Cathedrals required massive amounts of building materials. To build just one tower of Ely Cathedral in England took more than 800,000 pounds of wood and lead. Every cathedral required thousands of trees, and in France, people complained about the great oak forests being leveled to supply lumber.

Building materials were often brought in from far away. Lumber, sometimes in pieces 60 feet long, might come from Scandinavia. The best limestone came from France. When Norwich Cathedral was built in England, the cost of shipping the stone from 300 miles away was twice as much as the cost of the stone itself.The vault of a cathedral might often be more than 150 feet above the floor. To construct it, builders worked on a new invention, scaffolding. When the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was built in Florence, temporary restaurants and wine shops were built in the dome so workers would not have to make the exhausting trip down and up again.

A cathedral under construction attracted hundreds or thousands of workers. So that masons could work all winter, a lodge was built near the site—the origin of today’s “masonic lodges.”

European cathedrals always face east. That way, the priest at the main altar can pray toward Jerusalem, the Holy Land.

Cathedral spires were tall, thin, and extremely heavy because they were covered with sheets of lead. As a result, it was not unusual for a spire or bell tower to collapse, as one did in 1239 during a service at Lincoln Cathedral in England. A prayer used at Lincoln thereafter went, “Deare Lord, support our roof this night, that it may in no wise fall upon us and styfle us. Amen.”

Stained glass took countless hours to create. Workers melted sand, lime, and potash; blew the molten glass into a cylinder; ...

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