Back in June 2017, I finally managed to break my journey between north and south to spend time at one of our mediaeval cathedrals…
In our modern world, when we are accustomed to seeing skyscrapers on every skyline, size seems to have lost much of its potency. Giant airliners fly overhead carrying hundreds of passengers. The biggest cruise ship could hold the entire population of my village several times over. But even today, the scale of a cathedral reminds you that size matters.
You simply cannot help it… walk into any cathedral and your eyes are immediately drawn upwards. For the modern visitor, there is a wealth of detail to be found and enjoyed, but there is more to it than art. The architects of the great medieval edifices were evidently psychologists too, and knew exactly how to induce a feeling of awe.
When the building of Lichfield Cathedral was begun a thousand years ago, most people lived in fairly primitive, single-storey buildings made of wood with a thatched roof. The barons had their castles… great structures of stone, or motte and bailey affairs, where the central keep towered from its mound. These were as much symbolic as they were defensive, stamping the authority of the conquerors on the landscape; there was no mistaking who held the power.
For the most part, the Norman castles were functional rather than decorative. At that time, there was a need for civil and military strength to be seen and understood. Apart from the great hall, the rooms were primarily small and ill-lit, with low ceilings and tiny windows. The great cathedrals, on the other hand, were full of light and space, with ceilings seeming to reach to infinity.
Cathedrals cost money, a lot of money… and the show of wealth has always been equated with power. Religion and politics were deeply entwined. I doubt that even the barons were in any doubt where the ultimate authority was held.
As for the common folk, whose homes were so small and simple, the wood and stone of the cathedrals, carved with the intricacy of lace, gilded, painted and glowing, must have seemed too awe-inspiring for words.
Vertical piers and soaring arches make the solidity of stone seem fragile and almost insubstantial. A delicate tracery supports the roof like a web or the veins of a leaf. The eye is carried beyond the earth to the contemplation of something far greater. Everywhere there is beauty and majesty.
Carvings and stories in paint, wood and stone illuminate through symbols and fantastic beasts adorn every corner. Light and colour flood in through vast windows, making the body of the church a grail to hold the Holy Spirit.
The high, vaulted spaces had another effect too… sound reverberates differently within the Gothic structures and elicits a different emotional response. The acoustics are amazing, and to hear a sung service within one of these cathedrals is a profoundly moving experience, even for those not a member of the faith.
The body of the church holds the tombs and images of the bishops, knights and saints of this world. Portraits of nobles and notables decorate the lower reaches of the space. Then eye, heart and mind are drawn up into a state of wonder, away from the earthly state to a heavenly life.
There, on the very edge of vision, are the images of another reality; images of faith and a kingdom not ruled by man…
… and all within the body of the Cross. Stepping within the walls of a cathedral, shaped in the form of the Crucifix, was, for the faithful, to enter into a Mystery under the aegis of a Master.
Little wonder that these incredible buildings still exercise such a fascination for us today. Our steel and concrete society wears a different cloak, but human emotion does not change and we are still moved by beauty and the unconscious response to the vision of a life beyond our own.
Even if we do not share the faith, there is a desire to believe in something bigger than the individual, whether that be a reality beyond the known or the possibility of Man becoming all he can be and fulfilling his potential with humanity… the ancient places, hallowed by a millennium of human prayer, still remain as vessels of hope and Light.