One summer I was doing my dissertation research in Europe and ran into a young Norwegian woman in Bologna, Italy. She asked me how I liked my travels and I mentioned especially my love of the great Medieval Cathedrals. She dismissively waved a hand and replied, “eh, you’ve seen one old Church, you’ve seen them all.” I was able to resist the urge to call her a viking barbarian and tell her that this was why her ancestors had pillaged Europe for 150 years—but it was a near thing. At any rate, I’ve since come to realize more and more the dependence of architecture on one’s world-view. As I wrote in an earlier post, man in the Middle Ages looked out at the same universe that modern man does, but it meant something different to him. The Cathedrals reflected a certain world-view, a world-view that modern man does not share and hence may struggle to understand.
The Medieval Cathedrals, Gothic architecture, were enormously expensive. Henry III spent 45,000 pounds on one, nine times the annual income of his whole realm. They could take hundreds of year to complete, an architect who began one could have no expectation that he would live to see his work finished. Furthermore challenges of transporting material and other technical challenges were tremendous. It is hard to imagine anyone going through similar effort for a building today. Why do it then? How the Cathedrals were built and what they looked like is one question. The “skyscrapers of their day,” as one art historian called them, were committed to as much height as possible. Hence, they made use of flying buttresses (except the Italians, who considered the flying buttress ugly) and the pointed arch, to allow greater height. With greater height, taller stained glass windows could be built, sometimes costing as much at the rest of the cathedral combined. The purpose: to flood the Cathedral with as much light as possible. What was the point and what did it mean?
The point was that the Cathedral represented an image of heaven. The Cathedral had its meaning built in by its makers and that meaning was to stand as an image of heaven. Hence the height and the stained glass to let in as much light as possible. John has said that God was light, “in Him is no darkness,” and so light, while natural, was seen as the most noble of natural phenomena because it represented the divine light and grace of God. As one looked up in a Cathedral, God’s grace, in the form of sunlight, streamed down from heaven on those within (1), just as in the Eucharist, God’s grace descended on all the faithful and turned mere matter into God himself.
This was possible because of the medieval mindset: matter could symbolize the divine. The material world was not all there was; rather it was the sign of a higher, more real spiritual world. Just as the universe was an objectively meaningful place because it had its meaning built in by its maker, so too a cathedral, in a lesser way, had its meaning built it by its maker and matter, because made by God, could represent divinity, both in the Universe and in a cathedral. The theologian John Scotus Erigena, for instance, remarked that “we understand a piece of wood or a stone, only when we see God in it.” To a mindset where meaning permeated the universe, a meaning built into it by its maker, the great Cathedrals were almost inevitable..
This was the age of the great medieval cathedrals and the great universities, dedicated to the task of harmonizing faith and reason. The two, cathedral and university were twins- growing up together at the same time and even same place (1). The universities were dedicated to the work of reason, but reason was not enough. Not all men had the time or ability to be philosophers, but all men needed to be saved. Hence, the task of the cathedral was to make the faith clearer by an appeal to reason, but to make reason clearer by appeal to imagination, and finally, to make imagination clearer by appeal to the senses. In a world where matter had its meaning built in and could represent the divine, the Gothic Cathedrals were simply natural. For this reason G.K. Chesterton wrote of the Gothic enterprise:
Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people (such as now object to barrel-organs) objected to the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem. He said, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Under the impulse of His spirit arose a clamorous like chorus the facades of the medieval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones cry out.
In the modern world, whose materialism denies the existence of a spiritual world, the universe has no meaning built in and so matter cannot represent any higher, holier, or more interesting world. Beauty in art or architecture is a pointless exercise and so all that is left is the utilitarian or the weird. The universe might be larger, but the world is smaller, a dimension dropped as modernity lives in the flatland of the materialist.
(1). Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.
(2). Further reading on Cathedrals see Scott’s, The Gothic Enterprise. An imperfect book in its history, but one that still captures well the meaning of the Gothic Cathedral.