Located in cities and villages across the world, cathedrals serve as dominating landmarks beckoning exploration. Discoveries await within glorious stained glass windows and ancient carvings. For the religious, cathedrals often represent the final destination of a pilgrimage. But even for the non-religious, cathedrals showcase majestic displays of the work of centuries of artisans as they tell stories of religion, history, and culture. Cathedrals boast unquestionable beauty but take a closer look at the intricate decor and see what hidden messages you discover. These outstanding cathedrals around the world have stories to tell.
Legend says the majestic Nidaros Cathedral stands over the grave of St. Olav, Norway’s patron saint. For centuries, Nidaros has served as the final destination for pilgrims following in the footsteps of St. Olav. Guided tours of Nidaros include a climb to the top of the cathedral’s tower. Not for the claustrophobic, the tour leads through narrow passageways and up a winding medieval staircase. Panoramic views of Trondheim’s colorful architecture and the surrounding fjord reward your efforts.
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 raises a fair question. 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 garners most of the attention in New York City. But the largest cathedral in New York stands further uptown in Morningside Heights. St. John the Divine spans 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 by 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 by enforcing the practice of Catholicism. 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 cleverly weaving symbols of their religion throughout the structure. The door to the church includes a sculpture of 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. A closer look at Jesus also reveals darker skin and high cheekbones — common among the Andean people.
Lincoln Cathedral, Lincoln, England
When the sun goes down in Lincoln, England the Lincoln Cathedral becomes awash with a golden light. Built in the 11th century, the cathedral displays medieval building techniques. Later during restoration, Gothic architectural designs were added. You may recognize the Lincoln Cathedral from the striking cathedral that 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 altar. 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
The striking 13th-century Gothic-Romanesque Cathedral of St. Mary sits at the edge of Germany’s Black Forest. Located in Cathedral Square, the Cathedral of St. Mary boasts the only Gothic church tower in Germany. Completed in the Middle Ages, it has been described as “the most beautiful tower in Christendom.” The tower contains 16 bells, the oldest cast in 1258. Gorgeous views of the city await those who climb to the tower’s top.
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. Pay close attention to the gargoyles around the cathedral’s top. One gargoyle’s bottom faces the town sending a cleverly disguised message of discontent to the townspeople from the artist!