Understanding the Medieval Cathedral – Part 1

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral, England

Many years ago, following the completion of my undergraduate studies, I found myself stranded for several hours in the cathedral city of Salisbury, England. I no longer remember the exact circumstances which led to my separation from my fellow students, but, in the impatience of youth, I remember quite well my irritation at the unexpected delay. I endured a bland and solitary lunch and wandered over to the cathedral precincts to kill some time. After a leisurely tour of the building, I retired to the sunny west lawn with the intention of taking a quick nap. But as I lounged under the welcome shade of a huge old oak tree, I found myself, instead, growing ever more enthralled with the gothic masterpiece in front of me. I studied the ornate west front in great detail, trying to work out the general theme of the statuary with which it was adorned.

Salisbury west front

West Front, Salisbury Cathedral

Having learned during my tour that the great spire was added well after the main structure had been completed and consecrated, I attempted to identify the older parts of the building from the newer. The hours passed quickly and before I knew it the time had come to meet my ride back to school. And thus, from such inauspicious beginnings developed a life-long fascination with gothic architecture—the medieval cathedral in particular.

The medieval cathedral is, for many, the most enduring and evocative architectural survivor of the period. Palaces and castles may impress—even inspire—but they are clearly an anachronism with little or no practical use in the modern world. On the other hand, a cathedral, though quite obviously from another age, continues to serve its original purpose. Although by definition the seat of a bishop, in both form and function, cathedrals were designed primarily to exhibit the unsurpassed worth and majesty of God and to facilitate a sincere worship of Him. If my own experience can be considered representative, their power and effectiveness in doing so remains undiminished for those so inclined.

And yet we must acknowledge that the feelings of awe we experience when visiting these places of worship are likely of a more general nature than the original builders envisioned. Our eyes are drawn heavenward as we follow the thin, graceful columns up to the elaborate vaulted ceiling above, precisely as our medieval counterpart would have done. Like him, we gape in amazement at the explosion of light and color pouring in through the enormous stained glass windows. We marvel, just as he would have done, at the overwhelming sense of scale and space in spite of our familiarity with modern skyscrapers and sports stadiums. But beyond these obvious, initial observations, much of the intended effect is lost upon us. The social and spiritual context in which he and these remarkable structures were so firmly rooted is no longer familiar to us. What would have been self-evident and easily understandable to him, time has rendered mysterious and obscure to us.

But for those who desire to go deeper than mere surface observations, the first step in understanding a medieval cathedral is by grasping its general layout. Although no two cathedrals are alike, there were basic conventions that developed which governed the general design of most western ecclesiastical buildings. Therefore, medieval cathedrals tended to follow the same basic pattern even though considerable scope remained for wide variations in size, proportion, materials, decoration, and the addition of ancillary structures.

Because the medieval period represented a span of nearly one thousand years (roughly the 5th to 15th centuries), it is little wonder that technology, building techniques, and architectural tastes differed widely from the early to the late medieval periods. As a result, to the casual observer, the 7th century Saxon cathedral of St. Peter-on-the-Wall in Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex would seem to bear little resemblance to the magnificent Salisbury Cathedral, constructed some 600 years later in the early 13th century.

St Peters Chapel

St. Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex

But a closer examination reveals that, although on entirely different scales, the two buildings are built to the same general plan—a plan that would have been as familiar to an early medieval Saxon stonemason as it would to his later, more sophisticated Norman successor.

Firstly, both are set on an east-west alignment typical of medieval Christian churches (and burials, for that matter). It would be more appropriate to call it a “west-east” alignment, as the main public entrance is nearly always to be found at the west end of the structure, welcoming the faithful into the main body, or nave, of the church. Continuing further inside the building, the level of exclusivity and holiness increases as one moves eastward. This strict orientation survives from Christianity’s earliest traditions and appears to have been borrowed from earlier Jewish practice (Orientation of Churches, 2014). Significantly, it had the added benefit of ensuring that those attending Mass always prayed facing the Holy Land.

Secondly, the rough layout of both main structures is in the shape of a cross, a clear reference to the method of Christ’s death. This is less obvious in the case of St. Peter-on-the-Wall as the original transepts (the wings representing the arms of the cross) and the rounded apse (the projection at the extreme east, and therefore, holiest, end of the building) have been lost. An aerial view, however, reveals the surviving foundations and shows the original extent of the structure.

St Peters Aerial

Aerial View, St. Peter-on-the-Wall

From these two seemingly dissimilar examples we can deduce a basic prototype illustrated in the simple diagram below (scores of others could be put forward to prove the point). We recognize immediately the cross-shaped footprint oriented west to east.

Cathedral floorplan

Prototypical Medieval Cathedral Layout 


Because the visitor was to approach the building from the west, the exterior decoration of the west front tended to be the most elaborate. It was to serve as a dazzling first impression of what was in store when one passed into the interior of the building. Thus, my decision to retire to the west lawn at Salisbury, though accidental, was a fortuitous one. Lincoln Cathedral is an even finer example of this tendency, as the magnificent west façade has been extended out on either side, far beyond the actual width of the nave in order to accentuate the scale and grandeur of the whole. (Stemp, 2010)


Lincoln Cathedral, West Front

The doors on the west front can also give us a clue to the internal circulation pattern in the nave. Not all medieval churches have side aisles running parallel to the main nave, but those that do generally have doors leading into them off the west front. Therefore, a west façade with a large central door and two smaller doors to left and right indicate a central nave with aisles running along either side. You can see such an arrangement in the picture of Lincoln Cathedral above.

In the next post, I will take you inside a medieval cathedral and we will examine what it would have looked like and how the space would have been used. And perhaps we can catch a glimpse of what our medieval counterpart may have experienced during his visits to these magnificent buildings.


Orientation of Churches. (2014, November 11). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientation_of_churches

Stemp, R. (2010). The Secret Language of Churches & Cathedrals. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, Ltd.

Photo Credits

Salisbury Cathedral, England https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_dedalus/2237335210/

West Front,  Salisbury Cathedral  https://elizabethvines.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/img_4355.jpg

St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex https://www.flickr.com/photos/g_travels/2577694299

Aerial View, St Peter-on-the-Wall     Google Maps

Prototypical Medieval Cathedral Layout   Adapted from: http://www.planetgast.net/symbols/floorplan/flrpln.jpg

Lincoln Cathedral, West Front http://www.hdnicewallpapers.com/Wallpaper-Download/Countries-and-City/Lincoln-Cathedral-The-Lincoln-Imp-in-Country-England-UK-HD-Tourist-Place-Wallpapers



8 thoughts on “Understanding the Medieval Cathedral – Part 1

  1. I have been to St Peter on the Wall, Bradwell, many times, as my husband’s choir often sings concerts there. It’s so beautifully peaceful, just you, the church, the sea and the wind turbines.

  2. Cathedrals are fascinating places to visit. One can only marvel at the skill of the mediaeval master craftsmen – and their patience.

    • I completely agree, Andrew. If my family would let me I could spend my entire holiday simply exploring old cathedrals and churches. I too am intrigued with the skill and techniques of the builders. But I am equally attracted to understanding their motivations.

  3. I share your fascination for these magnificent structures, James. The architecture and sheer scope of such buildings leaves me in awe. I’ve never been inside Salisbury Cathedral, but I’ve been in several others, including Durham, York (actually a ‘minster’) Liverpool, Chester, Ely – and, of course, Lincoln. I say ‘of course’ here because I live close to Lincoln. Our eldest daughter had her PhD graduation inside Lincoln Cathedral. I enjoyed reading your interesting post, James.

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