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The Cathedral

The Cathedral

Professor William R. Cook Ph.D.
State University of New York, Geneseo
Course No.  7868
Course No.  7868
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

To step inside a Gothic cathedral is to step inside the visual essence of the Christian faith—a world filled with vaulted ceilings that direct the visitor's gaze toward heaven, stone sculptures that bring to life both the blessings of salvation and the horrors of damnation, and stained glass windows that illustrate powerful religious stories in dazzling bursts of color.

Since the Christianization of Europe in the 4th century, cathedrals have served as

  • centers of ecclesiastical authority;
  • marvels of architectural genius and innovation;
  • places to instruct communities about cherished Christian values and lessons, and
  • sites of political, cultural, intellectual, and economic importance.
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To step inside a Gothic cathedral is to step inside the visual essence of the Christian faith—a world filled with vaulted ceilings that direct the visitor's gaze toward heaven, stone sculptures that bring to life both the blessings of salvation and the horrors of damnation, and stained glass windows that illustrate powerful religious stories in dazzling bursts of color.

Since the Christianization of Europe in the 4th century, cathedrals have served as

  • centers of ecclesiastical authority;
  • marvels of architectural genius and innovation;
  • places to instruct communities about cherished Christian values and lessons, and
  • sites of political, cultural, intellectual, and economic importance.

Whether they're located in the heart of a major city or on the outskirts of a rural town, cathedrals possess a spiritual, artistic, and historical grandeur that deserves to be experienced and felt by Christians and non-Christians alike. But rather than traveling around the world to get just a cursory, ground-level glimpse of their greatness, bring these captivating buildings—in their entirety—right into your own home with The Cathedral.

In this course, noted medieval historian and award-winning Professor William R. Cook has crafted an exciting, immersive, and multidimensional experience that will bring you closer to cathedrals like Notre Dame in Paris and those in Amiens, Chartres, and Canterbury than any on-site tour could hope to do. These 24 lavishly illustrated lectures make use of high-definition 3-D modeling and imagery to not just show you the world's great Gothic cathedrals, but to take you around and inside them, revealing new perspectives you can't enjoy anywhere else.

Explore the Evolution of the Cathedral

Of all architectural styles, the Gothic style is the most successful, the most prevalent, the most iconic, and the most closely associated with these magnificent buildings. Picture a random cathedral in your mind, and what you conjure up undoubtedly bears some resemblance, in look and feel, to a Gothic cathedral.

And while you can find Gothic cathedrals throughout the world, there's no better place to witness their glory than in the cities and towns of France, as well as in other European countries, including Germany, Italy, and England. It's only in this part of the world that you can witness the birth and development of these architectural wonders—and the reason Professor Cook has made Europe's Gothic cathedrals the focus of his course.

As you follow the fascinating story of how the Gothic cathedral evolved, you'll get a keen look at each of the major stages of Gothic architecture.

  • Romanesque: The roots of Gothic cathedrals lie in the Romanesque style, a catchall term to describe a range of Roman-influenced styles that developed in the 11th and 12th centuries and that can be found in cathedrals such as Saint-Lazare in Autun, France.
  • Early Gothic: Early Gothic cathedrals, such as Notre Dame in Paris, blended traditional Romanesque elements with a new aesthetic that included experimental features such as large rose windows and six-part ribbed vaulted ceilings.
  • High Gothic: The Gothic style reached the apex of engineering and artistry with Chartres Cathedral, which features dramatically sculpted portals, facade towers, and the extensive use of flying buttresses for added support.
  • Late Gothic: During the 14th and 15th centuries, many cathedrals and churches were finished or remodeled in a more "flamboyant" decorative style, reflected in everything from stonework to sculpture to stained glass windows.
  • Neo-Gothic: There was a great revival in the 19th and 20th centuries that blended Gothic elements with more modern architectural styles. One of today's most famous neo-Gothic cathedrals is the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York.

You'll also get a chance to find answers to a range of questions:

  • Who built the first cathedrals? Why? How?
  • What makes a cathedral Gothic and not something else?
  • What are the symbolic and structural purposes of vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses, archivolts, jamb statues, and other parts of a cathedral?
  • How are these buildings meant to be experienced by the people for whom they were originally built?

Tour the World's Greatest Cathedrals

The heart of The Cathedral lies in the sweeping tours of the buildings themselves. With the eye-popping technology featured in these lectures, you'll be able to travel from the deepest crypt to the tallest tower, viewing these buildings from angles and vantage points no tour can offer.

