European Architectural styles

November 20, 2014
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The regional characteristics of European cathedrals are those characteristic architectural features which define the local cathedrals (and other great churches) of any given region, and often transcend period and style.


The earliest large churches date from the Roman Empire. As Christianity and the construction of churches and cathedral spread throughout the world, their manner of building was dependent upon local materials and local techniques. Different styles of architecture developed and their fashion spread, carried by the establishment of monastic orders, by the posting of bishops from one region to another and by the travelling of master stonemasons who served as architects. The styles of the great church buildings are successively known as Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, various Revival styles of the late 18th to early 20th centuries and Modern. Overlaid on each of the academic styles are the regional characteristics. Some of these characteristics are so typical of a particular country or region that they appear, regardless of style, in the architecture of cathedrals designed many centuries apart.

Regional examples[edit]

Note- The lists which follow aim to give, in point form, those characteristics of each selected example which typify the architecture of the region. This section does not aim to give a detailed description of each building.

Each list deals with plan, eastern end, crossing, emphasis, special features, sunlight and shadow, decoration, narrative features and things that make the building distinct from those of another region. For more detail, look up the particular building on List of Cathedrals. The method of comparison used here is based upon the descriptions of regional "architectural character" by Banister Fletcher.


The Cathedral or with the complex of buildings that surrounds it in the Piazza dei Miracoli is the epitome of the Italian Cathedral. It is a building of the Romanesque Style, built mostly between 1063 and 1092 with some Gothic additions. Many of the features that characterise this building as Italian continued to be employed right through to the Baroque period. Sir Banister Fletcher describes this cathedral as "one of the finest of the Romanesque period" with "marked individuality" and "beauty and delicacy of ornamental features".

Note- This list presents a brief analysis of regional characteristics found in the particular building. For a complete description follow the link to the web page.

  • The plan is a simple well-defined Latin cross.
  • The eastern end of the building and the terminals of the transept have semi-circular apses with no surrounding ambulatory.
  • The crossing is surmounted by a dome which, in this instance, is unusual in being oval, thus prefiguring the flexible use of architectural form of the Baroque period.
  • The various parts of the building are well defined by projection and delineation. The ornamentation serves to define separate architectural units, rather than to merge them, e.g. the vertical stages are separated by horizontal courses, the horizontal bays are defined externally by attached shafts, internally the arcade is separated from the clerestorey level by a cornice.
  • Various functions of the cathedral are isolated in separate buildings. The famous free-standing demonstrates why this was often the case in Italy- the soft soil of river valleys causes subsidence, while Italy also has a greater frequency of seismic movement than other parts of Western Europe. The Baptistry is an enormous free-standing building with a central space surrounded by a two-storey gallery.
  • The arcade is the dominant decorative feature, running in bands around the cathedral, the baptistry and, most notably, the campanile where it defines each of the eight levels. In the bright sunlight and high sun angle of southern Europe, the effect is to cast horizontal definition across the surface of the building.
  • Architectural details draw upon the Roman art, with capitals of a Corinthian type.
  • Polychrome decoration in stripes of white marble alternating with green, grey or red gives a richness to the surface of the building.
  • The media used for figurative story-telling includes mosaic, sculpture in defined rectangular panels such as the sides of an octacgonal marble pulpit and the panels of the bronze doors.

Section references: Banister Fletcher, Larousse.

Examples of Cathedrals in Italy:


is a Gothic building, 1220–1288, which typifies the cathedrals of northern France. Wim Swaan writes "In the nave of Amiens, Gothic structure and the treatment of the classic, three-stage interior elevation established at Chartres, achieved perfection."

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