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Religious travel can take the form of visiting a well-known shrine, or following the steps of a famous pilgrimage. It can also consist of a visit to a cathedral. Whether or not you are a devout Catholic, visiting a medieval cathedral in France is an awe-inspiring spiritual event. The purity of the religion that is found in these great churches is inspiring to the religious person, and the purity of the architecture is inspiring to the person who, although not necessarily religious, still appreciates works of great beauty. France has numerous Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals, as well as abbeys and monasteries, that take us back to the time when the Catholic church was the sole Church of France, and the Church had great power and influence in daily and political life.  The Church used its great wealth to create magnificent buildings and exquisite works of art that we admire to this day. If you have experienced France already, you have probably visited Notre Dame in Paris, and perhaps Chartres, two of the country’s most famous cathedrals. We, however, are going to make a trip to visit five lesser known, but no less beautiful, cathedrals, and in the process visit several regions of France.

The Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis, 1 rue de Légion d’Honneur, 93200 Saint-Denis.
tel: 01 48 09 83 54.


We start our trip in the northern suburbs of Paris, with a visit to one of the most important cathedrals in France. The Basilica Cathedral Saint-Denis rose in the 7th century on the burial site of Saint Denis, a patron saint of France. Legend has it that Saint Denis became a martyr by beheading, on the hill that is now Montmartre (it was renamed the mount of martyrs, or Montmartre, because of this act). Saint Denis continued to walk and preach, while holding his severed head, until he reached the site of the future cathedral, where he expired and where is followers buried him. The church flourished as a pilgrimage destination, and also became the burial site for the French kings. In 1137, the Abbot Suger, head of the adjacent Benedictine abbey, embarked upon a rebuilding of the church that transformed it into what many say was the first Gothic Cathedral in France, and which became the model for subsequent cathedrals throughout Europe. Suger used new architectural techniques of the time such as the flying buttress, which allowed the walls to soar to new heights, letting in more light. He also introduced the use of large stained glass windows, which were facilitated by the greater support provided by the flying buttress.

In visiting this amazing cathedral, you initially come into contact with the first uses of Gothic architecture in France. But the real experience here is seeing the burial place of the French kings. In the necropolis lie the tombs of all of the kings of France, except three, from the 10th century until the Revolution. Effigies of the Kings and their Queens are carved in stone on their tombs. Standing in the dim light of this royal burial ground, you feel the full sweep of French history, from the early Frankish Kings to the fall of the ancien regime and the Revolution.


The Cathedral of Saint Stephan in Bourges, place Etienne Dolet, 18000 Bourges.
tel: 02 48 65 49 44

We now leave Paris, and travel almost due South to Bourges, a charming medieval town that is the capital of the department of Cher, and was also the capital of the ancient province of Berry. Be sure to take time to wander the winding streets of the town and take in the many medieval houses that are still standing, as well as the ruins of the Gallo Roman wall that once enclosed the city.

Bourges is most noteworthy, however, for the magnificent Cathedral of Saint Stephan, who was the first martyr of the Christian Church. This cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is one of the finest existing examples of High Gothic architecture from the 13th century. As you enter the cathedral, the first thing that strikes you is the beauty of the stained glass. Almost all of the original windows from the 13th century have survived, and they are masterpieces of the art. The cathedral has a unique design: there is no transept, and the interior contains of two horseshoe shaped aisles that surround the central nave and choir, giving the interior the effect of a long, commanding hall, enhanced by the soaring columns and vaulted ceiling.


The Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene in Vézelay 89540 Vézelay tel: 0 892 25 12 12 .

 Leaving Bourges, we travel east and a bit north, into the Burgundy region of France. In the department of Yonne we come to the town of Vézelay. Vézelay dates back to the ninth century, when it became the site of a Benedictine monastery. Set on a hill, Vézelay is one of the “plus beaux villages de France” - the most beautiful villages of France - a designation shared by 152 of the most picturesque towns in France, which meet rigorous standards of historical preservation and village life. Legend has it that a monk brought the relics of Mary Magdalene here sometime around the end of the first millennium, from their original resting place in Provence. The Pope declared the relics to be genuine in the year 1058, which transformed Vézelay into a pilgrim destination, which it continues to be to the present day. Vézelay Abbey also became a major starting point for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compestella in Spain, one of the most import pilgrimages of the Middle Ages.

