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Churches of France

Whether or not your are religious, it is easy to appreciate the churches of France.  This is one of the greatest countries in the world for its abundance of grand cathedrals. 

Being able to envision how builders from the middle ages could begin to build these edifices is amazing.  Appreciating the art work that went into the structure, the stained glass and the interior artwork that is often displayed is akin to visiting the nation's museums. Additionally, the history behind the churches, and the towns and cities they represent gives a new window on centuries of French culture.  In most cities you visit, the towns central church is not to be missed. And, in many cities, there are more than one church or cathedral on a must see list.  Additionally, there is such a variety from Romanesque to Gothic to Baroque architecture. From the 4th century to the present day.     

    Here are just a few of the favorites of the more than a hundred of the French churches that I have visited.  Certainly, it is not an exhaustive list as there are more than a hundred cathedrals, and over 45,000 Catholic churches, as well as numerous abbeys and monasteries throughout France.  

And, so I don't have to worry about trying to figure out which one I like best (an impossible task), I start with Notre Dame in Paris, and then just go alphabetically by city. 

Notre Dame of Paris

Certainly, there is no way to start this list without Notre Dame of Paris.  Even with the devastating fire on that fateful April day in 2019; this is still a grand place to visit, and will be even more so after the reopening for the 2024 Olympics.  Luckily, I had the pleasure of visits before the fire, and since.  And, of course, I will visit again after the restoration.

Like most of France's cathedrals, there was a church on the site long before the current one was constructed. In this case, the cathedral of Saint Etienne was built in the 4th century just west of the current cathedral. And, it is possible that there was a Roman temple to Jupiter built long before that. 

In 1163, Bishop Maurice de Sully began construction of the current cathedral and the works lasted for more than 100 years until 1270.

   Redecorated in the Golden Century of Art under Louis XIV in 1699.  It was removed from religious purposes during the French Revolution, and restored to religion under Napoleon.  During the mid 19th century, major renovations occurred in the Gothic style, including adding the iconic spire it is so well known for.  

Today, undergoing fire restoration and still visited by millions each year to see the outside from the plaza in front. 

Notre Dame in 2017
Notre Dame in 2023

Amiens Cathedral

The list continues with the largest church in France, and the 23rd largest in the world.  It is 145 meters long and 70 meters high. The spire reaches a height of 112 meters.

Like many houses of worship in France; churches existed here long before the current cathedral. Christianity was brought to Amiens in the 4th century, but the church construction was interrupted by the Vandals in the 5th century and restarted in the 6th century.  As the previous churches were destroyed by fire; the current church was built in the 12th century. Then, in 1206, they received a relic reported to be the head of St John the Baptist.

Having survived the sacking by the Protestant Huguenots in 1561, by storms in 1627 and 1705; by the explosion of a powder mill in 1675; like many other churches, it received great damage during the Revolution, and restoration commenced in the early 19th century.

This cathedral was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.

Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire

Roman Catholic church built in the 13th century on the site of an earlier building. This one makes my list not as much for its beauty, but for the tragic history. The prior church here was destroyed during the massacre of Bezier in July of the year 1209 when the Albigensian Crusade sacked the town and killed all residents that could not escape, between 7000 and 15,000 people.  A tragic chapter in French history, and a reminder that the violence of the Crusades was not limited to the areas around Jerusalem.

The reconstruction was started in 1215 and continued for centuries. 

Sitting on top of the hill, it also benefits from a great view.  Just grab a coffee and croissant at Les Halles de Bezier just a 5 minute walk way; and hang out in the Place des Albigeois in front of the church while enjoying the view over the River Orb.

Cathédrale Saint-André

Towering Romanesque cathedral dating to the 11th century,

The first mention of a church of Saint Andre comes from the year 814 and the Romanesque church was built in the 11th and 12th centuries. 

The architecture was changed to Gothic in the 14th and 15th centuries when the English controlled the region. 

This cathedral saw the marriage of Louis VII to Eleanor of Aquitaine and also Louis XIII to Anne of Austria.  

