The Joy of Visiting a Great Cathedral (even if you’re not in the fold)
The principle of the Gothic architecture is infinity made imaginable. — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Specimens of the Table Talk, 1833
At this point in summer, when travellers flock to the world’s old towns, cathedral visits are on the program. For people who aren’t religious, or Christian, or of the culture-vulture persuasion, this can have a tick-the-box quality. Go there, do that, snap some pics. Praise be — it’s time for gelato!
Pooped tourists on the last stop of a day’s pilgrimage: it’s at this crossroads of cultures that converts get made. Not so much religious ones (though whiny kids can nudge the dial on embracing vows of silence).
Far more often, cathedral visitors rediscover their faith in humanity. A cathedral is a man-made wonder, where awe and appreciation are born again.
Theodore Dostoevsky, visiting St. Peter’s in 1863, speaks for many when he wrote: “my impression was strong, Nikolai Nikolaevich. I had shivers down my back.”
Chills aren’t just a religious reaction — they’re a human one. Cathedral interiors are flat-out miraculous. Setting aside the spiritual, they work you over on three more levels: the rational, the sensual, even the animal — more on that later.
The great phase of European cathedral building ran from the 12th through the 16th centuries. Chartres in France took a mere 25 years, Cologne in Germany six hundred. Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia is still under scaffold. Paris’ Notre Dame is once again quarrying.
These figures ping our executive function, the part of the brain that gets things done. We hear the numbers, crunch them, and boggle. The builders didn’t just believe in heavenly reward. For them, the ‘ever-after’ meant future generations as well.
The princes and archbishops who commissioned the structures took the long view, and had massive resources and power at their disposal. Still, those of us who barely scrape by when the wi-fi goes down can only marvel at what they accomplished.
Especially since it was achieved with pulleys, chisels, makeshift scaffolding, and muscle. Even more impressive: paper plans were nonexistent in the early centuries of the cathedral boom. Instead the masons, glaziers, and smiths worked with medieval Minecraft: tiny carved 3-D models.
An average Gothic cathedral begun in 1776 would be under construction until 2033! This four-century-long period of cathedral-building counts as one of the most impressive accomplishments in all of Western history. — Robert A. Scott, The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral
Nowadays we’ve largely lost a sense that these workers relied on. Sometimes we can recapture it in a nave or dark chapel. This was an appreciation, highly attuned, of natural order. Concords great and small run through these buildings. The inspiration was organic: spiderwebs, saplings, and spinal columns.
Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, saw the correspondence in reverse, likening a whale carcass to the interior of a great church:
herein we see the rare virtue of . . . thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! . . . Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.
Back in the day, the perfect accords of great and small were appreciated as an expression of divine order. So too the more rarified principles evident in towers of stone: the elusive and mystical formulaics of geometry, physics, weight and thrust.
The builders learned the hard way that mishap could be overcome with good order. God got the credit when a design innovation held fast, but a terrible natural selection was at work when wind and tremor tested the vaulting.
No matter what your religious beliefs, this modular order gratifies. It is a visual logic assuring that a system is there, a master plan, leaving aside whose hand is guiding it. The distribution, scale, and elaboration of the elements makes rational sense, even as it houses the ineffable.
This — the lower-case holy spirit — gets communicated in a cathedral in various nonmaterial ways. Here even the most adamant nonbeliever gets hit with a sensual roundhouse.
Cool air circulates, even when it’s broiling outside. Banks of stained glass throw jewel tones on stone floors. Stunning paintings and sculptures tell ancient stories. Wafts of incense, centuries’ worth, ply the nose. Then there’s the sound. Acoustical specialist Trevor Cox, in his book Sonic Wonderland, explains:
The vast, visually imposing cathedrals, built to glorify God, naturally have awe-inspiring acoustics. The sonic qualities are associated with spirituality. The excessive reverberation forces the congregation into silence or hushed whispers, because otherwise speech is rapidly amplified by reflections and creates an ungodly cacophony.
During services, the music and words appear to wrap around you like the omnipresent God being worshipped. The acoustics have also influenced services, as the use of chanting and slow liturgical voice counters the muddy speech in such reverberant spaces.
The premiere pleasure is of course the light. The gospel of John proclaims: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” Shafts and flickers and pools and reflections off salvers and golden thread. Sunbeams from high windows, rainbow-hued stained glass, the wink of votaries in carmine holders, all set against the chapels’ gloom — the sum was and is irresistible.
This is how cathedrals play to the rational, and the sensual. What gets little to no mention in the guidebooks can be the most charismatic attraction of all. This is their profound power to bring creature comfort. In a great house of worship, our innermost self is calmed and restored.
The contemporary painter Anselm Kiefer, describing a scene from childhood, captures what a forest clearing and a cathedral have in common:
“I grew up in a forest. It’s like a room. It’s protected. Like a cathedral . . . it is a place between heaven and earth.”
Protected indeed. An escape from the elements, natural and man-made. Inside, harsh weather, noise, aching feet, fellow travellers, and earthly cares are muted, for the medieval peasant and the modern visitor alike.
In their place, beautiful calm. For pilgrims then and now, it’s a shelter, the original safe space, where the soul can stretch from its defensive crouch, and reflection can take place unguarded.