A Little History Of Cathedrals

Many of us may think we know what a cathedral is, "an important religious building, being the centre of a bishopric and dating from the Middle Ages". Yet the definition is not as simple as it seems. In order to clarify what a cathedral is, we offer you a short history of these unique buildings.

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The beginnings

It all began in the 4th century, in both Jerusalem and Rome, with the Basilicas of the Holy Sepulchre and St. John Lateran, both were known as mater omnium ecclesiarum, or "mother of all churches". From then on, in connection with the institution of the network of dioceses, each community - each civitas - has its own cathedral.

Basilica of St. John Lateran

Ecclesia Matrix

Initially, the bishop's church was not yet called a cathedral, it was called an “ecclesia matrix”. It is the "mother church", or the “major” as it is still called today in Marseille. It hosts the synods which bring together, around their bishop, those serving the churches of the diocese. Its authority is based on the seniority and sanctity of the memories that have accumulated there.

La Major


Derived from the Latin "cathedra", which designates the episcopal see, the term refers to the mother church of the diocese (ecclesia matrix), where the bishop has his seat. The cathedral also bears other names. It can be called Sé (the seat) in Portuguese, Duomo in Italian and Dom in German. These last two terms derive from the Latin "domus" (house).

Duomo di Firenze

The Apogee of Cathedrals

During the 12th and 13th centuries, the cathedral played an increasingly important role in the symbolic and political economy of the bishop. While the Gregorian reform strengthened his role and authority in the ecclesial institution, his lordship declined in the cities in the face of the rise of communal or princely powers. The bishop then tended to compensate for these declines by over-investing in the cathedral.

Notre Dame de Paris

The Inhabitants of the Cathedral

The bishop is not the only head of the cathedral. The canons who assist him in the liturgical service have a say in the management of this place of power, especially since they have been theoretically responsible for electing the bishop since the Gregorian reform. The way of life of the cathedral canons borrows several elements from that of the monks. In the Mediterranean countries and in England, the chapters even follow a monastic rule, as in Durham where the cathedral has a cloister.

Durham Cathedral

The Second Golden Age

The second golden age of cathedrals took place after the Middle Ages in the 19th century. As spiritual, cultural and political symbols, cathedrals were at the heart of rivalry between European states in the 19th century. Throughout Western Europe, many writers and artists therefore participated in the aesthetic reappraisal of medieval architecture, as witnessed by the Gothic Revival. Politically and socially, national Romanticism was inspired by an idealised Middle Ages.

Cologne Cathedral

Memory Symbols

Now present on every continent (there are more than 3000 cathedrals in the world), cathedrals have become a symbol of the world's architectural heritage. In Europe, for example, no fewer than 29 cathedrals are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Indeed, cathedrals are the reflection of a culture of exchange and integration and can be considered today, not as the temple of a particular religion, but as places of shared memory.

Seville Cathedral