When it comes to places of Christian worship, there are two main schools of thought – one is that the act of worship itself is the important bit, and the surroundings are unimportant. The other is that the building is part of the worship, and by maintaining God’s church, you are demonstrating a little of God’s glory here on Earth. Over the years, that difference in opinions has divided people roughly into Protestant and Catholic camps, although it is the doctrinal differences that have caused the unholy amount of fighting between the two.
You can certainly see the appeal of the stripped-down approach – all that gold leaf doesn’t maintain itself, and it takes a lot of effort and money to keep Cathedrals looking shiny. But then there’s something about a gorgeous Cathedral that will help people feel closer to God. And the revenue from merchandise comes in handy too. And that’s why only the most spectacular make it into our Top 10 Most Ornate Cathedrals.
10. St. John Lateran Archbasilica, Rome
Contrary to popular belief, the ornate splendor of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is not actually a cathedral. In order to have cathedral status, it must be the seat of a Bishop rather than just a big church. And St Peter’s doesn’t fall into that category. The Arcibasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano (or the Basilica of St John Lateran), however, does and it’s grand and glorious enough to justify the status. Huge gold columns befitting a Greek temple stand below an intricate painting of Jesus, while statues around the building depict the major saints. It also contains the Holy Steps – a set of marble steps encased in wood that are said to have come from the court of Pontius Pilate,and therefore trodden upon by Jesus Himself. It’s an impressive building, which is not surprising given that the Bishop whose seat it is is none other than the Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope.
9. St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna
An unusual-looking Cathedral next, in Vienna, Austria. Known as “Steffi” to Vienna residents, this Cathedral’s distinguishing feature is its huge mosaic-ed roof, which comprises of 230,000 tiles. The mosaic includes the Hapsburg Empire’s double-headed eagle as well as coats of arms for Vienna and Austria.
Inside, it’s as ornate as you’d expect from a cathedral. It has 18 altars, including the gilded Wiener Neustädter Altar, which opens its panels on a Sunday to reveal wooden figures depicting the life of the Virgn Mary. Mary also stars in another feature of the cathedral – its very own miraculous painting, the Maria Pötsch Icon. This was brought from Hungary to the cathedral after it was seen to shed real tears. Sadly, the icon has not cried in its new home although a copy of the picture that was sent back to Hungary reportedly has done. Still, the Austrians claim that the picture has brought them luck and has answered many prayers. Worth a visit if you’re in need of a miracle!
8. Puebla Cathedral
From the outside, the cathedral in Puebla, Mexico doesn’t look anything special with its dark grey stone. But inside is completely different, with 14 altars beautifully decorated, and high arches. There are statues of several major saints, as well as four Spanish kings, all of the same line that planted that eagle on the roof in Vienna (the Hapsburgs). The cathedral also comes with its own legend – one of the two towers has no bell in it, and it’s said that if a bell was ever installed the tower would collapse into the secret underground river below. That’s a theory that’s probably best left untested….
7. St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow
Another building that looks completely unconventional, the candy-striped towers of St Basil’s are famous around the world. It was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible, and it is said that Ivan had the architect’s eyes gouged out after completion so that he would never build anything as beautiful for anyone else. In fact, the architect, Postnik Yakovlev, went on to design many more buildings although he could have done it from memory.
The building was seized from the Russian Orthodox community under Soviet rule, as a communist society was meant to be strictly secular. It remains under government ownership and operates as a museum. It is architecturally unique, so we can only be grateful that the planned demolition under Stalin in the 1930s never happened and tourists can still view its multicolored twisted towers today.
6. Braga Cathedral
The cathedral in Braga, Portugal, is another one that doesn’t impress from the outside but has some beautiful features on the inside, such as two elaborate gold organs. The altar is a majestic red and gold, with an impressive number of candles, and there are three aisles and five chapels. It also has a renowned statue called Our Lady of the Milk, with Mary nursing the baby Jesus. One of the most important cathedrals in Portugal.