Cathedral Frontiers: The Outer Rim of the medieval Latin Church

So here I hurdle towards completing the second (and I’m pinning it to the wall as FINAL) global pandemic project of finding every medieval cathedral in the Latin Church. Here I combine the Balkans, central Europe, the Baltic, Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia as a frontier that stretches from the Dnieper to the Americas to tidy up (almost) the last ones outside of the traditional cathedral centres of France, England, Germany, Italy and Spain.

I have written a 65-page PDF of all of these buildings available for download at the bottom of this post. But first you may wish to have a taster of the extremities of these frontiers. The western, northern, north-eastern and south-easternmost cathedrals of the Latin Church.

Westernmost medieval cathedral

Garðar (Greenland)

It is extremely little-known that the medieval Latin church founded a diocese, with an actual cathedral church with residential bishops, in the genuine Americas in the twelfth century. First assigned to the archdiocese of Bremen, then to Lund in Denmark, it eventually became part of the newly-founded Norwegian diocese of Nidaros in 1152.

In the eleventh century, Norse settlement had got as far as L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland (now Canada), and while that settlement was probably permanently abandoned by the point Garðar diocese was established, it demonstrates the potential reach of this pioneering see. Bishops continued in Greenland, with varying degrees of residence, until the late fourteenth century. The diocese and settlement went extinct in the fifteenth century when the medieval warm period ended and agriculture on the island became unsustainable.

The cathedral site from the NE. The bishop’s burial marking can be seen on the right.
Ivory crozier head and episcopal ring from Garðar, mid thirteenth century. Nationalmuseet, Denmark

The cathedral survives only as foundations excavated by Danish archaeologists in 1926 now marked mostly by raised turf. There isn’t much to say about the church except that it was a simple aisleless cruciform plan built of local red sandstone, articulated with a stringcourse of soapstone. The nave may have had an internal timber arcade to hold up the roof, but its masonry outer walls would have made it stand out from the rest of the settlement. The building is usually thought to be work of Bishop Jón smyrill Árnason, who, among travels back to Norway and Rome, died in his see in 1209.

Perhaps the most interesting find during the 1920s excavations was inside the the NE chapel: a skeleton wearing an episcopal ring and buried with a walrus-ivory crozier. Carbon-14 dating on the bones strongly suggest this is the burial of Bishop Olaf (1246-80). His burial is now marked with a modern carved cross-slab.

Gardar Cathedral 3

Reconstruction of Garðar Cathedral by the mysterious xxUserxx

Gardar Cathedral 5

Section showing timber arcade. Please click to view their gallery, there are other Norse churches based on summary excavation evidence.

Northernmost medieval cathedral

Trondheim (Norway)

The two medieval cathedrals of the Norse medieval colony on Iceland, Skálholt and Hólar, were made of timber and neither have survived in their medieval form. So just of slightly higher latitude than Garðar is its archdiocesan church of Trondheim.

View of the c.1200- octagon, looking W. The N arcades (R) were rebuilt after the fire of 1328, and the whole triforium also replaced with more elaborate English Decorated tracery at the same time. The whole internal S elevation (L) had to be dismantled and reconstructed in the 1510s.

The medieval name for the town was Nidaros, old Norse for “at the mouth of the Nid” (now the River Nidelva). King Olaf II Haraldsson founded the town in 997 and its church had a bishop by 1015. When Olaf died in battle in Sweden in 1030, his body was returned for burial at Trondheim. On exhumation a year later his body was found to be perfectly preserved, and was reinterred at the town church, whereupon a cult sprung around his burial. In the latter part of the eleventh century his nephew, King Olav III Haraldsson, built the first masonry church, dedicated as Christchurch.

Trondheim Cathedral, photograph c.1860, before the first major restoration campaign. Most early images are from this angle to hide the demolished nave. Note the simple “Y”-tracery of the choir, which at this point was still sheer walls blocking off the aisles.

