Next week we will look at medieval cathedrals.
We discussed what architecture reveals about a civilization, and how specific buildings and designs reflect certain ideas and theological leanings. In discussing cathedrals, I first wanted the students to discuss their own churches. Some observations we made were:
- One church had sanctuary that used folding chairs and doubled as a multi-purpose room. The church had an informal worship service, with a pastor that was generally laid back and easy going. At the center of the stage lies the pulpit, and as we might expect, the sermon occupies the central place in their worship service.
- Another met in a room for worship with movie theater style seats, with screens occupying a prominent place on the wall. This church, we discovered, puts a premium on cultural relevance and an interactive experience for the worshippers.
- One church met in a building similar to an office building complex. One key idea of the church seemed to be not to intimidate anyone with “church.” The sanctuary design and flow of the service had what could be described as a “familiar” feel.
- Another church was designed in the traditional way, but with a higher ceiling. They had an altar rail in front, with a choir in robes, a processional with the cross, acolytes, etc. The pulpit is placed off to the side, and true to form, the sermon is not the centerpiece of the service. Instead, with the communion altar at the center, the celebration of the eucharist takes the bulk of the service time each week.
I shared my experience worshipping in an Eastern Orthodox Church some years ago. When you enter, the church immediately had a “this is different” feel. The colors, smells, and chanting all told the attendee, “You are in a different place, you have left “the world” and are now surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, somewhere between Heaven and Earth. Instead of sitting, you spent most of the time standing or kneeling. The point was not to make you comfortable, but to take you out of yourself and your daily surroundings. They might also add that one should not sit in the presence of God.
Each of these designs reflect different philosophies on worship, and their architecture reflects that. While it was certainly not my purpose to say that one is better than another, it is important that we tried to understand that theology will be reflected in architectural style.
From a cosmological and societal perspective, height had great importance to the medievals. When I look at the intricate design and strange creatures that adorn many cathedrals, I get the sense that they were enjoying themselves. Cathedrals took at least 30 years and often more than 50 to build. What does this say about them? What church today could sell a building program that would take at least 30 years to complete? What does that say about us? Were the medievals wasteful and foolish, or is it us who have made worship a humdrum bare bones experience? Do cathedrals, as Abbott Suger said, serve to ‘urge us onwards from the material to the immaterial?’
When we looked at images of a cathedral, their height immediately struck most of the students:
Most likely, our involuntary reaction to these buildings would be to look up and feel small, and that indeed is part of the point. They felt it important that you lose yourself in the face of immensity. Clearly, this kind of architecture stressed the “otherness,” holiness, and transcendence of God. Conversely, it does not emphasize the “nearness” of God. But we must not have the idea that Gothic meant “dark, heavy, and foreboding.” Rather, the medievals came up with their architectural advances specifically to let in more light. They do not press us down to the ground (like pyramids, for example) but take us “upwards” to heaven.
Their architecture takes us back to their cosmology, which also emphasized height, as we saw last week.
Finally, we noted how it reflects the Medieval linking of the physical and spiritual. They did this even with the location of their buildings, most especially in the Mont St. Michael Cathedral in Normandy, France.
The cathedral is dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, who fights the Dragon in the book of Revelation. They built it in the furthest point possible out into the sea, in itself a testimony and prayer that God and His angels are their first line of defense. Mt. St. Michael perfectly illustrates what medievals believed not only about church, but about how physical things reflect spiritual reality.