For most visitors, the towering Notre-Dame de Paris is the touchstone of the City of Light's cathedrals, a must-see on their checklists as tourists. Even as the medieval Catholic cathedral undergoes massive reconstruction following the devastating 2019 fire, Notre-Dame remains a thrilling testament to faith and ingenuity. But as R. Howard Bloch (A Needle in the Right Hand of God) shows in Paris and Her Cathedrals, it is only one of six cathedrals that are paeans to Gothic architecture. Saint-Denis, the first cathedral, became the burial place of French kings, and Reims was supposedly where Clovis, France's first king, was baptized. Chartres became the center of classical learning in the 11th and 12th centuries and contains the greatest collection of original stained glass of any Gothic cathedral. The Sainte-Chapelle originally was built to be King Louis IX's private chapel.
The "Age of Cathedrals" began in Paris after the world didn't end in the year 1000 CE, as theologians, princes, knights and even commoners had predicted. But nature, fires and wars haven't been kind to these religious monuments over the centuries, and--following the Revolution of 1789--cathedrals fell out of favor, viewed as an alliance between the church and royalty.
Bloch melds history, culture and the type of notes found in travelogues with meticulous research that puts the cathedrals into the context of the times in which they were built and illustrates why they continue to be relevant in contemporary society. Maps, photographs, a glossary of terms and tips on transportation enhance this armchair experience. --Oline H. Cogdill, freelance reviewer