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.