The giant Tournai Cathedral is like a swan song for the retiring style in architecture of the 12th century – Romanesque style. Its architecture is grand and daring, ornamentation – very rich and in many respects this beautiful cathedral has no analogues in the world.


Present cathedral is not the first one in this place. By far not – in fact in this exact place was built one of the oldest churches in this part of Europe. There is a possibility that a pagan temple was located here. In the late 5th or early 6th century, in the times of Saint Eleutherius of Tournai here was erected the first one. Thus Tournai became an important early religious centre and in the Diocese of Tournai were located such important cities as Bruges, Ghent and Lille. This explains why in this small town is located such a grand cathedral.

Next church in this site was built in the 9th century and it suffered from fire twice – in 881 and 1066.

Tournai Cathedral rises above the city, around 1915
Tournai Cathedral rises above the city, around 1915 / From the book "The spell of Flanders", Flickr, public domain

Building of the present church

By the early 12th century Tournai became even more influential and rich. In this time very popular was also the cult of Our Lady. Thus it was decided to build a new, giant cathedral in the city in honor of Our Lady.

Construction had three important phases, thus creating a unique structure with three different parts in different architectonic styles:

  • During the first half of the 12th century there was built nave. It has been built in Romanesque style with the characteristic, heavy and severe character of this style. This is the oldest part of the church now.
  • During the middle of the 12th century was built transept. This is and important milestone in the history of architecture, marking the end of Romanesque style and bringing much inspiration for the upcoming Gothic style. This is the most prominent part of the building, with five great bell towers and expressive semi-circular ends. Four towers are 83 m tall. At the first sight these towers seem to be equal, but at the second look – lots of details are different. Eastern towers are called Saint-Jean tower and Marie Tower – the last with a bell named Marie-Pontoise. western towers have more Gothic details and are named – Brunin (with entrance to the former prison) and Treille – wine was made in the basement of this tower. By the 1171 the new church was built.
  • Stained gloss of the rose window, Tournai Cathedral
    Stained gloss of the rose window / Glaurent, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
    In the 13th century the Romanesque choir was demolished and a new and much larger one – in Gothic style – was constructed in 1242 – 1255. In fact it was planned to rebuild also the rest of cathedral but this was not accomplished.

Now all these three different parts form a single, giant church. Although now it is harder to appreciate, for its time this structure numerous innovations and represents one of the highlights of the Romanesque architecture. It symbolises the artistic freedom given to designers and builders if this outstanding structure.

In the medieval times the church was painted in bright colors – in many places the traces of these colors can still be seen.

Later history

Interior, nave of Tournai Cathedral
Interior, nave / Joham Bakker, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

This was one of the greatest churches in this region – although in this part of Europe are concentrated the greatest churches of the world.

Unfortunately the interior of the church suffered – much damage was done during the mutiny of Calvinists in 1566 and also during the French Revolution.

During the 19th century though much was restored through the efforts of bishops Monseigneur François-Joseph Hirn and Monseigneur Gaspard-Joseph Labis, thus recreating one of the most beautiful church interiors in Belgium.

The 20th century was not kind again – part of the church was destroyed during the World War II.

In 1999 the cathedral was hit by tornado and its damage turned the attention of engineers to the dire state of whole cathedral. Especially endangered was Brunin tower which had declined by 80 cm. Since then extensive repairs are ongoing, saving the cathedral from possible collapse.

Rood screen, Tournai Cathedral
Rood screen / Welleschik, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Values of art

One of the most valued works of art is the sumptuous rood screen – it was made in Renaissance style by Flemish sculptor Cornelis Floris II in 1573.

Cathedral is adorned also by paintings of Rubens and Jordaens, very impressive is the stained glass of the enormous rose window.

Tournai Cathedral on the map
Travelers' Map is loading...
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Location, GPS coordinates: 50.6066 N 3.3892 E
Categories: Churches
Values: Art, Architecture, History
Rating: 4.5 out of 10 stars
Where is located? Europe, Belgium, Hainaut Province, centre of Tournai
Full name: Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Tournai
Name in French: Notre-Dame de Tournai
Name in Dutch: Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van Doornik
UNESCO World Heritage status: "Notre-Dame Cathedral in Tournai", 2000, No.1009
Architectural style: Romanesque, Gothic
Year of construction: 1110 – 1171, 1243 – 1255 (also later additions)
Branch of Christianity: Catholics
Height: 83 m
Length: 134 m

Landmarks of Belgium

Floral carpet in Grand Place, Brussels
Floral carpet in Grand Place, Brussels / Francisco Conde Sánchez, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

This picturesque country is very rich with great architecture. It is even hard to single out which architecture here is the most impressive and interesting – be it Romanesque and Gothic churches, extremely well preserved castles and palaces or the magnificent Art Noveau jewels.


St.Peter's Basilica, Vatican
St.Peter’s Basilica / P.Landy, Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Throughout the history Christian churches have been the epitome of architecture and arts achievements in Western culture.

Recommended books

The Restoration of the Monastery of St. Martin of Tournai

In Flanders in the year 1090, as famine began to spread over the low countries, diseased and dying paupers from near and far crowded into the cathedral of St. Mary of Tournai in hopes of a miraculous cure. When the canons of Tournai ordered that those without hope of survival be dragged outside, they unwittingly set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the restoration of the abandoned monastery of St. Martin of Tournai.

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Belgium & Luxembourg

Stroll through the bustling city streets, explore the Caves of Hotton, and visit the Euro Space Center when you travel to Belgium and Luxembourg. See history, art, and more in these unique and vibrant countries.

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