Here are some of the great Gothic cathedrals you'll explore in depth in these lectures.

  • Notre Dame in Paris: With its famous facade and its iconic status as one of the world's foremost cathedrals, Notre Dame has been remodeled more often than any other cathedral (most notably after the French Revolution). With an estimated length of 400 feet, the cathedral features an innovative double-aisled nave and soaring vaults that make it a breathtaking sight—despite its surprisingly dark interior.
  • Chartres Cathedral: Equally as important as Notre Dame in Paris, this cathedral set the architectural standard for French cathedrals built after the late 12th century. Professor Cook devotes three lectures to this impressive cathedral, providing you with fascinating looks at many aspects of its brilliance, including its basement crypt (the largest of any Gothic cathedral), its three richly sculpted portals, and its jaw-dropping windows (nearly all of which contain stained glass from the 12th and 13th centuries).
  • Amiens Cathedral: It's at Amiens Cathedral where one truly sees the full splendor and the limits of Gothic engineering and construction. Professor Cook's favorite cathedral, this cathedral was (rather unusually) built from west to east. As a result, the different ends of the cathedral offer you a true lesson in the development of the Gothic style.
  • Reims Cathedral: The cathedral at Reims is closely tied to the country's history, having served as the location for more than 800 years' worth of coronations and having survived German bombardment during World War I. One of the many aspects of this building you'll learn about are its more than 2,000 statues—some small, some terrifying, and some among the most important in all of medieval sculpture.

While you focus on these and other French cathedrals, you'll get a chance to visit those from other European countries as well, including York Cathedral, the Cathedral of Cologne, and the Cathedral of Siena. You'll also get glimpses of less familiar Gothic cathedrals outside of Europe, in countries like China, Mexico, and the United States. Among these: the Dominican Republic's Santo Domingo (the oldest cathedral in the New World) and Washington, DC's National Cathedral (which incorporates distinctive American elements into its decoration).

An Immersive, Insightful Learning Experience

Of course, it's one thing to learn about all these cathedrals, but to actually tour them all would be extremely expensive. Yet with its extensive 3-D tours, The Cathedral is the perfect and affordable way to visit and explore the world's great Gothic cathedrals—whether you simply want to take an armchair tour of these masterpieces, whether you want to prepare for cathedrals you may visit on an upcoming trip, or whether you just want to learn more about this sometimes mysterious, always intriguing art form.

Yet as dynamic as the visuals are, every single lecture is rooted in the detailed scholarship and fascinating insights of Professor Cook himself. A lifelong scholar of cathedrals, he's traveled the world to learn about these magnificent structures. And every lecture is a way for him to share, with the characteristic passion and engagement that have made him one of our most popular professors, his comprehensive knowledge of cathedrals: how they're built, how they've evolved, and what they mean to people both in the past and today.

So embark on an unforgettable experience with The Cathedral. Dynamic, comprehensive, and immersive, it's a Great Course that will finally illuminate these powerful buildings—their intricate structures, their hidden secrets, and their undeniable importance to art, faith, and history.

