Cathedral Architecture: History & Parts

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: House Architecture: Styles & Designs

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:03 Cathedrals
  • 0:48 History of Cathedral…
  • 2:23 Parts of a Cathedral
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Cathedrals are a very important part of both Christianity and Western architecture. In this lesson, we'll look over the history and basic parts of a cathedral and see how they've changed over time.


If you've ever had the chance to walk along any street in Europe, there's probably been a point where you turned a corner, saw an extremely impressive building, and just had to stop and stare. There's also a good chance that this building was a cathedral. In European history, few buildings have had as large an impact on architectural development as cathedrals. A cathedral is a specific kind of Christian church that serves as the seat of a bishop. The bishop is in charge of a diocese; a diocese is a region under a bishop's authority, making the cathedral the most important church in that area. As the center of the diocese, a cathedral is to a diocese what a capitol building is to a state in the USA. Cathedrals are important buildings and are intended to be impressive.

A cathedral is the seat of a bishop

History of Cathedral Architecture

The history of cathedral architecture begins around the year 312 CE. When the Byzantine emperor, Constantine I, publicly converted to Christianity and legitimized Christianity as a formal religion, the Christian church as we know it was formally organized. Although there were impressive buildings long before, calling these structures cathedrals would be misleading, as bishops did not come into play until the 4th century.

With the early Christian church based largely in Rome, its architecture was mostly based on Roman precedents. In the Roman Empire, local magistrates would hold court in a long, rectangular hall called a basilica. In one end of the hall, the magistrate would legislate, and at the other end was generally a small chapel-style temple to worship the Roman gods. Basilicas were important to Romans, as they constituted an unrestricted public space, something Romans valued as a right of citizenship. This meant that practically anybody could congregate in a basilica to hold meetings, socialize, or discuss important matters. When early Christians started coming together to practice their religion, they often did so in Roman basilicas.

Because early Roman Christians met in basilicas, they were used to worshiping in basilicas and thus, basilicas became the obvious choice as a model for the first formal place of worship. Therefore, the first cathedrals looked like a Roman basilica, being long and rectangular. They also generally featured three aisles divided by rows of columns. Later, church architects added a perpendicular section, making the entire building look like a Christian cross. This is called a cruciform plan. To this day, most cathedrals are built in the basilica cruciform plan.

Parts of a Cathedral

Over time, cathedrals came to share a common adhere to a basic floor plan, although there are always exceptions. Let's start at the entrance. When you walk through the main front door of the cathedral, generally called the West Door, you enter into the narthex. The narthex is a congregating space, often separated from the main worship area by another set of doors. The narthex has changed quite a bit over the years. At times it was almost non-existent, and at other times it was massive. Some medieval cathedrals had large seating areas in an elevated narthex reserved for royal patrons, while others used the narthex to hold royal tombs.

Parts of a cathedral

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account