The Gothic Cathedral: Fossil of the Human Acme

EH Looney writes somewhere that, “Antiquity is the prologue; modernity is the epilogue.” If so, then what came between antiquity and modernity – the age between the ages, the Mediaeval Age – is the main matter of history, its greatest intensification of value and significance so far. What came before it was a prolegomenon; what came after, merely after. This is nowise to deprecate the achievements either of ancient or modern civilization, but only to put them in perspective.

Is it a credible notion?

God tells us that we shall know them by their fruits [Matthew 7:16]. Considering then the exemplary artifacts of the High Mediaeval – the Gothic cathedrals, abbeys and chapels – and taking them as indications of its spiritual tenor, it is hard to argue with the proposal that it constitutes the highest and noblest and best age in human history so far.

As built for their iterated ritual enactment, the Gothic cathedral embodies and expresses the most exalted aspects of civilization: music, philosophy – taken to include mathematics and natural history, or science as we now say – engineering, religion, and social coordination. Every civilization intends and deploys certain propositions in each of these intellectual domains; civilizations differ according to their difference of such intentions. And all civilizations build artifacts that express their intentions; that, to them, mean and actualize some proximate fulfillment thereof. So all civilizations leave behind something or other of themselves, by which we may comprehend their meanings.

Here’s the thing. Nothing men have ever built approaches the Gothic cathedral in vastness, audacity, complexity, beauty, sublimity, or depth and multifarity of signification in each of its elements. Noble as they are, the great buildings of all other ages pale beside the Gothic cathedrals, and bow before them. Nothing else even comes close.

Nothing in any other age, nor even all of any such age, expresses so much love as even a single Gothic cathedral. And there are hundreds of such cathedrals all over Europe and the Isles.

These churches are not just buildings. Nor are they even just temples, loci of an almost continuous round of daily ritual, involving poetry, music, theology, and coherent systems of complex denotation and profound symbology distilled from the heritage of 10,000 years. They are works of the very highest art. It is not just that they are crammed with art and adorned with it, carven and painted, woven, engraved, sung, molded. Nay, it goes much deeper, for they are themselves gigantic statues, compiled of statues, from plans that began in sublimity and then evolved over centuries.

The cathedrals, the chapels, abbeys and village churches were furthermore the centers and enabling media both of individual and of common life. In them the great passages of each personal career – birth, maturity, marriage, ordination, illness, death – were consecrated and celebrated, joining each of them at their joints to the immortal Legend of Heaven. In their weekly round of ritual reconciliation of each to the All, they ministered to men each their meet spiritual therapy, medicine, and healing; their correction, and discipline, and rest. And they fostered commensality, cohering the community not just by their feasts and holidays, but in the most practical ways. Markets moved into the nave during inclement weather. The churches distributed charity, housed the indigent, schooled children, kept the calendar and the clock (the lanterns were observatories and sun dials, while the bells rung for the daily Office of the ecclesiastics marked the hours for laborers in the fields and merchants in the square, calling not just monastics but all the lay faithful to regular prayer, thus marking out each day as for and about God), ran farms and ranches and vinyards, maintained libraries, kept the town registry and genealogy, ordered marriage and family relations, consecrated (and so regulated) politics, sponsored fairs and conferences, patronized scholars and artists, furnished graves for the dead. Churches were built at the center of town because all of civic life revolved them. So by turn did they involve every aspect of secular life: involuted and enfolded it within the circumspection of the Church and her life, that extends out eternally and with infinite importance.

So then are these churches summations and distillations of the humble, humdrum world of Mediaeval man entire, of every class and station. Everything of their age passed through them and by them, and is kept in them. By them may we then well see that for Mediaeval man, the daily round was suffused with divine significance, importance, adventure. He saw the world in and through and by the Church. By its light were his lights, and his life intelligible to him, that he could therefore aspire to propriety, to his own peculiar petty portion of the Good.

The cathedral is a synecdoche of Mediaeval life. So can we understand what Mediaeval man and his culture were like – how they were, and what they meant, and what they meant to do – and then take their measure, all just by contemplating their chief artifacts, the meanings of which they manifestly cared for more than any other meanings, of other things.

Lo, then, and consider: the lantern at the crossing of Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Borgos, Spain – on the Camino Santiago – which was built from 1221 to 1567.

