Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Theology and Metaphysics of the Gothic Cathedral - part 1

The British philosopher Alain de Botton has written that “Any object of design will give off an impression of the psychological and moral attitudes it supports… in essence what works of design and architecture talk to us about is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them”. Given this basis to our evaluation of all architecture, and especially sacred architecture, it seems to me vital that we pay attention to the cultural and philosophical milieux which give rise to various forms of architecture. For a beautiful building that transcends the merely functional is a work of art, which expresses deeper realities. An architect, then, is an artist whose art is that of organizing structures, giving it form, to create a beautiful space which can be enjoyed aesthetically. The beautiful space, so arranged by the art of the architect, is then enjoyed by those who walk through the space, so that it becomes, in a sense, a living and enduring work of art with which we interact. Thus the French philosopher Etienne Gilson says that “architecture is the art of that which is to last as music is the art of that which is to pass away”. In what follows, I wish to discuss those metaphysical ideas that underlie a great Gothic cathedral, and consider the theology and weltanschauung that informed the medieval master mason.


The medieval vision & symbolism

St Thomas Aquinas famously said that “pulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent”, ‘beautiful things are those which please when seen’. As such, beautiful things, which participate in God’s beauty and receive their proper beauty from him, was apprehended through the human senses, and especially through one’s sight. Sight is an important part of understanding the medieval world view, and the vision of God, by which St Thomas meant that the glorified human intellect can come to know God “as he is”, is central to Scholastic theology, for “the ultimate beatitude of man consists in the use of his highest function, which is the operation of his intellect”. Hence, St Thomas asserts that “the blessed see the essence of God”. Thus, to know God – in so far as creatures are capable of doing so – is to ‘see’ God, just as we might say ‘I see’ when we mean that we have understood something. Therefore, Otto von Simson notes that “the Gothic age, as has often been observed, was an age of vision”.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that St Thomas affirms that “it is impossible for God to be seen by the sense of sight, or by any other sense, or faculty of the sensitive power” because God is incorporeal. Hence, God’s essence is not seen by our eyes. However, our eyes can “receive some form representing God according to some mode of similitude; as in the divine Scripture divine things are metaphorically described by means of sensible things”. Therefore, the medieval imagination is suffused with a ‘sacramental’ view of the world, so to speak, in which corporeal things represent incorporeal things, and it is through the material that we can perceive the spiritual. Abbot Suger, who was responsible for what is often recognized as the first Gothic church, said that his abbey church of St Denis transformed “that which is material to that which is immaterial”. This idea, which had been expounded by Blessed Dionysius the Areopagite, is firmly rooted in the Incarnation, and following in this tradition, St Thomas would say that, “our intellect, which is led to the knowledge of God from creatures, must consider God according to the mode derived from creatures”, and, “signs are given to men, to whom it is proper to discover the unknown by means of the known”. This is possible because created things participate in the truth, beauty and goodness of God. As St Thomas, commenting on Dionysius’ The Divine Names says, creaturely beauty is nothing other than the “likeness of divine beauty participated in things”. This fundamental idea, which permeates the practice of medieval art, is what lead Abbot Suger to say that “the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material”, thus giving a strong symbolic, even ‘sacramental’ sense, to the arts. Émile Mâle, in his study of the religious art of thirteenth-century France, thus said that “mediaeval art was before all things a symbolic art, in which form is used merely as the vehicle of spiritual meaning”. The chief form of this symbolic art that dominates the landscape of the Middle Ages, is the cathedral, on which we shall concentrate in this essay.

Wells Retrochoir vault
We must first consider what is meant when we speak of medieval art as symbolic. Since the Middle Ages, the word ‘symbol’ has come to be used to indicate something that points to something else, or to indicate something, rather like a street sign or a traffic signal. As Von Simson notes, “for us the symbol is the subjective creation of poetic fancy” and, as Tillich notes, “much of what previously had symbolic power has become meaningless”. However, for the medievals, and indeed as it ought to be for Catholics, “the concept of symbol has a deeper, more comprehensive sense, because it intends to present and describe a real means of communication between God and humanity under the aspect of sign”. This is to say that the symbol – and in this case we mean the Gothic cathedral – is not just an earthly reminder or signpost of heavenly realities, but rather it is the ‘en-fleshing’ in worldly matter of heavenly realities. As in the Incarnation the eternal Word communicated with humankind in the flesh, so God continues to communicate his truth to us through material signs and visible means. For, Von Simson argues, the medievals understood that “the physical world as we understand it has no reality except as a symbol… symbol is the only objectively valid definition of reality”. This metaphysical sensitivity characterizes the medieval artistic vision, so that the Gothic cathedral is not to be primarily understood in functional or socio-economic or aesthetic terms, but in metaphysical and theological terms, and one has to ask what truth the cathedral symbolizes; how does God communicate with us in its beauty and form? Hence, Von Simson says, “the medieval artist was committed to a truth that transcended human existence. Those who looked at his work judged it as an image of that truth”.

This strong symbolic sense, which is redolent of a Catholic understanding of sacramentals, the theology of the Incarnation, and the philosophical idea of participation, is central to any grasp of the Gothic cathedral and its architecture. I would argue that this was largely lost after the Reformation, and it needs to be re-discovered. For a church is not built just as a theatre for the sacred drama of Liturgy, nor merely as a badge of our cultural identity, nor even as a didactic 'worship space', but it is, as the medievals saw it, a transformation of space and matter so that the church building makes visible and truly communicated in its very physical form the metaphysical reality of redeemed Creation, which is sacramentally made visible in God's holy Church.

Continued in Part 2: the Eschatological vision of the Gothic Cathedral