Bourges Cathedral

Cathedral built between 1195 and 1245, with a large crypt containing the tomb of Jean de Berry.

This cathedral is one of the great examples of magnificent buildings in smaller cities that are not as well known.  The city of Bourges is a town of about 65,000 people that is 3 hours south of Paris. In the center of town is this incredible building reaching a tower height of 173 feet.

However, in 1506, disaster hit and the north tower collapsed. It was rebuilt and a taller height of 213 so to this day the church is asymmetrical

The cathedral is 125 meters long and 73 meters wide.  (Amien, the largest church in France is 145m x 70m).

Interestingly, this cathedral also claims to be the location of the marriage of Louis VII. (as does the cathedral in Bordeaux)

Saint Nazaire Basilica

A vibrant rose window adorns the facade of this elegant, Gothic-style 12th-century church.

Though Carcassonne has a separate cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Michel de Carcassonne) and this is now only a basilica, I include this church because of its history and beautiful location on the hills in the Cite du Carcassonne.

There may have been a church here since the 6th century, but nothing remains of them now. The current church was built in the first half of the 12th century, and at the end of the 13th century was reconstructed into Gothic style. 

It lost the title of Cathedral in 1803, and gained the title of historic monument in 1840.   

Cathedral of Notre Dame de l'Assomption

13th century Roman Catholic place of worship. This is the only one on my list that was built from lava stone, which is plentiful in the area around Clermont-Ferrand.

It took seven centuries to complete construction, including lengthy stoppages in the work. The three spans, the portal and the western spires were finally built in the 19th century.

Churches were built on this site in the 5th, 8th and 10th centuries. The current crypts date from the 10th century church. 

Saint Michael's Church

Possibly overlooked in favor of Cathédrale Saint-Bénigne de Dijon, Saint Michael's is my favorite church in Dijon due to the artwork.

Dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, its portal in the theme of the Last Judgement, is a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. It is rich in works of art, paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries including works by Franz Kraus. The building also includes a 15th century stone tomb and an 18th century pulpit.

Basilica of Notre Dame

19th century basilica with four octagonal towers and a religious art museum.

One of may favorite churches in France mostly because it is in one of my favorite cities and also because of the beautiful view from the hilltop.

But, it is among the younger of the buildings having been built between 1872 and 1896. 

La Major Cathedral

A cathedral was built on this location in the 12th century, but much of it was demolished for the construction of the current church. 

Today's Cathedral was started in 1852 when the Emperor Napoleon III laid the first stone. The first services were held in 1893 and it was completed and consecrated by 1897.

Though the cathedral is immense, it is not the size that I favor, but the striped Byzantine style that makes it unique.  However, it is not even the most famous cathedral in Marseilles.  That title belongs to the Notre-Dame de la Garde, also built in the 19th century, and located across the port and up the hill.

Metz Cathedral

Formally named Saint-Etienne Cathedral; this Gothic church, built from 13th to 16th centuries is famous for its huge area of stained glass, nearly 6500 sq meters of glass that dates between the 13th century to the 1960's.

Its unique ochre-yellow color is due to the use of the local stone of Jaumont.

It also holds the nickname God's Lantern in reference to the incredible lighting and luminosity that will be evident after dark.

Nancy Cathedral

Formally named Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l'Annonciation, I included this church as an example of Baroque architecture. It would look equally at home in Spain. Dating from the 18th century, this cathedral features a painted cupola and a monumental pipe organ that was built in 1756.

Plans were drawn and the first stone was laid in 1700. The first services were held in 1742 despite construction ongoing and the church was exalted to cathedral in 1777 and basilica in 1867. 

The first plans of the church had a very different looking exterior that caused some debate between 1715 and 1722, and eventually much extravagance was removed from the design to give us the unique lantern shape that we see today. 

Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

Catholic cathedral built between the 15th and 19th century, with sculpted tombs & stained glass.

It certainly got a lot less coverage, but this cathedral was greatly effected by a fire just 15 months after Notre Dame in Paris, so will remain closed until 2025.

