- Historic Sites
Glory In Stone
The great age of Christian faith fulfilled its passion of spirit in the soaring vaults and glowing glass of the Gothic cathedral
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
That sum was raised, and more than half of it came from America, much of that from the Corn Belt (the so-called stronghold of isolationism), Lincoln, Nebraska, giving especially generously to Lincoln, England. The many donors were most of them not rich, nor coreligionists of the Church of England. Few had ever seen, or expected to see, Lincoln cathedral. They gave purely, without thought of thanks here below or reward in the hereafter. They gave because they would not suffer so noble a work to perish from the earth, lest earth see not its like again.
Yet Lincoln is but one link in the chain of cathedrals which stretches from England to Poland, from Sweden to Spain, built in the style called Gothic. This glory of architecture where stone upon stone supports the whole, without any skeleton of steel, into a very heaven of arched vaults and pointed arches, is the most precious heritage of commingled beauty and faith ever bequeathed by the past. It remains the supreme achievement of our ancestors in the Middle Ages. At one time they were building, it is said, no less than sixty great cathedrals; and building them—as man has built only one other time in the history of Europe—like gods.
The first time was from the Seventh to the Fifth Century B.C., when Greece raised her purest temples. The second was from the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Century A.D., the height of the Gothic fervor of creation, when Christian faith was at its most burning and mystical
In each case, men built for something outside of and greater than themselves. Today’s skyscrapers may take the beholder’s breath; they do not awe his spirit, since they are secular in purpose and expression, for all the brilliance of the engineering that raised them. But Gothic was built to house the Church Invisible. It dwarfs man while exalting God.
The Gothic cathedral was conceived as a tribute to be raised heavenward. It was the expression of faith; a faith so powerful that it compelled men, and even women, to lash their bodies to great building stones and, uniting each his own frail strength with the others’, drag the blocks into place. Not that the medievals lacked derricks, pulleys, or beasts of burden. But they would not forego a share in their great communal effort—the cathedral. For it women embroidered the altar cloths and vestments. Sculptors, wood carvers, artists in stained glass, spent their lives in trying to outdo their own noblest efforts.
Into the cathedral the many makers poured their beliefs, their imagination, as well as all their skill. So the lofty creation became a sermon in stone. On its sculptured walls, the many who could not read yet pondered on the Last Judgment, and on Heaven and Hell and all the saints carved deep by the stern chisel. The glorious rose windows suffused the soul with the ardors of religious passion. That glass is not painted, but tinted through and through, like any gem, and set in its leaded segments so that the whole glows jewel-like upon the dark velvet of the cathedral’s interior.
Even the very structure of the cathedral expressed the Christian story, in its huge cross-shaped floor plan. The headpiece of the cross is represented by the choir stalls and beyond them the chancel where stand the altar and communion table. The arms of the cross are the cathedral’s transepts, valuable for the extra space they afford in times of immense gatherings, as for the coronation of some king, while the long shank of the cross is that part called the nave which houses the congregation.
Of course the Gothic cathedral in all its radiant, organic splendor, like some intricate flower held airily erect by inner cellular tensions, did not spring full-blown in the first century of Christianity. It took twelve hundred years to evolve in all its meaning as well as its finest form.
The roots of it lay in the style called Romanesque, characterized by rounded arches, low rounded vaults (ceilings), thick, close-set columns, and heavy walls with small splayed windows: a ponderous and gloomy style, at times, and Romanesque churches were always falling down of their own weight, despite an appearance of strength. It took Gothic to prove that the greatest strength lies in daring, the greatest achievement comes out of dreams.
So we can see Gothic emerging out of Romanesque, like a flower breaking forth from a heavy bulb. The Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries saw the start, in England, of Canterbury, Norwich, Gloucester, Peterborough, and Lincoln cathedrals. In Venice rose the iridescent bubble of St. Mark’s, while in France, birthplace of Gothic, began Chartres, Notre Dame in Paris, Laon, and Vézelay.
The Thirteenth Century saw in France the commencement of Beauvais, Rheims, Amiens, Troyes, and Coutances cathedrals, while in Italy a sort of Gothic modified by Italian taste gave us the cathedrals of Siena and Florence. In Germany, Cologne was started and, in England, Exeter and Salisbury.