecture that have evolved over a long period of time. Because of their expansive scale and religious values they symbolize, cathedrals have garnered national significance for their architecture, many of them gaining the status of a world heritage site. Not only seen as a place of veneration, but cathedrals are also symbols of history and artistry since the inception of Christianity.


The evolution of cathedral architecture can be witnessed through the changing cultural, social, architectural, and political scenarios of different periods. The earliest church and cathedrals date from the late antiquity period. Cathedrals for congregational services came into existence after Christianity was established as the state religion by Emperor Constantine. From here, a distinct pattern of evolution can be seen as- Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, various Revival styles of the late 18th to early 20th centuries, and Modern.

A church can be a cathedral, abbey, or can be raised to the status of a basilica. A cathedral may not necessarily be an imposing structure as conceived by the majority of people. These categories differ based on special liturgical functions an abbey, cathedral, or basilica performs. An abbey is the church of monastic order and a basilica is ordained as such by the pope and goes after the church typology in Rome. Whereas, a cathedral is not necessarily a large structure but is frequently made that way because of its religious importance.

The majority of cathedrals and great churches are cruciform in shape, having a defined axis. Here, we will discuss the evolution in terms of different architectural styles as seen in cathedral architecture. 

 

1. Early Christian- Early Christian period dated from the 4th century to the beginning of the Byzantine era. Large Early Christian churches generally took the form of aisled basilicas with an apse. Earlier churches of Rome have marked the application of formal roman orders in their columns, along with a depiction of mosaics, vast Basilican proportions, and simplicity of architectural decorations. These can be seen in early churches of Rome like Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. These early cathedrals have been demolished or altered overtime but still retain some of their original characteristic features.  

 

Evolution of Cathedral Architecture -1
Basilica of Saint Sabina

 

2. Byzantine- Dating back to the 6th century, the cathedrals of this era retain the mosaics from the early Christian period but differ from it in decoration and details of the carvings. The churches were more uniquely structured and centrally planned. They have large domes surrounded by semi-domes, with a complex arrangement of arches. which gives them an expansive spatial quality. St. Mark’s Basilica of Rome is one of the best examples of the Byzantine-style church. It has a large dome surrounded by four smaller ones and a Greek cross plan.  

 

Evolution of Cathedral Architecture -2
Basilica of San Marco, Venice

 

3. Romanesque- With the spread of organized monasticism, large churches were built with simplified roman style having- stout columns, thick walls, small window openings, and semi-circular arches. A new decoration style evolved that had elements drawn from local Pre-Christian traditions, and incorporated zig-zags, spirals, and fierce animal heads. The revival of high vaults in masonry and painted murals were seen during this period. 

 

Evolution of Cathedral Architecture -3
Speyer Cathedral

 

4. Gothic- By the mid-12th century, with the development of engineering skills, cathedrals evolved to a form having- high arches, stone vaults, and tall towers. Gothic architecture incorporated larger windows, lighter-weight vaulting supported on stone ribs, and above all, the pointed arch and flying buttress. The huge windows were ornamented with stone tracery and filled with stained glass, illustrating stories from the Bible.

  

Notre Dame Sheet -4
Notre Dame

 

5. Renaissance- From the beginning of the 15th century, artists started looking back to roman structural techniques. They started following a highly refined form of Roman architecture, in which the forms and decorations followed rules of placement and proportions that had long been forgotten. St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is the finest example of Renaissance architecture. 

 

St. Peter's Basilica Sheet -5
St. Peter’s Basilica

 

6. Baroque- Many European cathedrals have baroque features, high altars, façades, and chapels. Baroque is a dynamic style, which incorporates flowing and undulating forms. There are many large churches, abbeys, and basilicas built in this style, but few cathedrals in Western Europe. the most notable exception being St Paul’s Cathedral in London.  

 

St. Paul’s Cathedral Sheet -6
St. Paul’s Cathedral

 

7. Revivals- With the advent of industrialization, there developed a need, for new cathedrals and churches. The Medieval styles, and particularly Gothic, were seen as the most suitable for the building of new cathedrals, both in Europe and in the colonies. 

 

St. Patrick's Cathedral, Australia Sheet -7
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Australia

 

8. Modern and Post Modern- With modernism, ornamentation was reduced, and clean and functional forms were preferred, often made in bricks. In response to modernist ideals, the postmodern movement in architecture brought back the symbolic meaning of architectural decoration and fused it with other styles. Although there are very few examples of postmodern cathedrals, some notable structures can be found.

 

Tokyo Cathedral sheet-8
Tokyo Cathedral

Architectural Journalist

Rethinking The Future

Darshika Rajput is currently in her fourth year of architecture. She is a voracious reader and an art aficionado who loves to translate the essence of a space into words. She truly believes that words indeed are our most inexhaustible source of magic.

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