So. You’re a Medieval noble of considerable rank and you want to impress your neighbors. Not just your neighbors in town or a few miles away, you want to make your town the envy of every other town in your country, in all of Europe. What do you do? What is the biggest, splashiest, most expensive, most gorgeous way to display your wealth and power? How can you gain major salvation points and buy your way into heaven while you’re at it? Easy. Build a cathedral.
Cathedrals are the most obvious and impressive relic of our Medieval past. We see that Gothic architecture and instantly we think of life a thousand years ago, of one of the most impressive kinds of buildings ever known to man. We imitate this style even today. I grew up with this as the view outside of my bedroom window:
That’s Bryn Athyn Cathedral. It was built in the early 20th century. But last summer I went to Winchester in the UK and saw this:
And OH MY GOD! Literally and figuratively. This genuine Medieval cathedral, built starting in 1079, is one of the largest in England with the longest nave of any cathedral in Europe. You could fit about three of my cute little Bryn Athyn Cathedrals inside of it. Walking around in it was an eye-opening, jaw-dropping demonstration of everything that Medieval life had to offer.
First of all, the word “cathedral” comes from the Latin word “cathedra” which means seat. In the early days before serious Gothic architecture was invented a “cathedral” was a really big church which was the seat of a bishop and therefore a center for the Medieval Church. There were some very nice little churches that filled this role. Many of them were literally swallowed up by the new Gothic cathedrals that began to be built in the Middle Ages. At Canterbury, for example, excavation has shown that the massive “new” cathedral was built right on top of the old one, incorporating it into the design.
But before we get right into the astounding feats of design that make up Gothic architecture, let’s say a quick word for its noble predecessor, Romanesque architecture. Because when Medieval people first thought to themselves “Hmm, I want to build something REALLY BIG to worship God in” they worked with the technology that they had and came up with stuff like this:
Rounded arches, thick walls, beautiful carving and towers. Very nice, very impressive.
But people being people, and rich Medieval nobles and the Church being more so, that wasn’t good enough. They looked at their lovely Romanesque buildings and said, “Let’s make it bigger! Let’s get more light into the nave, raise the ceiling, make it look like heaven itself is contained within the walls and windows!” And so the era of Gothic architecture began.
Gothic architecture is known for its pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, and flying buttresses. I only sort of know what those terms mean so I’m not going to go into massive amounts of technical detail. I do know that the point was to make the ceiling as high as possible, the windows as big as possible, and to give the stone the appearance of being much lighter than it was. Flying buttresses extend out from the main structure of the cathedral and disperse the weight load from the walls and the ceiling. They are necessary because until someone came up with the idea there was way too much Cathedral Fail. Many cathedrals came crashing down in an explosion of rubble and gore, destroying years’ and years’ worth of work because the science and math wasn’t right.
And it did take years and years, decades and decades, to build a cathedral. The labor was intensive. Hundreds of unskilled peasants would work cutting and erecting stone and timber. They were supervised by dozens of master craftsman, who would shape the pieces and direct them being put into place. More dozens of skilled artist would sculpt the stone and wood and blow and paint glass to construct elaborate stained-glass windows. They would all be directed by a master architect, the man with the plan. Sometimes these men didn’t live long enough to see their creations completed. All this work was financed by the Church and by nobles who believed their sins would be forgiven if they paid for the construction of a work of art of this magnitude to praise God.
I always chuckle a bit when people talk about how backward and behind Medieval science and technology was. I shake my head whenever someone suggests that because these people hadn’t discovered germ theory or astrophysics that they were all idiots. I want to send these nay-sayers on a tour of European cathedrals. I mean, look at these things! They are huge. Pictures online can’t come close to doing them justice. But it’s not just their size and scope that impresses, it’s their beauty, their functionality, and their sense of higher purpose. These miraculous buildings were created by hand by people using only the most basic tools. Don’t tell me that Medieval people weren’t capable of astounding feats of technology! Dude, they hand-crafted buildings that are still standing a THOUSAND years later!
The other thing that impressed me so much about Winchester Cathedral, which is true of all cathedrals, is how vital is was as a religious, social, and cultural center for the town. As I mentioned last week, religion was a major driving force for people of the Middle Ages. Life began and ended and revolved around the Church. Cathedrals were the house in which all this activity took place. In Medieval times they did not have pews. The nave was a large open space and people stood or knelt or sat on the floor for services. But so much more than worship services happened there. Medieval theater took place inside the cathedral. Cathedrals served as hospitals and homeless shelters. People were fed there, taught there, and socialized there. Winchester Cathedral also serves as an art gallery. It is packed with paintings and sculptures, many of them modern, but some dating back hundreds of years.
Cathedrals are also the record of the history of a place. At Winchester Cathedral I saw tombs and memorials for bishops dating back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Names and records of events are carved into nooks and crannies. The walls are decorated with war memorials and plaques erected to honor Winchester’s notable citizens including, I might add, Jane Austen. Yes, I have literally worshiped at the altar of Jane Austen. Well, not an altar so much as a large stone in the floor carved with her name and a memorial to her. Cathedrals were not just impressive feats of architecture, they were living, breathing embodiments of the community.
This is why it was so important to risk lives and to go bankrupt building one. And many congregations and nobles of the Middle Ages did go bankrupt building them. It was bankruptcy for a worthy cause. And when the bottom fell out of the Medieval economy and the building stopped, the great cathedrals still remained as a testament not only to God’s grandeur, but to the fact that there was once a society so prosperous, so beautiful, and so forward-thinking that its marks will forever remain on the land and the people.
Of course cathedrals weren’t the only massive architectural undertakings of the Middle Ages. Much of the same techniques used to build these things of beauty were used to build that other symbol of all things Medieval: castles….