View Less
24 Lectures
  • 1
    What Is a Cathedral?
    Start your tour of great Gothic cathedrals with this introductory lecture. Discover the important role these buildings play in both spirituality and society, and learn how their origins lie in the 1st century A.D. with the emergence of the office of the bishop, whose throne is known as a "cathedra." x
  • 2
    Early Christian Architecture
    Go back to the 4th century A.D, when Christians first began to erect large buildings for public worship. Taking you to the dawn of the 11th century, Professor Cook leads you through the most important examples of surviving ecclesiastical buildings from this period, including Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and the Hagia Sophia in modern-day Istanbul. x
  • 3
    Romanesque—A New Monumental Style
    By 1100, many churches in western Europe were built using a range of local styles, all of which in some manner hearkened back to classical Roman forms. Here, explore the development of the Romanesque style and survey impressive examples of Romanesque cathedrals in France, Germany, Italy, and England. x
  • 4
    Vaulting—A Look at Roofs
    What's the best way to build a church's ceiling? This lecture takes you through the evolution of church roofs—from flat wood ceilings to stone barrel vaults to magnificent ribbed vaulting. Without these developments, you'll discover, there could have been no Gothic cathedrals. x
  • 5
    Romanesque at Its Best
    Sainte Foy in Conques. Saint Mary Magdalene in Vézelay. Saint-Lazare at Autun. Focus on these three French churches as definitive examples of Romanesque style and decoration. In particular, investigate how sculptural masterpieces on columns and over entrances rendered biblical stories into simple, visually arresting messages to instruct the faithful. x
  • 6
    Saint-Denis and the Beginning of Gothic Style
    Scholars agree that the first Gothic building in history is the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, located outside of Paris. After learning about this building's role in French history, tour the building's facade and interior, noting in particular the ribbed and pointed vaults, large stained glass windows, and extraordinary infusion of sunlight. x
  • 7
    The Urban Context of Cathedrals
    Place the power of cathedrals in a more urban context as you explore the factors that led to the widespread reemergence of cities as the religious centers of Europe. Then, take a brief look at three "experimental" Gothic cathedrals in northern France: Sens, Senlis, and Noyon. x
  • 8
    Notre Dame in Paris
    In the first of two lectures on early Gothic cathedrals, focus on perhaps the most famous cathedral in the world: Notre Dame in Paris. Gain new insights into how this magnificent building was created and learn the importance of features from its justly famous facade to its dramatic flying buttresses. x
  • 9
    Early Gothic Style—Laon
    Located in a much smaller town, the Cathedral of Laon is a quite different Gothic experiment than Notre Dame—but just as fascinating. Learn what's so unusual about the style, substance, and placement of the three arches on its facade, the statues of oxen on top of its towers, and more. x
  • 10
    Chartres—The Building
    Notre Dame de Chartres is perhaps the most influential Gothic cathedral—so influential that Professor Cook devotes three lectures to exploring it. In the first, focus on the building itself, including its systematic use of flying buttresses, groundbreaking three-layered elevation, and rich interplay between verticals and horizontals. x
  • 11
    Chartres—The Sculpture
    Continue your virtual tour of Notre Dame de Chartres with a closer look at the cathedral's three porches, whose sculpted portals contain the largest collection of statuary of any Gothic cathedral. With their precise details, hidden narratives, and coordinating themes, these sculptures teach, inspire, and even evoke fear. x
  • 12
    Chartres—The Windows
    Professor Cook concludes his in-depth look at Chartres with a handsomely illustrated lecture on its famous stained glass windows, as well as a description of how these brilliant works of art are created. Of the 175 glass windows in the cathedral, about 150 of them contain their original medieval glass. x
  • 13
    Amiens—The Limits of Height
    Enormous. Soaring. Awe-inspiring. Find out why the Cathedral of Amiens—Professor Cook's favorite cathedral—deserves these and other titles by surveying the structure of the building and its dizzying heights. It's a chance to find out why Amiens takes visitors to the limits of what a Gothic building can do. x
  • 14
    Amiens—The Facade
    The front of the Cathedral of Amiens is the single greatest sculptural display in all of Gothic decoration. Here, make sense of the complexities and details of the cathedral's facade by approaching its larger-than-life sculptures from the point of view of the 13th-century people for whom they were built. x
  • 15
    Reims—The Royal Cathedral
    Another of France's most beautiful—and important—cathedrals is located in the city of Reims. Survey the building's long and dramatic history, from the time of Joan of Arc to the bombardments of World War I, and look closely at examples from its statues, spires, and stained glass windows. x
  • 16
    Cathedrals—Who Builds? Who Pays? How Long?
    You've witnessed the majesty of some of Europe's great cathedrals. But how on earth were they actually built? This lecture separates myth from reality, using models, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass windows, and other sources to reveal the technical process of creating impressive buildings that would inspire millions. x
  • 17
    New Developments in Gothic France
    Using the abbey of Saint—Denis; the cathedrals at Bourges, Troyes, and Beauvais; and the chapel of Saint Chapelle as case studies, examine the progression in the Gothic style that took place during the late 13th century. Among these are advanced buttressing systems, even higher vaults, and the addition of still more windows. x
  • 18
    Late Gothic Churches in France
    Witness the evolution of Gothic architecture in the 14th, 15th, and early 16th centuries. Looking closely at a series of French cathedrals, abbeys, and churches, you'll find powerful examples of the flamboyant style, including more elegant stone tracery and glass windows that are more painted than stained. x
  • 19
    Early Gothic Architecture in England
    Cross the English Channel into England, where you tour four classic examples of the country's Gothic style: the cathedrals at Canterbury, Salisbury, Wells, and Lincoln. In addition, investigate the major and subtle differences between these and the French cathedrals you looked at in earlier lectures. x
  • 20
    Decorated and Perpendicular English Gothic
    Continue your virtual travels through England, this time paying particular attention to specific cathedrals, abbeys, and chapels that feature developments unique to the English Gothic style. Highlights of this lecture include Westminster Abbey, Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, and Ely Cathedral. x
  • 21
    Gothic Churches in the Holy Roman Empire
    Venture into the former territory of the Holy Roman Empire in this highlight of the most famous Gothic cathedrals from this part of Europe. Here, study the Gothic cathedrals of Strasbourg, Cologne, and Prague, as well as the exuberance of Kutná Hora's cathedral in the Czech Republic. x
  • 22
    Gothic Churches in Italy
    While the term "Gothic" is rarely used in an Italian context, Professor Cook pinpoints both traditional and unique Gothic elements present in the cathedrals of Siena and Orvieto, as well as in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. He also guides you through other buildings, including the most Gothic cathedral in Italy, Milan Cathedral. x
  • 23
    Gothic Styles in Iberia and the New World
    Turn west to the Gothic cathedrals of Spain, many of which exhibit a unique mixture of Roman, Muslim, French, and German influences. Then, go across the ocean to see how Spanish churches developed in the New World, including a visit to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, the oldest cathedral in the Americas. x
  • 24
    Gothic Architecture in Today's World
    With the spread of Renaissance ideas and styles, Gothic architecture eventually subsided, only to experience a vibrant revival in the 19th and 20th centuries. In this concluding lecture, sample neo-Gothic churches in countries like Ecuador, China, South Africa, and the United States. x

