Friday, May 08, 2009

The Theology and Metaphysics of the Gothic Cathedral - part 2

Continued from here.

The Church on earth as it is in heaven...

Nevertheless, the Gothic cathedral was not exclusively a symbol in this full sense, but also on a more basic catechetical and narrative level, so that the building’s decoration and its ornamentation may also have served as a biblia pauperum. As Mâle puts it: “Aware of the power of art over childlike and humble souls, the mediaeval Church tried through sculpture and stained glass to instill into the faithful the full range of her teaching. For the immense crowd of the unlettered, the multitude which had neither psalter nor missal and whose only book was the church, it was necessary to give concrete form to abstract thought.” Such a view assumes that the ordinary medieval Catholic was sufficiently familiar with Christian doctrine and writings so that he or she could, with relative ease, identify what the art was portraying. Nonetheless, there is more than a hint of functionalism in this viewpoint as it seems to imply that the sculpture, stained glass and images had to perform a consciously pedagogical function. However, one cannot fail to note that Gothic cathedrals often contained sacred images that one could not see with the un-aided eye. For example, the great east window in York Minster contains all of salvation history from creation to the eschaton, but it cannot be seen with ease, even with corrective lenses, from the ground level. How then could its narrative have a catechetical value? Kieckhefer thus suggests that these images “are there… most basically as reminders of the religious culture from which they derive, as witnesses to a history that could in principle be known… they fuse into a totality, a community of images, perceived only as a symbolic world of identities and meanings entered into easily but known only gradually and perhaps never fully” . Therefore, they work together as part of a larger symbol - the entire church building itself, and their 'nett effect', so to speak, is to "make metaphysical stirrings not only plausible but irresistible within even the soberest hearts", as Alain de Botton says. The truth of this statement is borne out in the millions - Christian or not - who continue to marvel at the beauty and transcendence of the Gothic cathedral, even when other church buildings might leave them cold and unmoved.

Mâle himself explains in detail the various ‘mirrors’ which reflect truth and reality in the Middle Ages to those who view the cathedral. Aspects of medieval life and work, nature, plant-life and animal-life, secular and sacred history are interwoven with Scriptural stories, moral virtues and vices, the lives of the saints, and the hope of the world to come. As such, past, present and future, are represented in the iconography of the Gothic cathedral so that all time and all peoples – the Catholica – are united in the church building which is a symbol of the Church herself, who is Mother of all humanity. Therefore, Augustine Thompson OP says that the cathedral was “a presentation of the whole order of the cosmos, the machina mundi. And its coordinated parts made it a representation of the ‘army of the people of God’. Taken as a whole, the cathedral made present the orders of the church, the society, and the commune. Medieval theologians saw in the Ecclesia Matrix the pattern of the heavenly Jerusalem come down to earth” . The Church is the sacrament of salvation, a sign to all people of creation redeemed by Christ and of divine order restored to a world disordered by sin. Thus, the church building, which was a visible symbol of the entire Church Suffering, Militant and Triumphant, embraced and ordered all of creation in its iconography and decoration, and it stood as a sacramental sign of the Church herself. As the Gradual from the Dedication of the Church put it: “Locus iste a Deo factus est, inaestimabile sacramentum”. This ecclesiological point is often missed by commentators who are all swift to cite Abbot Suger’s evocation of the celestial City in his new church. The Church, however, is - as the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium reminds us - both on pilgrimage here on earth, straining for her final glory with Christ and the saints, and also the already immaculate Bride of Christ united to her Head and Bridegroom.

This eschatological hope is, of course, vividly embodied in the Gothic cathedral. Von Simson states that “the church is, mystically and liturgically, an image of heaven” , particularly the vision presented in Revelation of the “holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven” (21:2). The church’s many pinnacles, gables, niches and turrets evoke the “many mansions” in the Father’s house . Over the great west doors, a tympanum depicting Christ in Majesty and the Final Judgement, showed that one entered into the heavenly city having been judged by Christ as worthy. As such, those who entered the cathedral enacted and anticipated their own hoped-for entry into the new Jerusalem. Hence, to cite again from the Dedication liturgy of a church, the church building: “Hic domus Dei est, et porta coeli”. Of course, as Von Simson reminds us, a desire to evoke heaven and for the church to stand as a symbol of the new Jerusalem was not unique or new to Gothic architecture; one sees the same impulse in Byzantine and Romanesque buildings, and again very vividly in later Baroque architecture. However, “what distinguishes the cathedral of this epoch from preceding architecture is not the eschatological theme but the different mode of its evocation… it is not sufficient to ask what the Gothic cathedral represents [but] how the Gothic cathedral represents the vision of heaven” . So, we need to return to the metaphysical and theological principles that underline the Gothic imagination, and how that was given form in the Gothic cathedral.

Continued in part 3: The beauty and order of the Gothic cathedral

Photo credit: Wells Cathedral at night by Joe Dunckley.

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