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The worldview of the Gothic cathedral
For as men think, so do they build.
Imagine it is the year 1400, and you are visiting Chartres Cathedral for the first time. You have never before seen a faithful reproduction, or even heard an oral description, of this truly remarkable structure, which dominates the busy, dirty, commercial city and the countryside for miles around. Climbing up the Rue du Borg on foot you enter the cathedral itself, and find yourself in a cavernous space, illuminated by the flickering light of hundreds of candles rebounding off exquisitely beautiful stained-glass windows. Though greatly moved by your surroundings, you do not find it at all difficult to understand or 'read' the cathedral: on the contrary, it is quite clear to you how it wordlessly communicates the Christian story
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The hidden meanings of great cathedrals like Chartres, Mont St-Michel and the Abbey Church of St-Denis were once plain to our ancestors. It is those meanings that I hope to tease out in the pages that follow, so that the spirituality of these enormous, ornate, extravagantly expensive, towering sacred spaces – and the vision of the medieval architects and builders who constructed them – might refresh and inspire our faith today.
The Scriptures tell of divine order in the universe. The verse from the Apocrypha, 'But you have arranged all things by measure and number and weight' (Wisdom of Solomon 11.20), was made famous by St Augustine throughout the medieval world, and most theologians of the time believed that God arranges all things down to the finest detail. The Gothic builders took this to heart in creating forms they believed corresponded to the order of the cosmos and to the Godhead. The vision portrayed inside a great cathedral is the vision thought to come directly from the heavens. Beauty was to be brought out in order, never disorder, as the medieval architect laboured to discover the secrets of the God of ultimate design.
Gothic cathedrals usually follow what is called a cruciform plan, that is, shaped like a cross (though this is not exclusive to the Gothic style), with the longer axis running from west to east. The cathedral faces east, towards the rising sun and Jerusalem, where Christ was risen, and it is in the east end of the church that the altar is located. At the west end of that axis is the front door. The shorter axis, running south to north, forms the 'arms' of the cross, which are called the transepts: they are located towards the front of the building, between the nave – the central portion of any church – and the choir and chancel (the steps leading up to the sanctuary and altar). Running along the sides of the nave of most Gothic churches, perpendicular to that longer westeast axis, are one or two aisles, and all along those aisles, columns.
The central focus of Gothic design was always the incarnate God in Christ, rather than the Trinity, the Godhead, or the person of God the Father. We might say that the Gothic architect took his primary inspiration from the opening phrase of the Gospel of John, 'In the beginning was the Word.' As one scholar has expressed it:
[W]here the created and the uncreated, the natural and the supernatural, the eternal and the historical came together, is where Christ was situated, as God made man. He was 'light born of light,' yet was made of solid flesh. Ever since the building of Saint-Denis [the first Gothic church], Gothic art had strained to express the incarnation.
At the Mass, a medieval Christian would have felt open to the glories of heaven at that moment in that place, and no less profoundly than if a giant hand had reached down from the clouds – but the One acting upon him was a loving Jesus. A Christian's 'bread of heaven' was found only on the high altar, there.
Medieval spirituality was both more credulous and more embodied than our own. For the medieval person, a symbol was an objective piece of reality: it was that very thing it represented. An image of Christ or the Virgin in the form of an icon, or a fresco, or a sculpture was a very portal to Jesus or Mary. The builders of the first Gothic cathedrals had been taught by the philosopher John Scotus Eriugena – one of the finest minds of the early medieval period – that a piece of stone may only be understood for what it really is, if we see God in it. The materials they used were thus transformed in their hands: the slab of marble forming the high altar of a cathedral would be regarded as the very stone upon which Abraham had been willing to offer Isaac, or as the place where sacrifices were made in the temple during Jesus' time or, most importantly, Calvary, where Christ offered himself for the salvation of the world.
In the chapters that follow we will focus on seven essential words of medieval spirituality: 'space', 'sanctuary', 'stone', 'light', 'darkness', 'grotesques' and 'flight'.
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This style of architecture was not originally called Gothic. In fact, Gothic originated as an implied criticism. We don't know the precise origin of the term, as it was applied to arising architectural styles in northern Europe, but we do know that it must have originally been used as a term of reproach. Gothic means of the Goths', a barbarian people who had stood in stark contrast to the humanism and civilization of the Romans during the waning of the Roman Empire. All things Gothic were being compared to a nomadic tribe that invaded the West. Renaissance-era Italian critics, touting the virtues of their own era, coined the term as a pejorative. They intended to compare the barbarians, the Goths, to the 'barbaric' art that had begun in the Middle Ages.