Today the Vézelay Abbey is called the Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene, and stands as a masterpiece of the Romanesque style. The Romanesque style preceded the Gothic by about two to three centuries. The construction period of Romanesque cathedrals generally spanned the 10th and 12th centuries. Their distinguishing features are rounded arches and massive walls, which gave way to the pointed arches and thinner, more graceful walls of the Gothic style. Expansion of the original church began in 1104 to accommodate the vast numbers of pilgrims who had now begun to throng to Vézelay, and architects completed the beautiful Romanesque nave in 1125. Vézelay played a significant role during the Crusades. St. Bernard preached the Second Crusade here in 1146, and Richard the Lionhearted and Philippe August met at the Basilica to leave together for the Third Crusade. The Basilica withstood much damage during the wars of religion and the Revolution, but in the 19th century it was restored by famed restoration expert Viollet de Duc, the man also responsible for restoring Notre Dame of Paris.


The Abbey of Cluny,  Palais Jean de Bourbon, F-71250 Cluny. tel: 03 85 59 89 97.

We continue on through Burgundy, travelling southeast to Cluny, near the border of the Rhône-Alps region. Cluny is more famous for what is missing than for what still exists. There was massive destruction to the religious structures during the Revolution. Certain parties took the stones from the dismantled buildings, and either sold them off or used them to build private homes in the town. Thankfully, we can see from a combination of models and still-existing buildings what Cluny really looked like at the height of its power. Rather than a standalone cathedral, as we have seen so far, Cluny was the largest religious compound in France of its time. It consisted of the Monastery and the Great Church, Cluny III (the third rebuilding of the abbey church). It is in the Romanesque style, which is so common to the Burgundy region, with later Gothic additions. 

Cluny was run by the Benedictines, and the monastery at Cluny became the largest in Europe. Its library was the most important on the Continent, containing many priceless manuscripts. The Cluniac monks also had great influence throughout Europe, spreading the vision of their order and helping to revitalize churches and monasteries as far away as England. Though the Great Church is mostly in ruins today, by looking at the remaining walls and pillars, and viewing the drawings and models, you can well imagine what this imposing edifice looked like when it was the center of a religious order that in the 12th century commanded an “army” of ten thousand monks.


 Cathedral Notre Dame de l’Assomption at Clermont-Ferrand. place de la Victoire, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand. tel: 04 73 29 29 70

We travel south and west now, into the Auvergne region, to the city of Clermont-Ferrand. Clermont-Ferrand is probably best known as the headquarters of the Michelin tire company, but it is also home to a magnificent Gothic cathedral that rose in the 13th and 14th centuries. The conception of the cathedral came in 1248, when the bishop of Clermont decided to construct a Gothic cathedral in the city. Construction continued throughout the 13th and well into the 14th century. By the mid 14th century, the cathedral was primarily finished, although work went on through further centuries, and final completion was not achieved until 1884, when Anatole de Baudot, a student of Viollet le Duc, finished the Western façade, using construction techniques from the Middle Ages.

The most striking thing about the Cathedral Notre Dame de l’Assomption is that black lava stone was used for its entire construction, which makes for a very unusual and distinctive building. The dark towers of the cathedral can be seen from miles away.  The cathedral is known for its magnificent organ, and for a rare Black Madonna that was discovered in 1974 during a restoration project.

Our trip is now over. We have made our way from Paris in the north, all the way to Clermont-Ferrand in the southern middle of France, at the very edge of the Massif Central. Along the way we have passed through the Loire Valley and Burgundy, and we have seen brilliant examples of both Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals. We have seen the artefacts of the Roman Catholic Church that was once one of the most dominant forces in France. Certainly the viewing of these medieval churches gives a feeling of timelessness and spirituality that is hard to find our hurried modern age.

Useful Definitions:
Cathedral: The principal church of a diocese, where the Bishop’s throne is kept.
Basilica: A Roman Catholic Church or Cathedral given special privileges by the pope. As we have seen above a church can be a Basilica and a Cathedral.
Black Madonna: A painting or statue of Mary in which she is depicted as having black skin.

by Michael Norris

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