Imagine it is the year 1400, and you are visiting the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres for the first time. You have never before seen the remarkable structure that dominates the busy, dirty, commercial city and the peaceful French countryside for miles around. Strolling up the Rue du Bourg you enter a cavernous space illuminated by the flickering light of hundreds of candles and the sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows.
The wonder that Chartres Cathedral inspires in me in the 21st century would have been many times greater in someone living more than 600 years ago. After all, before my visit I had read books, seen photographs and talked with friends who had seen Chartres; I may have even watched something on the History Channel. It is difficult to imagine a parallel today, when one might tremble before the power of a previously unseen sacred space. Perhaps the Grand Canyon, the Egyptian pyramids or the Great Wall of China, which books and photos simply cannot capture, would evoke similar wonder. Or imagine a child standing for the first time at the railing before one of the precipitous drops of Niagara Falls. That child would feel awe.
In the Middle Ages it was easy to “feel” God in a religious space. Great spaces were created to communicate many things about God, and ordinary men and women understood their symbolism and iconography. People “read” the way that architects had used elements like light and height to tell of God. “The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material and, in seeing this light, is resurrected,” wrote Abbot Suger, the 12th-century champion of the Gothic style.
If you look for the spires of great churches in the cities you visit, you are responding to what the builders long ago programmed into those structures. They are speaking to you, even if in muffled tones.
The verse from the Wisdom of Solomon, “But you have arranged all things by measure and number and weight” (11:20), was made famous throughout the medieval world by St. Augustine; most theologians believed that God arranges things down to the finest detail. The Gothic builders created forms they believed corresponded to the order of the cosmos and to the Godhead. The vision portrayed inside a great cathedral is the vision thought to have come directly from the heavens. Beauty was brought out in order, as the medieval architect labored to praise the God of ultimate design.
In building the Gothic churches, medieval Christians were also taking their cues from Jewish tradition, the Psalms and all Scripture; they were rebuilding the temple and rejoining God in a place that would not falter. Buildings had the ability to communicate divine power, and the sacred rites performed within those sacred spaces were the most essential of human activities. The “house of God” was taken to mean precisely that: God resided inside. They believed that God was uniquely present in church, especially so in great churches.
Awe was the point. But the central focus of Gothic design was always the incarnate God in Christ, rather than the Trinity, the Godhead or God the Father. Gothic architects took their primary inspiration from the opening phrase of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word.” Cathedrals demonstrated this in various ways.
Typically they follow a cruciform (cross-shaped) plan, with the longer axis running from west to east. The cathedral faces east toward the rising sun and Jerusalem, where Christ was raised; the altar is situated at the east end of the church. At the west end of that axis is the front door. The shorter axis, running south to north, forms the “arms” of the cross, called transepts: they are located toward the front of the building, between the nave—the central portion of any church—and the choir and chancel (the steps leading up to the sanctuary and altar). Running along the sides of the nave of most Gothic churches, perpendicular to that longer west-east axis, are one or two aisles, and all along those aisles, columns.
During the Mass, a medieval Christian might feel open to the glories of heaven in that place, as deeply as if a divine hand had reached down from the clouds. But the One acting upon him was a loving Jesus. A Christian’s “bread of heaven” was found only on the high altar, there in church.
Medieval spirituality was both more credulous and more embodied than our own. For the medieval person, a symbol was an objective piece of reality: it was the very thing it represented—and not just in the Eucharist. An image of Christ or the Virgin in the form of an icon or a fresco or a sculpture was a portal to Jesus or Mary. Even the stone the builders used was considered important. The architects of the first Gothic cathedrals were taught by the philosopher John Scotus Erigena that a piece of stone can be understood for what it really is only, if we see God in it. The materials were thus transformed in their hands: the slab of marble forming the high altar of a cathedral would be regarded as resembling the very stone upon which Abraham had been willing to offer Isaac or as the place where sacrifices were made in the temple during Jesus’ time or, most important, as Calvary, where Christ offered himself for the world’s salvation.
The principal aim of the Gothic architect was to make masses of stone appear simultaneously lighter and vaster and to create a soaring upward movement, as the builders reconstructed older, Romanesque-style churches. They did so by flooding natural light into the space and refracting it through colorful stained-glass windows. Church buildings were intended to tell a story, not simply house a congregation. The story was enhanced by the ways in which the building depicted the Christian community in prayer. That is the idea behind the pointed (Gothic) arch versus the rounded (Romanesque) arch. The Romanesque style emphasizes the massive foundation and cornerstone of the Almighty, while the Gothic pointed arch intends to put the Christian soul back into the building, pointing upward, even bursting out of it. This way of showing a fervent faith was also communicated in ribbed vaulting, pointed windows and towering ceilings. Everything aimed for the heavens.
In Gothic cathedrals, windows grew wider, walls were thinned and ceilings soared. Gravity was overcome beyond what was thought possible. For the first time churches became more than functional. They became intelligent, ideological and contemplative. Windows grew not just large but enormous, especially in the cathedrals of France, where both clear and stained-glass windows radiated natural light into the space of God. There were even moments early on when the new cathedrals were so tall, thin and full of glass that they came close to toppling over (or in), which is why flying buttresses were first used: to hold the great buildings up.
All this was done to foster prayer. We pray to the Light of the World, from whom all things, physical and spiritual, emanate. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people,” says John’s Gospel (1:4). The vision and imagination required for truly contemplative prayer, the Gothic architects concluded, is aided by seeing. What aids our vision more than natural light?
While visiting Chartres Cathedral two years ago, I was reminded that during the French Revolution great churches were “repurposed” as haylofts, prisons, blacksmith shops for making battle armor and museums (as if Christianity lay only in the past). Others were renamed, “temples to the Divine Being,” for example. It is inconceivable in most countries that such a forced government takeover could happen today.
The Gothic church invites us to contemplate the divine. Our imaginations soar to discover what is rarely experienced in the work-a-day world around us. As the Almighty says in Ps 75:3, “When the earth totters, with all its inhabitants, it is I who keep its pillars steady.” That is what we are there to experience. Napoleon said, upon entering Chartres for the first time, “Un athée serait mal a l’aise ici” (“This is no place for an atheist”). We cannot help but pray there.