Year 1000: The Time of Great Cathedrals in Western Europe

From the 10th century onward, medieval Christians anxiously prepared for the Last Judgment. In doing so, they built some of the most magnificent European cathedrals.

May 19, 2023By Dusan Nikolic, BA History of Art

great cathedrals medieval time


Popular culture perceives and values the Middle Ages only in extremes, either as the idealized Golden Age or the miserable Dark Ages. However, scratching beneath these surface notions reveals more nuances, complexities, and richness. The rise of Christianity from the 4th century onwards united different peoples under one worldview. Adopting the new faith throughout Europe made its teachings, including its eschatology (theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and humankind), more universal. Medieval scholars were calculating when the Second Coming of Christ would occur. At the turn of the second millennium, these prophecies spiraled into anxious anticipation of the Last Judgment. The belief that the Apocalypse was close ushered in the period of monumental European cathedrals.


Waiting for the Last Judgment

last judgment follower of bosch painting
The Last Judgment by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch, late 16th century, via the Philadelphia Museum of Art


Around 1000 CE, the Christian world was living in anticipation of the End. Loaded with weapons and under armor, anxiety-filled Western Europe of the 11th century lived through many omens of the Apocalypse. Fear struck people after every departure from the regular rhythms of everyday life, nature, and God’s word. Meteors and comets, balls of lightning, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions were seen as warnings predicting the fate of humanity.


With great concern, Europe awaited a thousand years since Christ’s death in the year 1033 CE. Basing their views on the last text of the New Testament, the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, the clergy had already prophesized the imminent birth of the Antichrist during the 10th century. His birth was believed to mark the beginning of the Last Judgment and the Resurrection of the Dead. These ideas were based on the interpretation of the 20th chapter of Revelation, in which Satan finally frees himself after being bound for a thousand years.


These eschatological expectations were expressed in the Byzantine East as well. Apocalyptic mood can be found in the poem of John Grammaticus, written during the civil wars at the end of the 10th century. The most important and explicit apocalyptic text from Byzantium was the hagiography of Saint Andrew the Fool. During the reign of Emperor Nikephoros II Phocas (963-969), a large body of prophetic texts about the world’s ending was written.

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European Cathedrals as Places of Salvation

Diptych with the Coronation of the Virgin and the Last Judgment
Diptych with the Coronation of the Virgin and the Last Judgment, ca. 1260-70, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The era of great European cathedrals was founded on these apocalyptic interpretations and beliefs. Eleventh-century European society could not handle the forces of nature and changes in the climate any more than its passions. Since the natural catastrophes could not be explained, they were interpreted as signs of the dies irae, or the Day of Wrath. That meant the people needed to submit and repent.


Signs which pointed to the Last Judgment urged the believers to wash away their sins and give away their earthly passions and possessions. The monastic life, renouncing wealth and violence and promoting celibacy and fasting, was revered as the main ideal everyone should strive for. The Churches of both Eastern and Western Europe recommended that laypeople turn their back to the carnal so that once transformed as a whole, humanity could meet its Maker and take its place among the righteous in the Kingdom of Heaven.


The Role of European Cathedrals in the Salvation

cloister of saint genis des fontaines
Cloister from the Abbey of Saint-Genis-des-Fontaines, 1270-1280s, via the Philadelphia Museum of Art


Since the beginning of Christian monasticism in Egypt, the importance of monasteries grew throughout the Middle Ages. They were a symbolic representation of Heaven on Earth and the ideal city of Heavenly Jerusalem. The key to collective and personal Salvation lay within their walls.


In the 11th century, monasteries had an unprecedented influence and role in spiritual and political life. The churches in the monasteries were equipped to realize the plan of the Salvation of humanity through reliquaries, icons, graves, and altars. If this mission was to be fulfilled, the monasteries had to be thoroughly reformed based on the primary rules of monasticism. Throughout Western Europe, monasteries were rebuilt and regulated based on the Rule of Saint Benedict. Despite their geographical remoteness, most of these monasteries were joined in an extensive network, making a vast congregation of monasteries. The commitment to the congregation was reflected in building a similar type of church with similar decoration, which meant a common visual identity for many European cathedrals.


The Architecture of European Cathedrals

basilica of santa maria maggiore anton hallmann
Interior View of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore by Anton Hallmann, 1883, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


European cathedrals of the Middle Ages shared some basic features. An archetype for these churches was the ancient Roman basilica. During the Roman Imperial period, they were secular buildings used as courtrooms and markets but were adapted into church architecture after the legalization of Christianity.


Basilicas are rectangular-shaped buildings with three or more aisles separated by colonnades (rows of columns). The middle nave, or the central aisle, is the widest and tallest part of the interior since it leads directly to the altar. The flanking side aisles have galleries that look inside the church built over them. A clerestory, a horizontal series of windows, surmounts the galleries, which are topped by barrel vaults. The rectangular plan of the church is broken by a transept, another rectangular area that cuts across the central axis of the basilica.


The eastern part of the church is typically divided into a choir, altar, and ambulatory. The choir is the area around the altar and was reserved for the clergy or monks who performed services throughout the day. An ambulatory is a semi-circular space surrounding the altar and choir that expands into radiating chapels. The general plan of the basilica permitted many pilgrims to circulate within an ample space without disturbing the clergy in their daily services.