Also from Saint Mary’s, the vaulting of the Constable’s Chapel:

Then there is Ely:

Res ipsa loquitur. Evidently, there has been no civilization anywhere near as beautiful as that which produced these inspired towers reaching to heaven and resounding with the sublime music of the spheres.

Yet. As CS Lewis liked to remind us, we must remember that we are still the early Christians.

23 thoughts on “The Gothic Cathedral: Fossil of the Human Acme

  1. As John Medaille has pointed out medieval cathedrals are impressive monuments to the command economies that built them. Even a leftist like Georges Sorel praised the Gothic style as something genuinely original and organic in contrast to the neo-classical arcitectual style of the the Enlightenment Era. Sorel saw the rupture between the medieval craft guilds on the one hand and the bourgeois architects of the 18th and 19th centuries as a symbolic of the different moralities of those two eras. Modern church architects think themselves to be pretty creative but most modern churches are so offensive to the eye. Who would have thought that moderns would deliberately construct buildings that oppress any sense of the transcendent!

    Anyway, where the modern self-described traditionalist stands on the Middle Ages I think is as a good litmus test as any. If you think the Middle Ages was just a time of anti-Christian brutality and superstitious ignorance like most moderns then it seems to me you shouldn’t call yourself a traditionalist.

    • Who would have thought that moderns would deliberately construct buildings that oppress any sense of the transcendent!

      Well, modernism denies the reality of the transcendent to begin with. So I’d be surprised if moderns tried to indicate it by their works. The real question is, who would have thought that men would deliberately construct philosophies that reject the category of the transcendent, and thus of the sublime?

      • The real question is, who would have thought that men would deliberately construct philosophies that reject the category of the transcendent, and thus of the sublime?

        Or at least collapsing the distinction down. Justice Kennedy’s famous “at the heart of liberty” remark is clearly calling for a transcending of any coherent definition of human nature.

  2. Pingback: The Gothic Cathedral: Fossil of the Human Acme | Reaction Times

  3. Agreed. The Gothic cathedral is the best of the best. When I visited the Burgos Cathedral, I learned that this cathedral was built when Burgos had only 5000 inhabitants. Go figure.

    In “How the West Was Lost”, Alexander Boot explains that the decadence of the West started first with the architecture, then with the music, then with philosophy … In architecture, after Gothic cathedrals, everything was decadence…

    • It’s the same at Ely. In 1086, three years after building of the present Cathedral began, there were 110 households in the town. By 1416 – 123 years before construction stopped with the Reformation – the population had grown to 457 households. Maybe 4,000 people altogether. How did they do it?

    • barnyardboss:something common among european christian communities of that age: money was available without usury, a deadly sin in that era.

      There are a number of misconceptions contained in this; non-exhaustively —
      1) The suppression of the lending of money at interest doesn’t make more money available;
      1a) quite the opposite;
      2) During the period in question, a significant portion of the total wealth — including what little money there was — in the west European economies was in the hands of The One True Bureaucracy. Since Rome was generally successful in refusing to submit to secular taxation — even as it was generally able to impose tithes (i.e. taxes) on the common people — wealth, and what little money there was, tended to accrue to various bodies and institutions affiliated with “the church”.
      3) Having great wealth relative to everyone else, being desirous of “breeding” that wealth, but also being prohibited from honestly lending it at interest, various “church” bodies figured out a (dishonest) way around the prohibition against usury … and it was far more usurious than open usury would have been. Our modern mortgage is a pale echo of the medieval “church”-approved instrument of the same name.

      • There are a number of misconceptions contained in this …

        Yes, thank you again for enlightening the rest of us with the liberal modern position on all this.

        … wealth, and what little money there was, tended to accrue to various bodies and institutions affiliated with “the church”.

        But what greats works they achieved! Modern usury gives us the suburbs a monument to that emble of soul crushing mass produced cancer of uniformity charactertisic of capitalist modernity. Of course one should point out that wherever free dumb lovers like Ilion got the upper hand churches and abbeys, including many years of the magnificent Gothic structures were often plundered and desecrated. But hey what does it matter in the march for liberty? Now we are “free” to do “honest” usury like we are free to do honest murder and honest sodomy.

      • Yes yes I know it’s shocking* and outrageous* that you would get push back for pushing liberalism on an anti-liberal blog.

