- 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
The Fourteenth Century saw few cornerstones laid. It was an era of finishing the vast works begun, and finishing them in a style growing steadily more fluent, elegant, and at last overweening. Gothic swept to its final heaven-storming dream at Beauvais cathedral in France, a building never finished.
The dimensions of these great cathedrals are astounding, when we remember that they have no skeleton of steel, as in the modern skyscraper, to sustain the daring. The apse or eastern end of Beauvais is 150 feet high—tall enough to swallow many a big American church, steeple and all.
A cathedral, however, is not a parish church, and was never meant to serve only an immediate community. It is the headquarters of a diocese, where the bishop has his cathedra or throne. So a cathedral is adapted to the pageantry of diocesan business and to the life of cities, even of nations.
More, the cathedrals were made so large because they had to house the pilgrims who used to travel about from shrine to shrine. For every old cathedral houses the relics of a saint, and of saintly relics miracles may be hoped—miraculous cures, boons of all sorts. Therefore sometimes ten thousand pilgrims would arrive at once, on the saint’s day, at the cathedral doors. The Pilgrim’s Way is a name still given to the great turn in the processional behind the altar.
Gothic cathedrals are rising today on American soil, still slowly, as funds can be gathered. St. John the Divine in New York, St. Peter and St. Paul in Washington, D.C., are mere fragments of structures to be, with boarded-up gaps in them, with huge blocks of stone lying around waiting to be placed, with derricks standing motionless, year after year.
Just so did many of the Gothic churches look at the very height of the age called Gothic. Yet, all in the time called God’s and good, by chapel and Lady chapel, by choir and retrochoir, by turret and crocket, by chancel and nave, by clerestory and triforium, by apse and transept, these Arks of the Lord took shape, to ride triumphant on the flood of centuries.
Not by faith alone but by architectural genius do they stand throughout the ages. The first builders of Gothic were as modern in their own day as we in ours. They were trying to solve the problem of covering a vast space with a stone roof. The pointed arch was their brilliant idea for shifting part of the great weight of the vault from an outward, dangerous thrust against the walls to a harmless vertical thrust on the columns.
Those buttresses outside the Gothic church do not terminate in spikey turrets in order to be fantastic but are intended, by adding vertical pressure, to pin down the buttress against the oblique thrust of the flying arch. The gargoyles that leer from the parapets are not put there for whimsey; they are efficient waterspouts to convey rainfall from the roof, clear of the walls, into the gutters below. Every organ of the Gothic structure is, or originally was, functional. They say that even the hinges on the seats of the choir stalls were put there so that the seats could be lifted and the choir boys compelled during services to perch there; if a boy fell asleep, or even wriggled, he would come down with a clatter, marked for punishment.
The cathedral schools where these boys were trained offered the first public instruction in Europe. Some were founded in the Seventh Century. Many are still extant. All were the foundation stone of modern primary education. And cathedral libraries were among the first in Europe. Cathedral music gave us our system of musical notation. Cathedral plays—morality and mystery and miracle plays—were the origin of the modern drama.
Thus the cathedral was a complete way of life—a concert hall, an art gallery, a theater, and even a sanctuary for fugitives from the law that so often was unjust and vengeful. The whole community, having built it together, owned shares in it.
Then, in the Sixteenth Century, something symbolic happened; part of the great cathedral of Beauvais, the most daring Gothic ever erected, tumbled down, never to be fully replaced. And in that century the Reformation shattered the ancient mysticism like so much stained glass. Perhaps we can never again expect so many human interests to center around the cathedral. Faiths are too many and divergent; art and education now move independent of religion; entertainment can be found in a hundred other ways.