This royal pedigree contributed to why Trondheim was chosen as a seat of an archbishop, despite its remoteness from mainland Europe, as well as the ambition to maintain an ecclesiastical province across the islands of the north Atlantic. In 1152/3, English-born Nicholas Breakspear (later Pope Adrian IV) oversaw the promotion of Trondheim to a metropolitan archdiocese.

Trondheim Cathedral, S choir elevation, first built c.1220s-, reconstructed under Christian Christie 1877-90.

Around that time, construction began on a much larger cathedral to replace the Christchurch of Olaf III, in a mature Romanesque style similar to that of the cathedrals and great abbeys of England. A Gothic octagon for the relics of St Olav was attached to the E end at the beginning of the thirteenth century, and subsequently the Romanesque apse demolished for a new Gothic choir in a manner close to Lincoln Cathedral, likely with some masons brought from England (the structural problems that the arcades suffered almost immediately, if anything, only supports the assumption English masons were involved: remember Lincoln’s tower fell down while they were building it). The nave was constructed from some point in the later part of the thirteenth century, with the foundation stone for the W front placed in 1240, but it’s a point of argument quite how much was ever finished to the full eight bays we see today.

Section of Trondheim Cathedral, N. Ryjord, 1906, to the plan of the C. Christie reconstruction, and well before the nave rebuild was completed
Trondheim Cathedral from the NW in 1878, photograph by Erik Olsen. The three portals of the W front have all been buttressed up and the nave behind is still an open yard.

You see, the problem with Trondheim, is that because it was very unlucky, hardly any of the building you see today is actually medieval. Being in a town essentially completely made of timber, it had its fair share of fires, but a particularly savage city blaze in 1531 left the cathedral gutted. It might have been fixed up better, but the Lutheran reformation and the disestablishment of the Catholic archdiocese left little appetite for restoring the church properly. The nave had its arcades pulled down and only the aisle walls left standing, forming a open courtyard in front in the blocked-up western arch of the crossing tower.

Trondheim Cathedral W front, engraving by Jacob Maschius, 1661, for his publication “Norwegia Religiosa“. Note the N portal is still open, and the fragments of the the niches flanking the central window, which had gone by the 19thc, but informed the 20thc rebuilding

The now-famous choir had not been without its problems almost as soon as it was built, and the arcade columns had already been partly walled up, so it was not a huge leap after the 1531 fire to completely wall up the lot with only a few arched openings into the side aisles. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, all that was medieval of the choir interior was the eastern octagon and its 1330s stone screen. The south wall on the site of the former S arcade pierced with large windows, and the north wall filled with galleries like opera boxes facing the pulpit.

Hopefully this slidey thing, although it’s not quite perfect (I spent quite a while trying to fit the 360 photo over it) will hit home just quite how much Trondheim has changed in the past couple centuries…

Plans to restore the cathedral back to its medieval Gothic magnificence began after the embarrassing condition of the building was fully evident during the coronation of King Carl John in 1818. In 1842, German architect Heinrich Ernst Schirmer conducted a full survey of the building, and in 1869-71 he restored the Romanesque sacristy on the north side of the choir. Schirmer’s work was judged unnecessarily heavy-handed and his contract was not renewed. In 1872, Swedish architect Christian Christie was appointed, and begun with the stabilisation and re-roofing of the best preserved part of the medieval cathedral: the Olav shrine octagon.

The famous crocketed “Trondheim column” found in the 16thc N wall core, with the 1323- octagon screen column in the foreground

Between 1877-90, Christie rebuilt the Lincoln-like choir arcades by demolishing the sixteenth-century walls and retrieving the original responds and parts of their carved masonry from the cores. He got round the original medieval structural problems by using modern materials such as cast concrete and steel, and increased the dimensions of the piers slightly.

Christian Christie’s elevation design for the nave NW bay, with retrieved medieval masonry pieces coloured magenta.

