On April 15, 2019, the world was stunned to learn fire had ravaged Notre-Dame Cathedral in the heart of Paris. In a matter of hours, centuries of history that had survived revolution, two world wars, and natural disasters was swept from existence. It is with heavy heart we mourn the loss of these cultural treasures.
Notre-Dame was more than a church, it was the heart of Paris and its spiritual home. The monuments to our humanity we hold as permanent fixtures in the cities and towns built through blood, sweat, and tears, are but fleeting examples of our ingenuity and our capacity to meaningfully express this human condition.
Here we want to look at majestic cathedrals around the world both in celebration of their glory and in recognition they too could be taken from us at any moment. As we each struggle with what to do in the face of tragedy, consider how the act of visiting the world’s great cathedrals can help to support and preserve their legacies.
Notre-Dame de Paris
Notre-Dame de Paris, known the world over simply as Notre-Dame, was constructed over a century beginning in 1160. It was an architectural and ascetic achievement even then. Its enormous vault was covered by a marvelous wooden ceiling that used so much wood it had come to be known as the forest. In order to support the roof and prevent the vault’s walls from collapsing outward, Notre-Dame made innovative use of so-called flying buttresses.
Magnificent stained glass rose windows sat above the western entrance as well as at the northern and southern transepts. Elaborate stone sculptural decorations adorned the cathedral’s exterior and interior, with visitors drawn to the realism of the many gargoyles. Reconstructions, expansions, and other repairs occurred over many centuries. Given all indications are the main structural walls have survived the blaze, it is all but certain Notre-Dame will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes.
Saint Peter’s Basilica (Vatican City)
Saint Peter’s stands as the world’s largest church and the center of Latin Christendom. Consecrated in 1626, it is the finest example of Renaissance architecture in the world. Its baroque alter and ornate interior reflect the artistic sense of its designers, foremost among them the great Michelangelo. While not the actual seat of the Bishop of Rome, Saint Peter’s is widely considered the most significant Catholic Church in the world. Walking here is nothing short of awe-inspiring, not least because visitors can also venture through the nearby Sistine Chapel.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Jerusalem)
Christianity’s holiest sites lay within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The church was built upon the spot commonly taken to be the location of Jesus’ crucification and resurrection. As the spiritual heart of all Christendom, an uneasy arrangement governs the possession and responsibilities assigned to the world’s major Christian denominations. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher dates back to 335 CE though it was destroyed and rebuilt in 1048. Given its meaning to the faithful, the importance of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher cannot be overstated.
Cologne Cathedral (Cologne, Germany)
Recognized as a masterwork of gothic architecture and a monument to Catholicism in Germany, the Cologne Cathedral is a towering landmark. The cathedral’s twin spires stand 157 meters tall and create the largest fa?ade of any church in the world. Though designed and begun in the Middle Ages, the cathedral was not completed until the 19th century. Today it towers above the Cologne skyline as a magnificent monument and stunning example of the dedication people have to their faith.
Basilica of the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey)
An engineering marvel in its time, Hagia Sophia was the the former seat of Greek Orthodox Christianity when Istanbul was Constantinople. It is regarded at the epitome of Byzantine architecture. Following the rise of the Ottoman Empire, Hagia Sophia was first converted to a mosque and, in 1935, to a museum. Historically significant to two of the world’s major religions, there have long been tensions surrounding Hagia Sophia. Efforts have increased in recent years to secure its reversion back to a mosque. The current Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, has indicated he will move in this direction, meaning there may be no better time to see Hagia Sophia than at present.
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (New York City, USA)
Set along Fifth Avenue on some of the most expensive real estate in the world, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a Neo-Gothic-style masterpiece and the most important location for Catholics in New York City. Completed in 1910, it is the largest Neo-Gothic Catholic Cathedral in North America. Occupying an entire city block in midtown Manhattan, Saint Patrick’s is enormous and stunningly beautiful. The towering vault and peacefulness inside provide welcome respite from the chaotic city outside.
Sagrada Família (Barcelona, Spain)
Sagrada Familia is perhaps best known for its attachment to famed Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. His visionary designs are simply breathtaking and some argue unique in the history of church construction. Gaudi’s interpretation of Gothic style combines accentuated curves and elements from Art Nouveau. The cathedral was Gaudi’s masterwork and following his untimely death in 1926, he was laid to rest in the crypt. Sagrada Familia remains a work in progress with construction progression in fits and starts during the tumultuous years in Spain’s 20th century history. Efforts are underway to bring the project to completion in time for the centenary of Gaudi’s death in 2026.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Hanoi, Vietnam)
St. Joseph’s is the seat of the Catholic Archdiocese of Hanoi, which pastors to the nearly 4 million Catholics in Vietnam. Its complex legacy is tied to France’s colonial history in Indochina. The resemblance to Notre-Dame is unmistakable. The use of Gothic Revival was meant to closely emulate the original in Paris. In order to make way for St. Joseph’s, French colonial authorities demolished a sacred Buddhist temple, which had stood on the site. St. Joseph’s is emblematic of the complex role religion has played throughout history and in the European colonial empires. For these reasons and many others it is well worth visiting.
Basilica of Our Lady of Peace (Yamoussoukro, C?te d'Ivoire)
The African continent is home to a large and fast-growing Catholic community. Completed in 1989, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, C?te d'Ivoire ranks among the world’s largest churches and is highly representative of the importance of faith in this region. Its beautiful dome and plaza were inspired by St. Peter’s. The interior is spacious with long streams of light filtering through the many stained glass windows. Understanding the deep connection communities of faith inspire in people helps one understand the outpourings of grief for the tragedy having befallen Notre-Dame. Visiting the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace is a moving experience.
Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral (Mexico City, Mexico)
The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral sits at one end of the city’s vast central square, known as the Zocalo. Construction occurred in sections between 1573 and the 1813. The original church was built by Spanish Conquistadors when they subdued Tenochtitlan, and itwas eventually consumed and replaced by the present cathedral. Its design reflects three architectural styles, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neo-classic. The interior features a massive choir screen and a massive golden alter known as the Alter of the Kings that stands 25 meters tall. The Cathedral suffered its own devastating fire in 1967, but was eventually restored and renovated.
Florence Cathedral (Florence, Italy)
Florence Cathedral is a magnificent Gothic cathedral completed in 1436. During the 19th-century, a stunning Gothic Revival fa?ade was added and for which the cathedral is now famous. The exterior walls use horizontal marble bands alternating between white, green, and red. Large ornamental windows adorn the high walls. The decorative construction elements make Florence Cathedral a marvel to behold and have contributed to its inclusion on many must-see lists, and for good reason.
In times of tragedy and sorrow, it is important to find meaning and express grief. The loss humanity has suffered in Paris will take time to digest. Yet even now it is possible to see light and the road ahead. As we each come to terms with these events, let us take stock of the many intangible treasures found throughout the world. It is hoped this brief list has helped draw attention to some and encouraged you to venture to see them for yourself. While it may be hard to know what to do at any given moment, the spirit of Notre-Dame lives in the hearts of the faithful and those who understand our common humanity and destiny. The world is a mighty and complex place. May we venture forth together to celebrate its beauty.