  4. This is an interesting post – I got stuck on the assumption that architecture is the best measure of spiritual health. This has some plausiblity, but I can’t really accept it – not least because it favours those people with a genius for engineering. For example, in England, the Norman conquest rapidly led to Durham Cathedral – which is my favourite cathedral – but on several other grounds I don’t accept the Normans as a spiritual improvement on the Anglo Saxons. The opposite also happens.

    But it is a good argument – very Chestertonian!

    • Well now, that’s a very good point. Building is certainly not the only index that matters.

      The structure of the post accurately records the process of my thinking about the question, beginning with the seed of Looney’s statement. I considered it, and asked myself how the High Mediaeval Synthesis stacked up against other civilizations along the relevant indicative dimensions: music, philosophy, spirituality, engineering, art, civic culture, and so on. Along each of these dimensions, the High Mediaeval is at least competitive with any other local maximum of human excellence. But add architecture into the mix with these other dimensions, and the High Mediaeval suddenly looks like a world beater. This especially when we consider – as the post went on to do – that in the cathedral all these other dimensions were synthesized.

      This is usual. Important temples usually integrate all the highest and best aspects of the cultures their cults inform. So, comparing temples of various cultures …

      Durham is my favorite cathedral, too. Plus it’s the best room to sing in, ever.

    • Yes. It is superb. But the difference between the most sublime products of Muslim Iran (I do not thereby mean to indicate the products of Christian Persia) and the Gothic cathedrals is categorical. The latter include all the abstract geometrical features of the former, raised to a higher pitch altogether by truly uncanny feats of engineering (some of which we still do not quite understand, from a mechanical point of view). And they add in all the glories that arrive only with a frank admission that the divine Absolute is accessible to men only insofar as it meets us as Persons, who as actual may be therefore licitly represented to us clothed in the veil of creaturity.

  5. The Archangel loved heights. Standing on the summit of the tower that crowned his church, wings upspread, sword uplifted, the devil crawling beneath, and the cock, symbol of eternal vigilance, perched on his mailed foot, Saint Michael held a place of his own in heaven and on earth which seems, in the eleventh century, to leave hardly room for the Virgin of the Crypt at Chartres, still less for the Beau Christ of the thirteenth century at Amiens. The Archangel stands for Church and State, and both militant. He is the conqueror of Satan, the mightiest of all created spirits, the nearest to God. His place was where the danger was greatest; therefore you find him here. For the same reason he was, while the pagan danger lasted, the patron saint of France. So the Normans, when they were converted to Christianity, put themselves under his powerful protection. So he stood for centuries on his Mount in Peril of the Sea, watching across the tremor of the immense ocean,-immensi tremor oceani,-as Louis XI, inspired for once to poetry, inscribed on the collar of the Order of Saint Michael which he created. So soldiers, nobles, and monarchs went on pilgrimage to his shrine; so the common people followed, and still follow, like ourselves.

    The church stands high on the summit of this granite rock, and on its west front is the platform, to which the tourist ought first to climb. From the edge of this platform, the eye plunges down, two hundred and thirty-five feet, to the wide sands or the wider ocean, as the tides recede or advance, under an infinite sky, over a restless sea, which even we tourists can understand and feel without books or guides; but when we turn from the western view, and look at the church door, thirty or forty yards from the parapet where we stand, one needs to be eight centuries old to know what this mass of encrusted architecture meant to its builders, and even then one must still learn to feel it. The man who wanders into the twelfth century is lost, unless he can grow prematurely young.

    One can do it, as one can play with children. Wordsworth, whose practical sense equalled his intuitive genius, carefully limited us to “a season of calm weather,” which is certainly best; but granting a fair frame of mind, one can still “have sight of that immortal sea” which brought us hither from the twelfth century; one can even travel thither and see the children sporting on the shore. Our sense is partially atrophied from disuse, but it is still alive, at least in old people, who alone, as a class, have the time to be young.

    – Henry Adams, Mont-Saint Michel and Chartres

  6. @Tom – Continuing the Chartres theme… I had been thinking about this passage from Joseph Campbell, and especially the part concerning the concierge, today – it has stuck in my mind since the first time I heard it:

    BILL MOYERS: The cathedral at Chartres, which you love so much…

    JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Oh, well.

    BILL MOYERS: It also expresses a relationship of the human to the cosmos, doesn’t it?

    JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, I think everyone who has spent any time at Chartres has felt something very special about this cathedral. I’ve been there about eight times. When I was a student in Paris, I went down there about five times and spent one whole weekend, and I identified and looked at every single figure in that cathedral. I was there so much that the concierge, this little old fellow who took care of the cathedral, he came to me one noontime and he said, “Would you like to go up with me and ring the bells?” I said, “I sure would.” So we climbed the fleche, the tower up to where the great bell was, the great enormous bronze bell, and there was a little, like a seesaw. And he stood on one end of the seesaw, and I stood on the other end of the seesaw, and there was a little bar there for us to hold onto. And he gave the thing a push and then he was on it and I was on it, and we started going up and down, and the wind blowing through our hair up there in the cathedral, and then it began underneath. Bong, you know, bong, bong… I tell you, it was one of the most thrilling adventures in my life.

    And when it was all over, he brought me down, he said, “I want to show you where my room is.” Well, in a cathedral you have the nave and then the transept, and then the apse. And around the apse is the choir screen. Now the choir screen in Chartres is about that wide, and he took me in a little door into the middle of the choir screen, and there was his little bed and a little table with a lamp on it, and when I looked out, there was the Black Madonna, the vitrine, the window of the Black Madonna and that was where he lived. Now, there was a man living in a meditation, him? A constant meditation, I mean, that was a very moving, beautiful thing. Oh, I’ve been there time and time again, since.

    BILL MOYERS: What do you find when you go there? What does it say about all that we’ve been discussing?

    JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, first thing it says is, it takes me back to a time when these principles informed the society. I mean, you can tell what’s informed the society by the size of the what the building is that’s the tallest building in the place. When you approach a medieval town, the cathedral’s the tallest thing in the place. When you approach a 17th century city, it’s the political palace that’s the tallest thing in the place. And when you approach a modern city, it’s office buildings and dwellings that are the tallest things in the place.

    And if you go to Salt Lake City, you’ll see the whole thing illustrated right in front of your face. First, the temple was built. The temple was built right in the center of the city. I mean, this was the proper organization, that’s the spiritual center from which all flows in all directions. And then the capitol was built right beside the temple, and it’s bigger than the temple. And now the biggest thing is the office building that takes care of the affairs of both the temple and the political building. That’s the history of Western civilization, from the Gothic through the princely periods of the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries, to this economic world that we’re in now.

    • That’s the history of Western civilization, from the Gothic through the princely periods of the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries, to this economic world that we’re in now.

      Indeed, now they build shopping malls. One could not find a greater contrast between the values of traditional culture and a modernity by comparing any of the great Gothic cathedrals with a Mormon temple.

  7. @Kristor – Just as an experiment, extending your idea of architecture as a barometer of spiritual health – could you draw any conclusions regarding architecture over the past fifty years. Are any denominations or churches doing a significantly better (or worse) job than others?

    …Accepting of course that the baseline is going to be far lower than with the medieval cathedrals. It might be easiest simply to find *any* examples or reasonably decent, humane, at-least-trying-to-be-beautiful public buildings, then seeing if any pattern emerges.

    I don’t know enough to do this, except in my own locale – but my impression is that it is necessary to look at medium-sized buildings; because all the largest buildings are horrible (in the sense of *deliberately* horrible – designed to shock and awe with digust and soul-crushing deadliness… and then insinst that this *is* beautiful).

    (By contrast, many of the late 19th and early 20th century nonconformist and Roman Catholic churches in England are far from impressive but clearly doing their very best with very limited resources – and therefore have become more charming and enjoyable as the years pass from their construction. But even some *factories* from the pre 1939 period are impressive from a recent persepctive:

    To be honest, I can’t really think of any local building of any size since the 1960s that evokes a genuinely pleasant feeling either to look at or to work in – although the Gateshead Millennium ‘blinking eye’ Bridge is very pleasing in its simple shape, to use – and especially when it pivots to allow ships through – but that, significantly, counts as engineering – not architecture:

    • Excellent question. There are some handsome mid-size buildings going up here and there, including some rather substantial developments such as the new colleges at Yale I mentioned the other day. But the only trends that I can identify are among traditionalist Catholics in North America and the Orthodox – especially in Russia, where hundreds of really amazing churches and monasteries are under construction. These two churches are apparently healthy, growing, needing more buildings, and building them properly.

      Other sects are growing and building, but their buildings despire. So something is wrong in them somewhere.


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