Lecture Titles

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William R. Cook
Ph.D. William R. Cook
State University of New York, Geneseo
Dr. William R. Cook is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught since 1970. He earned his bachelor's degree cum laude from Wabash College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa there. He was then awarded Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Lehman fellowships to study medieval history at Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D. Professor Cook teaches courses in ancient and medieval history, the Renaissance and Reformation periods, and the Bible and Christian thought. Since 1983 Professor Cook has directed 11 Seminars for School Teachers for the National Endowment for the Humanities. His books include Images of St. Francis of Assisi and Francis of Assisi: The Way of Poverty and Humility. Dr. Cook contributed to the Cambridge Companion to Giotto and edits and contributes to The Art of the Franciscan Order in Italy. Among his many awards, Professor Cook has received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 1992 the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education named him New York State's Professor of the Year. In 2003 he received the first-ever CARA Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Medieval Studies from the Medieval Academy of America.
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Reviews

Rated 4.8 out of 5 by 81 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by One of the Best This is a great lecture series. Prof. Cook has what I believe is a truly unique personality: the ability to be incredibly nerdy, while also being entertaining and personable. His knowledge of and fascination with this topic is amazing, and he has a real talent for sharing that spirit with others. The only limitation about this course is that it depicts only the cathedrals as they stand -- there's little or no explanation of how they were designed or constructed, which I think would be even more interesting than their existing features. To make this course truly inspiring, it would be helpful to know how somebody 1,000 years ago designed an amazingly intricate and beautiful, 140 foot tall, stone building with a stone roof, and assembled it in a way that it's still standing today and probably will be so in another 1,000 years. These places are miracles of architecture, engineering, and finance (and, I hope, faith rather than cynicism and power). That's another story in itself, but probably outside the scope of the lectures. May 4, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by An excellent overview An excellent course by an enthusiastic professor. Professor Cook knows his material from personal experience in visiting these beautiful buildings. I wish there was more concerning unusual cathedrals especially Sagrida Familia and more time on St. Peters in Rome. Watch this course (or parts of it) before traveling to the cities mentioned. There are some hidden gems that I did not know about, and added to the beauty of our journey. March 23, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by A Wonderful And Enlightening Course I loved this course and how it was presented and learned so much about this amazing subject. My only criticism is that it lacked detail about the methods used by Medieval man to construct these amazing buildings. Had this course included more details about the tools available and engineering methods used to lift huge stones and sculptures and construct the amazing vaults, then this course would have been more complete. Therefore it left me still wondering about how these amazing Catherdrals were built. That being said, Professor Cook still did a wonderful job and I highly recommend this course. January 26, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Personally Guided Tour at Home This is a marvelous video series! Prof. William Cook may be a little too enthusiastic for some, but I found his delight in his subject infectious. He certainly knows his stuff! I particularly liked his "readings" of the various sculptures and bas reliefs. I have visited most of these cathedrals, yet I saw (and understood) more from watching this course than I did in the hours I spent with a guidebook or local guide. I can only hope that Prof. Cook will follow up this series with one on illuminated manuscripts. December 13, 2013
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