Located in cities and villages across the world, cathedrals are dominating landmarks that beckon tourists and locals to explore and discover the stories behind glorious stained glass windows and ancient carvings. For the religious they are often the final destination of a pilgrimage, but even for the non-religious, cathedrals are majestic displays of the works of centuries of artisans as they tell stories of religion, history and culture. There’s no question cathedrals are beautiful, but take a closer look at the intricate decor and you’ll often find hidden messages. Here are some cathedrals around the world not to miss.
Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, Norway
The majestic Nidaros Cathedral built over the grave of St. Olav, Norway’s patron saint, has been an important pilgrimage site for centuries. An excellent way to experience the Nidaros Cathedral is with a climb to the top. Not for the claustrophobic, the tour leads through narrow passageways and up a winding medieval staircase. Your breathlessness is rewarded by beautiful panoramic views of the city and surrounding fjord.
Beneath the cathedral the crypt contains a collection of medieval tombstones dating from as early as the 12th century. A glass topped grave with the skeletal remains of a Viking are also on display – could it be St. Olav?
St. John the Divine, New York, New York
With its prominent placement along tourist filled Fifth Avenue, St. Patrick’s Cathedral gets most of the attention in New York City, but the largest cathedral in New York – and said to be the largest in the world – is located further uptown in Morningside Heights. St. John the Divine is the length of two football fields and Lady Liberty could stand at its center without ducking her head. Construction on the cathedral began in 1892 but was interrupted for two world wars and the Great Depression. It remains an unfinished masterpiece to this day.
In the cathedral’s garden is an unusual (and actually creepy) sculpture depicting the battle of good and evil that features the Archangel Michael, the decapitated head of Satan, and nine giraffes.
Santa Domingo Cathedral, Cusco, Peru
When the Spaniards conquered Peru they sought to eradicate the traditions of the indigenous people. One of the ways they went about this was to enforce the Catholic religion. They began by forcing the indigenous workers to build a cathedral on top of an ancient Incan temple.
For a period of almost 100 years, local laborers worked on the Gothic-Renaissance Santa Domingo Cathedral but they were not defeated as they cleverly weaved signs of their religion throughout the structure. The door to the church is decorated with the head of a jaguar, a sacred animal commonly used in ancient religious symbolism. In the exquisite painting of the Last Supper, Jesus and his Disciples are sipping chicha, a local corn-based beverage, and feasting on roast guinea pig, a typical Andean meal. The painting of the Virgin Mary features a suspiciously full skirt. In fact, the skirt looks like a mountain which the Incas considered to be gods.
Lincoln Cathedral, Lincoln, England
When the sun goes down in Lincoln, England the Lincoln Cathedral is bathed in a golden light that dominates the city’s skyline. Built in the 11th century using medieval building techniques and restored in subsequent years to adopt a Gothic style of architecture, the striking cathedral was used in the filming of The DaVinci Code as a double for Westminster Abbey in London.
As you wander through the cathedral you’ll encounter many elaborate stained glass windows, statues and detailed carvings. But hidden in the upper reaches of the cathedral is the symbol of the city surrounded by myth and legend: the Lincoln Imp.
Legend has it that one day the Devil was in a playful mood, and let out all his young demons to play. After a stop at Chesterfield where the little rascals twisted the spire of St. Mary and All Saints Church, a group of imps went to Lincoln to wreak havoc on the city’s cathedral. They knocked over the Dean and smashed stained glass windows before an angel appeared from the Bible left on the alter. Most of the imps ran away, but one remained and hurled insults and stones at the angel. The angel responded by turning the wicked imp to stone.
Cathedral of St. Mary, Freiburg, Germany
Perhaps the most distinctive landmark of the lovely city of Freiburg at the edge of Germany’s Black Forest is the striking 13th century Gothic-Romanesque Cathedral of St. Mary. Located in the aptly named Cathedral Square, Freiburg’s cathedral is topped by the only Gothic church tower in Germany. It was completed in the Middle Ages and has been described as "the most beautiful tower in Christendom". The tower contains 16 bells, the oldest of which was cast in 1258. A climb to the top is rewarded with a gorgeous view of the city.
In 1944 the British bombings of World War II destroyed most of Freiburg’s city center, but the cathedral and its Gothic tower remained intact.
What are some of your favorite cathedrals around the world?
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