Cluny: The Most Influential European Cathedral

cluny iii transcept
Remaining Transept of Cluny III, late 11th century, via Wikimedia Commons


The largest and the most influential congregation of monasteries was centered around the Cluny monastery.  Cluny was a monastery established in Burgundy, France in 910. The Cluny abbot led the congregation’s network, and other monasteries were led by priors who answered to him. The congregation spread from Burgundy to Provence and Aquitania, with some monasteries in Spain and England. At its peak, Cluny headed a community of around one thousand monasteries. From its very beginning, the monastery enjoyed much independence from the secular rulers, answering only and directly to the Pope in Rome. The relationship it had with the papacy and its dedication to Saint Peter and Saint Paul defined the visual identity of the monastery.


The church was rebuilt three times during the Middle Ages. Cluny III, as art historians number it, was built during the life of Abbot Hugo (1049-1109) and was one of the most influential European cathedrals in terms of medieval art. It was a five-aisle basilica with two transepts and radiating chapels that held relics of saints. The abbey’s relationship with Rome could be seen in using Vitruvian proportions and replicating the dimensions of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Most of the monastery was destroyed during the French Revolution in the last decade of the 18th century, but other monasteries from the congregation remain.


Saint Madeleine at Vezelay

vezelay abbey of sainte madalaine
Abbey of Sainte-Madalaine, 12th century, via UNESCO


The Vezelay Abbey, part of the Cluny congregation, was a 9th-century monastery renewed at the beginning of the 12th century and once more in 1120 after a massive fire. The building was probably modeled after Cluny II and held the relics of Mary Magdalene. Like other medieval European cathedrals, it is a basilica with a projected transept forming a cross-plan.


The central part of its sculptural decoration was a relief above the entrance into the naos of the church. The image consists of Christ in a mandorla, flanked by the figures of apostles. From Christ’s fingers flow the tongues of fire of the Holy Ghost as described in Acts 2 of the New Testament. On the sides are fields occupied with various non-Christian people who need to be Christianized. The theme was the missionary duty of the apostles being sent out by Christ and taken over by the Holy Ghost.


In 1146, in front of this church and image, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux preached the beginning of the Second Crusade. He also called upon the European aristocracy and royalty to take up their own Christian mission.


Sainte-Foy in Conques

sainte foy conques tympanum relief
Tympanum of Sainte-Foy in Conques, 12th century, via


The Abbey of Sainte-Foy was built in the 7th century and had several refurbishments, lasting until the 11th century. The current church was finished somewhere during the middle of the 12th century. Like many churches of this period, it followed the style of 11th-century European cathedrals and was a common pilgrimage spot during the Middle Ages.


Above the church’s main entrance in the tympanum is the image of the Last Judgment. Its detailed depiction of the damned must have made a considerable impression on the pilgrims entering the church. The image is divided into three zones. In the upper zone are the angels carrying a cross and calling for the Resurrection. The central zone is taken by Christ the Judge dividing the world into Paradise and Hell. In the lower zone are the representations of Heaven and Hell. Heaven was imagined as a building with Abraham at its center. A small detail of the Last Judgment includes the reliquary of Sainte-Foy (kept in the church), the hand of God, and broken chains, indicating that the sinners who prayed to the saint were released from Hell.


Santiago de Compostela 

santiago de compostela cathedral
Santiago de Compostela, 11-13th centuries, via UNESCO


Santiago de Compostela is one of the most monumental European cathedrals of the Middle Ages. The church dedicated to the apostle James was one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Western European Christendom, next to Rome and Jerusalem. Pilgrims from Western Europe could more easily reach the shrine of Saint James.


Santiago de Compostela is located northwest of the Iberian Peninsula, in the territory of the medieval kingdom of Galicia. Pilgrims of Western Europe formed four official routes through France to the Santiago de Compostela. Each of these routes included many churches, usually belonging to the Cluny congregation. These churches could be visited by the pilgrims as well.


Santiago de Compostela was continually being worked on from the 11th to the 13th century. The reconstruction of the original church was financed by King Alphonso VI and under Abbot Diego Pelaez. It closely follows the typical three-aisled basilica structure with various architectural and sculptural additions.


The main sculptural decorations can be found on the tympana above the three entrances to the church and closely relates to their function. The northern entrance was used by the pilgrims entering the church. They were met by the images of the Original Sin, prophets, and the Annunciation (which symbolized the beginning of Salvation). The bishop and king used the southern entrance when entering the church. The tympanum shows the Passion and Temptation of Christ, as well as the scene of Transfiguration. The scenes relate to the bishop’s judicial roles he performed in front of the entrance. The west, where the main portal to the church is, holds the figure of Christ with his Heavenly Court. The relief emphasizes Christ’s wounds, from which blood runs that is meant to wash away Original Sin and bring Salvation.

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By Dusan NikolicBA History of ArtDusan is an art historian and graduate of the University of Belgrade, specializing in Byzantine church architecture with an interest in the history and creation of art. Formerly a museum worker, he spends most of his research and free time on interdisciplinary work between art history and psychology.