From The Vault
By Ashli Burchfield
Notre Dame: Paris, France
Places of worship vary from big to small, old to new, simple to detailed. In America today, we know many of our houses of worship as churches, chapels, or synagogues for example. Very few Houses of the Lord can take on the name of cathedral. The word cathedral brings many things to mind such as long peals of ringing bells, the startling clear voices of a choir, or even a glimpse of a Gothic gargoyle. These are just small details of what makes the great substance and overwhelming majestic beauty of Gothic cathedrals. The film Gothic Cathedrals is a documentary specifically dedicated to explaining the design, meaning, and the life of these great pieces of architecture. The film focuses on the twelth century which marks the start of the Gothic period, but utilizes the story of one of the most recently built cathedrals to orient the reasoning of why Christianity built such massive structures in this early time period. To understand the raising of these great churches, one must be at least briefly familiar with the history of their beginnings. However, Gothic Cathedrals does not provide any history of why the Gothic era began, except stating that it started in the twelth century. A short outline on the start of the Gothic era and its movement to England reveals this problem.
Before the twelth century the monarchy of France proved to be destitute, hardly in power. As their fortunes revived the need for repairs on churches and abbeys became clear as well. Abbeys are sometimes compared to cathedrals; however, they are somewhat different. Cathedral comes from the Greek name "cathedra," which means seat, or seat of the bishop, as stated in the film. An abbey on the other hand is actually a term used to describe a monastery, a religious house or cluster of houses, nunneries, and a church. So, an abbot or abbess would hold the seat of an abbey. Abbeys were being built by religious orders sometime before the reign of Gothic cathedrals began. Instead of doing minor repairs to churches, the now strong monarchy decided to take on a new mission of building great churches; thus arose the Gothic cathedrals. They began mainly around Paris in France, then spread widely through all of Europe, including England. It is not surprising that England's cathedrals mimicked those of France. Perhaps this is because "the cultural, political, economic, and ecclesiastical ties between England and France ran deep," claims Scott in the study The Gothic Enterprise, which is an excellent read for a detailed view of cathedral life.
The building of the Canterbury Cathedral, which was the archepiscopal seat of England, paved the way for several other cathedrals of Gothic design in England such as Winchester and Lincoln. However, the architecture of Westminster Abbey, founded by Edward the Confessor, proves to be the first actual English Cathedral in 1065. When Christianity took hold in England, before cathedrals, existed, large atria were used to house large bodies of people. Thus, Christians quickly realized they would eventually need a large house of worship, hence the cathedral. A second motive was simply that of using God given talent to create a magnificent structure to worship God himself in. Cathedrals built a community of worshippers, in and out of the church itself. Bishops purposely sought to create this sense of kinship to offset the secular power of lords and kings.
The strongest part of the film is the explanation of the grand designs of these magnificent architectural feats. Allison Parsons, the National Cathedral Docent along with Rod Robbie, a cathedral architect, talks about the basics of cathedral’s design and its implementation. Parsons named the three most essential elements in the structural design of a Gothic cathedral. Ribbed vaulting helped create the arched ceilings that seemed to ascend toward heaven for the longest time. The ribbing was even thinned out most of the time to suggest the illusion that the ceiling stretched even farther up than it actually did. In the Middle Ages this was done in order to draw the eye toward heaven, or toward God himself. A quotation from Job in the bible says, "Is it not God in the height of heaven." The film uses this to explain why when we pray, we look, and worship toward the skies above.
The second components are the grand flying buttresses as they have come to be known. The buttresses may look a simple design aspect of the cathedral, but in fact it is a vital building block in holding the weight of the walls. The most important structural characteristic is the pointed arch. The importance of course, as stated before, being due to architects wanting your eye to reach as far to heaven as possible. The arch can be compared to the grand steeple in importance. Gargoyles and grotesques are two words even today that turn our minds towards the Gothic period. From the religious perspective, they were placed atop the numerous cathedral towers to scare off evil spirits and to haunt non-believers. In relation to the architectural and practical aspect, they acted as a gutter, running water out of the porous limestone from their mouths. Bell towers were significant to the cathedrals as well. Bell chambers were built to house around ten bells, which were rung by trained bell ringers only. The bell ringers were led by a bell master, who also supervised the installation of the bells.
All of these designs were great architectural feats for this time period and were usually created with a crew of only thirty-five to forty men. Cathedrals are still the greatest accomplishments of many communities. As one can see throughout the documentary, numerous designs were created throughout the cathedral to praise God. Allison Parsons also gives a brief commentary on why cathedrals were built on so grand a scale. She claims they were built to be as “cities of God on Earth.” Gothic cathedrals were created to glorify God, to spread his word, and to ensure that everyone would see and feel the superior talent their God has graced them with. Cathedrals were even built in cruciform, or in the shape of a cross, as a reminder of the Lord’s sacrifice.
This documentary film lacked any discussion of English cathedrals, which is disappointing considering that many associate the word ‘cathedral’ with England and not with just France or any other country. The French Chartres Cathedral is discussed as not only one of the largest in the world, but perhaps the most detailed and splendid of them all. Malcolm Miller, who dedicated much of his life to the study of Chartres Cathedral, appears and is clearly one of the most knowledgeable historians used in the film. He appeared to know Chartres Cathedral inside and out, from the first slab set to the last pinnacle adorned on the top. He also told of the shawl of the Virgin Mary, a relic, which was supposedly housed in Chartres. Relics like this were what drew people to the great churches and increased their faith. Chartres housed three dimensional figures that tell of God’s creation story starting with Adam and Eve, then Heaven and Earth, day and night, fire, earth, water, air, the plants, then the sun, moon, and planets, followed by the birds, fish, animals, and trees. These works of art reveal the great detail and hard labor that goes into manufacturing one of these great churches.
Each aspect of the story is a figurine, handcarved out of stone and each is detailed with a story. For example, night is blindfolded and day is holding his hand to lead him, as Miller discusses. Beside these sculptures stand the magnificent feature of divine light, known as stained glass windows. Every cathedral houses these perfected colored glass windows that tell stories as well. However, the film does not necessarily go into depth about any of the stories or exact facts of the named cathedrals. They only illustrate a very small portion of what an actual cathedral is really like, and only scratch the surface of the religious reasoning behind their building. For great illustrations and a brief description of many cathedrals, I recommend Cathedrals of England and Wales by John Harvey. The book is a good secondary source to the film because it discusses aspects of cathedrals the film does not.
A puzzling aspect of the film is its primary focus on the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. A viewer is not prepared to hear a detailed history on the construction of a cathedral that only began in 1907. This is obviously nowhere near the beginning of the 12th century or the following approximately 400 years, which followed the Gothic era. On the other hand,, from the commentaries provided in the film it appears that the National Cathedral is a great achievement of our time as well since it was completed after eighty-three years in 1990. The film states that 17,000 people came out to watch the last finial be placed atop the steeple on that day. It is astonishing to know how far technologically advanced we are today, but yet how slow and laborious the National Cathedral was to construct. Cathedrals truly are works of God, and despite their complex and difficult construction, they are created in honor and praise to him.
Overall, the film Gothic Cathedrals is a quick guide to a very brief outline of why and how cathedrals were built and are still built today. However, the viewer must look to books, such as the two recommended above, for in depth detail over specific topics of Gothic cathedrals. Nonetheless, one can take away from this documentary an appreciation for these magnificent structures that lead us to further our faith not only with praise, but with talent as well.
John Harvey. Cathedrals of England and Wales, 1974.
Robert Scott. The Gothic Enterprise, 2003.