December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
The great age of Christian faith fulfilled its passion of spirit in the soaring vaults and glowing glass of the Gothic cathedral
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.
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.
If there are to be cathedrals of tomorrow, as surely there will be, they should not, perhaps, even attempt to re-create the glories of the past. It will be better if they utilize the materials and the lines of our modern age, like the great new cathedral at Liverpool. But that edifice holds the very spirit of the mightiest age of building. For during World War II, when Liverpool, like other British ports, was under relentless bombardment, when every penny must be counted, the British people calmly went on with the construction of this great modern fane, undaunted by death and destruction. While buildings were crashing all over the country, Liverpool’s cathedral grew, stone on slow stone. And these stones speak to us, like those of every Gothic glory, bidding us to have reverence for beauty, old or new, and faith in the permanence of faith.