The first cathedral in Nantes was built on the edge of the Roman fortifications in the 6th century. Having been destroyed by the Normans in the 843, the church was rebuilt from the crypt in the 12th century. 

Today's cathedral was started in 1434 and was not completed until the 19th century. 

This cathedral has had a difficult history.  In 1800, the explosion of the Spanish Tower at the nearby Château des Ducs damaged the cathedral and blew out almost all the stained glass windows. WW II bombing damaged the sacristy, a fire in 1972 destroyed the framework. and, as mentioned before, the fire in 2020. 

Cathédrale Sainte-Croix

This Gothic Cathedral of Orléans underwent almost six centuries of construction from 1287 to 1829 and has an incredibly rich history. The presence of holy relics of the cross have been here since the 7th century, and possible since the 4th century. Charles II, Robert, and Louis VI were crowned kings of France there. Joan of Arc came to pray at the Cathedral on May 8, 1429 and masses are still held in her honor.

Collegiale Notre Dame

Built around the bell tower from an 11th century church, the current structure was rebuilt from the beginning of the 12th  century, and in particular between 1130 and 1160, in the late Romaneque style, then later eastern additions in the Gothic style.  The future Louis  IX  (St Louis) was baptized here, a few days after his birth in Poissy on April 25, 1214.

Saint Pierre de Rennes Cathedral

The Cathedral in Rennes is a great example of the centuries that it can take to build and rebuild grand medieval churches.

On a site that has been used for churches since the 6th century, it once held a Gothic Cathedral built in the 12th century, but which had its front and tower collapse in 1490.   The current facade and towers began construction in 1541 and continued until 1704.  However, in 1754, stones began to fall from the roof, so the  body of the church was demolished and reconstruction began in 1787.

After being interrupted by The Revolution, work resumed between 1816 to 1845.

Saint-Étienne Cathedral

In Saint-Etienne, we have an example of a recent build that is yet unfinished. 

The city built a provisional chapel in 1829, and decided on the idea for a grand church in 1830. However, the plans were not completed for decades and construction didn't start until 1912. Luckily, 20th century construction is much faster than Medieval building projects, so the current church only took 11 years to build despite being interrupted by WW I. It was completed in 1923, consecrated in 1933, and elevated to cathedral in 1970.

However, based on the plans, the church is still missing 3 of the 4 towers, a dome, and a number of exterior decorations.  

Cathedral Notre Dame

One of my favorite cathedrals in France, and also one of those that is so tall and grand that it is nearly impossible to get a good picture. The spire reaches 142 meters and this was the tallest building in the Christian world until the 19th century.

The pink sandstone makes this church unique and looks incredible in different lighting conditions. Stop by during a summer evening when it is especially beautiful and climb to the roof platform for a great view of Strasbourg.

This Gothic construction dates from the 13th century, and houses a 16th-century astronomical clock.

A cathedral here was destroyed in 1002, and a new building suffered many fires and was ultimately demolished after 1176.

Cathédrale Saint-Gatien

In Tours, an area known more for the Loire Valley and chateaus; we have this medieval cathedral in the center of town with stained glass and royal tombs.  Built between the 13th & 16th centuries, the choir has 800 sq meter of stained glass and is a great example of the centuries long dedication to church building that happens all around France.

The first church was built here around the year 338 CE but was destroyed by fire in 558. In 590, a second church was built, and around 1160, a third was started but never finished as it sustained significant damage by fire in 1167.

In the 13th century, today's church was started but it took centuries to build. 

The nave was completed in 1470, The portals were completed in 1484. The first tower around 1507, and the second tower around 30 year later. 

Château of Vincennes St-Chapelle

In Vincennes, we have a royal chapel. 

The location became important to the royals in the 12th century when Louis VII built a manor here.  In the 13th century, Louis IX makes this an administrative center and in 1361, a fortified construction finally started and was largely built for Charles V.  

By the mid 18th century, the buildings here were used for various purposes from porcelain making to a military school and even a prison. 

By 1853, the chapel was listed as a historical monument, and large scale restoration occurred in the 1920's. Despite that, the are was still used as an armory and headquarters during WW 2. 

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