The term survives today, in part, because it actually predates the word medieval, which means 'the middle age'. The people of the Renaissance also coined medieval as a way of naming the era that stood between the classical era and their own. It also was something of a dismissal. That millennium of faith (from roughly AD 400 to 1400) and perspective was believed to be of little value, since they did not continue many of the artistic forms and styles of antiquity. And they used words such as 'ignorant' and 'monstrous' to describe the style of architecture that sits like a signpost on the timeline between the classical and the Renaissance. Alexander Pope expresses the attitude best when he writes these lines:
A second Deluge Learning thus o'er-run, And the Monks finish'd what the Goths begun.
At least since about the late eighteenth century – with the beginning of the neo-Gothic revival in Europe – those who appreciate the pointed style have been more willing to call it Gothic. But it is only in the last century that a fresh understanding of the Middle Ages has begun to permeate university curricula and, even so, it has not really trickled down into popular culture. Popular films and novels are still made on the backs of medieval abbeys where monks bludgeon themselves in penitence, and schoolchildren still learn about this era by means of books that focus on the gruesome and the bizarre. I'm thinking, for example, of the popular Horrible Histories series of books that use cartoon to focus young readers on the most horrible and strangest aspects of what life was like in the medieval (and other) eras. They are entertaining – very entertaining, in fact – and they encourage kids to read about history, but of course they also leave them thinking about the Middle Ages in the way that most educated adults think about the era: full of 'horrible history'.
There is more to the story than just that. The truth is that the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which provided the environment for the growth of the Gothic, were not as violent as was the twentieth. There were renaissances of learning and art and craft and workers' rights in the early eleventh, thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. There were periods of time when the churches were almost completely corrupt, and for many years or generations on end those who were clearly corrupt got away with their sins. But there was also great beauty, creativity and simplicity to life in the Middle Ages that resulted in a high level of quality in life.
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Gothic cathedrals usually defy the typical guidebook. Famous religious buildings usually have guidebooks to show you around, and these books give you the history of the church ('Why is this one supposed to be important?'), the height, width and purpose of some of the more notable features ('How tall is that window?'), and they sometimes explain some of the deeper meanings of the things you have come to look at ('Why is there a lion beside that man, while that other man seems to be holding a griddle?'). Guidebooks for religious buildings may tell you how to identify a minaret, or a pantocrator icon, where the bimah is located in a synagogue, or who built a chapel and when, but in the case of the great cathedrals they rarely give an understanding of why things matter and what role they play in the story of Christian faith.
I have visited hundreds of religious buildings in my life, from Orthodox churches with elaborate iconostases to mosques in city centres that don't even really look like mosques from the outside. I've sat in silence in a Quaker meeting house and I've been to services at a downtown synagogue. I was brought up in Baptist churches without adornment of any kind, but today I feel more at home with more 'Catholic' worship that feeds the senses.
Every place of worship is unique and each is intended to 'say' something about the way that God is understood, worshipped and alive. Every church building is intentional – it has been designed and built to spark some sort of reaction in you when you are in it, or even as you approach it. No building is neutral, and if you usually look for the great churches in the cities that you visit, you are already responding to what the builders long ago programmed into those structures. They are already speaking to you, even if in muffled tones. If you find yourself intrigued by the Gothic style, but also perhaps somewhat perplexed by it, all the better. What is a great Gothic church supposed to mean? I aim to explore this question in its many details and more subtle meanings.
Along the way, I hope to explain some interesting details. I will explain why you are likely to see a variety of art styles and architecture, spanning many centuries, combined in the same Gothic cathedral. I will explain why images such as those of pelicans and eagles appear over and over again, sometimes even on the pulpit. I will explain why Gothic stained-glass windows tend to be the largest of all styles of church window, and are positioned higher than others on the vaulted walls around the transepts and the chancel. I will explain certain details of those windows, and I will explain how relics of the saints, from body parts to pieces of clothing, are right at home in the same buildings that include sometimes frightening figures looking down on you as you walk in through the front door.