The nave was arguably an even bigger job, but Christie managed to use the many bits of architectural masonry that the cathedral lapidarium had collected from all over the town, and like a big jigsaw puzzle with only a few pieces remaining, the elevation was rebuilt using as much medieval work as possible. Christie died suddenly in 1906, and his work was continued by his assistant, Nils Ryjord. Subsequent work 1908-25 fell to the young (born 1883) architect Olaf Nordhagen, who current Nidaros archaeologist Øystein Ekroll shows had a very stressful opposition to his plans to rebuild the upper parts of the W front in a neutral style, and died in 1925 aged only 42.

The ultimate task of rebuilding the W front fell to the also young (born 1897) Helge Thiis, appointed 1930. The current W front is almost certainly higher than the medieval church ever got. The S tower was only topped out in 1969. In my opinion, Nordhagen’s plan would have been way better than the current blocky screen facade that has nothing to do with the building behind.

Comparison between Trondheim’s W front in early 1930 (before the 900th anniversary of St Olav’s death on 29 July) and July 2019 (via Google street view, deformed by me to fit). The state for the 1930 jubilee represents the extent of medieval design that is known from the surviving aisle-level fabric, viz the three gallery-level canopied niches recorded on the 1661 engraving, and the documented presence of a central rose window. Everything subsequently added afterwards is entirely modern in design.
[It should be noted in the 2019 street view, the central spire is entirely obscured by the SW tower, it is of course there]

Easternmost medieval Latin cathedral, in northern Europe

Tartu (Estonia)

The easternmost Latin bishopric in Europe was Kyiv (Ukraine, often still referred to in English with the Russian Kiev), established in 1321. However, the medieval Latin bishop in Kyiv never had his own cathedral church, spending his time in the Dominican Priory (the extraordinary, largely eleventh-century cathedral of St Sophia, with its extensive surviving medieval mural art, being on the eastern side of the Great Schism, is beyond the scope of this project).

Instead, for sheer latitude, we need to look at the Baltic States, nominally pagan until the beginning of the Northern Crusades in the early thirteenth century. Its Latin Church dioceses were established as part of what was essentially a Germanic state-building campaign toward the increasingly-profitable trading basin of the Baltic Sea under the wafer-thin guise of missionary work. In fact much of the campaigns of the nominally-religious militia of the Teutonic Knights can only be called ethnic cleansing of Baltic tribes to colonise the coastline for their own monetary profit as a monastic state.

All of the four cathedral sites established in Old Livonia in the early thirteenth century have a fortified character (Piltene and Haapsalu actually being inside castle baileys), but the easternmost, Tartu, is perhaps most imposing for its enormous W block.

Tartu Cathedral from the N in 1803, ink on paper (?)by Eduard Philipp Körber
Tartu Cathedral, nave, from SE. The main arcades outside and in can be seen, with the aisles and buttress chapels with a single roofline against the SW tower.

The prince-bishopric of Dorpat (the German form of the Estonian Tarbatu) was founded 1224 as roughly a quarter of so-called Terra Mariana in the region of Livonia at the edge of the Baltic after the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, later part of the Teutonic Knights, hammered it into submission. The cathedral is an early backsteingotik basilica, begun in the second half of the thirteenth century and in use by 1299: it has an articulated triforium with a clerestory. By 1470 the E arm had been rebuilt as a hall church. Subsequently the massive W towers were completed.

Tartu Cathedral before the construction of the library in the hall-choir, watercolour, April 1803 by Johann Wilhelm Krause. Tartu University Library.

The cathedral may have been damaged in the iconolastic riot of 7 January 1525 incited by the reformer Melchior Hofman, but most certainly structurally compromised by the occupying Russian army 1558 under a certain Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible one), when the bishopric subsequently subsequently ended. The church building further deteriorated under the occupation of the Lutheran Swedish Empire. In 1804-7 the hall-choir was fitted out and re-roofed for a library of the University of Tartu, and has been a museum since 1981. The nave however remains roofless and vaultless, with the outer walls and chapels mostly gone.

