A view along the rear of Winchester Cathedral

A window into the medieval mind

Heaven on Earth captures the extraordinary efflorescence of Gothic architecture in Europe

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Heaven on Earth: The Lives and Legacies of the World’s Greatest Cathedrals, Emma Wells (Head of Zeus, £40)

Walkelin, the norman bishop of Winchester, had a problem. He needed more wood for his new cathedral, which was being built on unpromisingly marshy ground a little way from the city’s two existing Saxon minsters. He went to the man who had appointed him, William the Conqueror. His king offered him as many trees from a nearby royal wood as Walkelin’s carpenters could cut in three days. Sometime later, William passed by the site. He found just one tree left. “Am I bewitched or have I taken leave of my senses?” he cried. “Had I not once a most delectable wood upon this spot?” Walkelin, it is said, had pressed every citizen of Winchester into service and stripped the woods bare.

The story may not be true. Cathedral scribes were notoriously partisan and sometimes downright dishonest when it came to the history of their buildings. As Emma Wells reveals in Heaven on Earth, a detailed and illuminating survey of 16 great mediaeval churches, the account nonetheless captures some key aspects of what has been called “the Crusade of the Cathedrals” — the extraordinary efflorescence of primarily Gothic architecture in north-western Europe in the first centuries of the second millennium.

The story has, in Walkelin, someone to drive the construction with reckless audacity, cunning and determination. It has the sometimes supplicant, sometimes competitive, sometimes accommodating relationship with state power that was required to build something on this scale and at this expense. Finally, it has the immense labour of unnamed men and women — not always willingly given — without which nothing could have been built at all.

Cathedrals embodied the eternal certainty of grace in the midst of political chaos

Wells’s selection runs from Istanbul’s 6th century Hagia Sophia to Florence’s 15th century Santa Maria del Fiore, but its primary focus is the pinnacle of the Age of Gothic — roughly from 1140 to 1280 — as manifested in England and France. Many of these buildings looked back to the very foundations of Christianity in Europe. Santiago de Compostela was built on the site of the supposed tomb of St James, martyred in c.44 AD; Notre-Dame de Saint-Denis stands where the 3rd century missionary-martyr Saint Dionysius finally fell after his beheading on Montmartre. There had been a cathedral on the site of Cologne Cathedral in the 4th century, when it was part of Roman Gaul.

If cathedrals were in some sense bounden to the affirmatory heft of secular authority, they were also a bulwark against it. They embodied the eternal certainty of grace whilst transient political and dynastic chaos ebbed and flowed around them. Indeed, Wells was re-founded in the middle of the 12th century English civil war aptly known as “The Anarchy”.

Civic authorities meanwhile were ambivalent. Running battles at Santiago resulted in the cathedral precinct being stormed in 1116 and again in 1136. On the latter occasion, the cathedral’s combative bishop, Diego Gelmírez, was forced to hide from the projectiles of his flock behind the grille of the altar shrine. At Amiens, the church bought off the fractious local bourgeoisie with a 25 per cent tax cut known as the “Respite of St Firmin”, named for the first bishop of the diocese, martyred in the 2nd century, whose relics the cathedral held.

Money was a constant problem; these marvels required vast amounts of it. The building of Westminster Cathedral cost around £40,000, of Salisbury 40,000 marks (a mark being around two thirds of a pound); the eastern arm of Ely alone cost close to £7,000. That’s just three of the many ecclesiastical building projects going up across England at more or less the same time. Meanwhile, Henry II’s budget for running the country was a meagre 12,000 marks. Whatever else they are, these buildings are monuments to worldly endeavour.

The financing of both Salisbury and York was aided by the sale of indulgences: the contributions of the penitent faithful were, in essence, offset against their sins. At Salisbury, 40 days of penance were waived; at York, 42 days. Cults and relics were vital to both the spiritual and the financial economy. Every cathedral needed its saint, but canonisation was merely a kind of kitemark of sanctity. Cults grew without it: the relics of the Blessed William Fitzherbert and Edward the Confessor were promoted, at York and Westminster respectively, for decades before they received the ultimate imprimatur from Rome.

Authorities were always alert to small tweaks that could grow their revenues. At Reims, the cranium of St Nicasius was translated to a new shrine simply to create a new station at which pilgrims could make offerings. At Amiens, the processing of the relics of St Firmin was so lucrative that a second procession was launched with the relics of St Honoré, another former bishop.

Through pilgrimage, cathedrals were great engines of mobility

As with any marketing campaign, consumer enthusiasm wasn’t a given. In October 1247, Henry III walked barefoot from St Paul’s to Westminster to promote the latter’s acquisition of some holy blood from the wound of Christ, but neither the stunt nor the relic fired the public imagination.

Through pilgrimage, cathedrals were great engines of mobility. An astonishing 100,000 pilgrims came to Canterbury in 1171, inspired by the murder of Thomas Becket the year before. As Wells notes, the mobility these buildings inspired wasn’t merely temporal. They were built to embody the celestial city itself whilst also transporting the faithful towards it. Moreover, pilgrims also made cathedrals into engines of the divine: St James produced just eight recognised miracles in his first thousand years. Nonetheless, by the first decade of the 12th century his productivity rocketed to one a year. Cathedrals weren’t merely places where God’s grace could be found; they were places where it happened.

Wells is an ecclesiastical and architectural historian, and in some passages the lure of architectural exposition impedes an otherwise lucid and absorbing narrative. The glossary of technical terms provided is useful and the photography is wonderful, but some drawings to illustrate the more detailed descriptive passages would have been welcome.

Taken as a whole, however, the book offers a luminous insight into the mediaeval mind and the worldview that made these achievements possible. We think of these buildings as expressions of faith, but they were more than that. They were ways of conceptualising faith in stone and glass — what the scholastic philosopher Peter Abelard called “geometrised theology”.

Abbot Suger, who led the 12th century building of Notre-Dame de Saint-Denis (in many ways the template for every Gothic church that followed) understood it was more than daylight that his abbey’s great windows let in — it was the divine. “The dull mind rises to the truth through material things,” he had inscribed on his abbey doors. “And is resurrected … when the light is seen.”

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