* * * We don't build great Gothic churches much any more. Our worldview is different from the one that inspired the people of the High Middle Ages to do worship in the ways that they did. But just like today, not everyone was of the same opinion back then. There were those, for instance, who disagreed with the 'ostentation and expense of Gothic buildings. What sorts of arguments were made long ago against building them, and how are those arguments echoed, today? What has changed in our worldview, from then to now, that makes big churches seem even less necessary than they once were?
We have newer 'cathedrals' today that prove to be more popular than the older ones, and they are still generally made of stone and glass. They are places such as art museums, where one can also experience transcendence. The Metropolitan Museum in New York City, the Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery in London – these are all far more crowded on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning than are the city churches and monumental cathedrals nearby. We even replicate religious reverence before the paintings, gazing at them in the way that saints gaze at their crucifixes in those same paintings. We stand before works of art sometimes by ourselves, anonymously and pensively, or with others in conversation. Sometimes the visit to the museum becomes a full day out of the house, with lunch or dinner at a nice restaurant, just as I once did with my parents on a typical Sunday after a long church service. We may even tithe on our way in or out of the museum; a 'suggested donation is often all that is required, and it feels good to offer one. And of course there are always gifts and postcards – substitute sacramentals, perhaps – to be had in the gift shop.
Other new 'cathedrals' are natural wonders such as Yosemite (California) and Kilimanjaro (Tanzania). There's no indoor exclusivity to religion, and more than ever before in history, there's the feeling among Christians that God is to be known, worshipped and experienced outside of the four walls of church. We often make pilgrimages to beautiful parts of creation with no less intensity than a Jew visiting the Western Wall, a Muslim on the hajj, or a Christian in a side chapel at Santa Croce in Florence. Unlike our ancestors, we get our spirituality in many places and in many ways that churches and cathedrals no longer seem to exclusively provide.
With organized religion meaning less in our private lives, our religious spaces have come to mean less, too. There are many people today, perhaps they are even in the majority, for whom the concept of sacred space is no longer compelling, or never was. Perhaps for the majority of those under the age of thirty, cathedrals mean little or nothing at all. They are largely vacant, mostly sentimental places. For some, to look upon the ancient ruins of what was once a great cathedral, such as England's Glastonbury Abbey, is the same as to look on the ruins of the Roman Forum – as a simple artefact of history.
For those who have grown up with religion in their lives and have left it, great cathedrals and abbeys mean something else: they may be symbols of power and wealth, reminding us of the ways that religion has excluded more than it has included over the course of time. One person's place of worship and communion is another person's symbol of privilege. In this light, a place such as Chartres Cathedral or Westminster Abbey may feel off-putting at best, or oppressive, at worst. I went to France to explore Gothic cathedrals in detail, and to discover the Gothic cathedrals of France is to be reminded of the decline of western Christianity, particularly since the days of the French Revolution (1789). One purpose of that people's revolution was to overthrow the authority of the Church, which had been at times, to put it kindly, oppressive. Great churches were usually repurposed to become other things – hay lofts; prisons; museums (as if Christianity lay only in the past); blacksmith shops, for making more battle armour – and still others were renamed, becoming 'temples to the Divine Being', or something along those lines. In many respects, that era does not feel so long ago. Smaller churches are often sold by their bishops or congregations today, sometimes even abandoned or repurposed into restaurants, shops or office space. It's inconceivable, isn't it, that this would or could happen to the great cathedrals that many of us know by name? Sometimes I'm not sure.
There's no question that there's something about great church buildings that is lost on us until we step into them again for the first time. An agnostic, Anglican-raised W. H. Auden, had just such an experience in the 1930s while in Spain during the Civil War:
On arriving in Barcelona, I found as I walked through the city that all the churches were closed and there was not a priest to be seen. To my astonishment, this discovery left me profoundly shocked and disturbed. The feeling was far too intense to be the result of a mere liberal dislike of intolerance, the notion that it is wrong to stop people from doing what they like, even if it is something silly like going to church. I could not escape acknowledging that, however I had consciously ignored and rejected the Church for sixteen years, the existence of churches and what went on in them had all the time been very important to me.
The great cathedrals are still with us, waiting to be rediscovered. They are more than the sites of coronations, royal weddings, solemn remembrances, and masses for the dead famous – in fact, much more. Come and see.
Excerpted from BEAUTY AWAKENING BELIEF by Jon M. Sweeney. Copyright © 2009 Jon M. Sweeney. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing, Incorporated.
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