Tartu Cathedral after the conversion of the hall-choir into the university library, Lithograph by Louis Höflinger 1860 (Tartu Art Museum)

easternmost medieval Latin cathedral, IN southern Europe

Gyulaféhérvár (Alba Iulia, Romania)

Gyulaféhérvár Cathedral, W front.

The name looks like a mouthful to a monoglot Anglophone, but not too bad if you break it down into Gyula feher var: Julia’s white castle. This Gyula was a tenth-century Hungarian leader who was baptised in Constantinople and brought a bishop back to the Roman castrum of Apulum. Subsequently in Stephen’s reign (Gyula was his maternal grandfather) and the adoption of the Latin Church, Apulum became the bishopric of what came to be known as Transylvania (“beyond the forest”).

The current cathedral was built over the walls of a basilica first built in the time of King Stephen. It was rebuilt beginning from the last quarter of the twelfth century, and its sources surprisingly numerous and far-flung. The most striking part is arguably the nave that was completed early in the thirteenth century. Its vaulting system the double-bay quadripartite with no middle storey articulation common to great-church architecture in the Holy Roman Empire (see more of this here), but the half-columns, gently pointed arches, and big roll on the intrados more akin to the Burgundian Romanesque.

Gyulaféhérvár Cathedral, nave E bays of S arcade. Early 13thc.

The east end that went with this building was evidentially heavily damaged in the raids of 1241/2 by the expanding Mongol Empire, and quickly replaced with a rather understated yet graceful polygonal apse based on French High Gothic style: the “voids” above the trefoil oculi of the windows is very like Rheims Cathedral (begun 1211).

Gyulaféhérvár Cathedral, choir, probably originally built from 1287 (W bay to L over choir stalls late 12thc), and reconstructed mid-18thc
Fragments of the transverse arch of the Romanesque
apse of Gyulafehérvár cathedral, reconstruction
(Roman Catholic Archbishopric of Gyulafehérvár,

However, the original apse was exceptionally lavish and interesting. As Imre Takács has shown, it used advanced point-to-point chevron ornament of English stylistic origin. However, the tympanum of the S nave portal looks far more Imperial German. There are also sculptural fragments embedded in the upper apses, that at least have Roman stylistic pedigree.

Plaster cast of the S portal of the S transept of Gyulaféhérvár Cathedral originally c.1200, cast made 1905×7, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

South-westernmost medieval latin cathedral??!

Silves Cathedral (Portugal), begun c.1268

Well, it’s Silves in Portugal, isn’t it. But that’s the remit of my Spacefleet Iberia, so check that out instead. Although Lisbon founded the diocese of Funchal in 1514, which became the archdiocese for subjugating the New World and Africa from 1533. Which, as well as far outside of my expertise, is also the time that the Latin Church lost great swathes of its jurisdiction in Europe as state Churches seceded in the reformation, so a good time for me to draw the line on when to stop.

Since most of these buildings are extremely obscure in the English-language literature, I didn’t think it was worth releasing this unless I actually did a summary of each one. Something that I thought would take like an afternoon but somehow it ballooned into 64 pages.

The PDF, with all the plans scaled and about 100-300 words on the main points of each medieval cathedral is now available for FREE! It is illustrated with lots of B/W out-of-copyright prints and photographs. And there are links to Google Maps for each building with the 3D flagged up so you can look at what they look like now for yourself. So click here! Or there!

Wow! If you like it please do consider donating where you can also get download links to the usual pair of hi-res images in space mode and not space mode.

As usual I have gathered all the groundplans (some of the tiny Irish ones by tracing over aerial photos) with their vaulting plans (some of which I’ve needed to draw on myself via looking at Google Earth 360s). A clean version with the kingdoms and archdioceses without silly cod-Latin spaceship allusions is available via donation on my Ko-Fi page.

Of course, this might be the Outer Rim: but there’s still a Final Frontier…

And do please check out the Academia pages for Øystein Ekroll and Imre Takács as I wouldn’t have been able to say anything nearly as interesting about Trondheim and Gyulaféhérvár without them sharing their articles online!