Tag Archives: medieval

Chartres Cathedral: An ideal for church design today.

Not all of us can regularly go to Mass in a cathedral of great beauty. Most Catholics have available to them rather humdrum works of architecture for their local parish. But it’s still possible to find beautiful small churches where careful attention to detail and the meaning of form went into their design. And yet, that still relatively rare.

The following video is an excellent look at one of the crown jewels of Catholic cathedrals, Chartres Cathedral in France. This comes from the “Smarthistory. art, history, conversation” YouTube channel. As you watch it, consider how much thought went into this building, and then consider the church where you regularly go to Mass. My point here is not to highlight the great beauty of Chartres compared to the humble local parish, but how carefully the design and the details were thought through and realized in Chartres. Can we achieve such excellence again? And can we achieve something of this in our local parishes? I believe we can and should.

Of course, very few parishes have the resources to build large and lavish churches, but often a church that achieves the right virtue of proper “churchness” is not a matter of resources, or size, or expensive materials, as it is of basic understanding and will. What I mean is that having the right understanding of what a church is and ought to be, and applying one’s minds carefully to its design, even a small church in a small parish can be a work of architecture worthy of worshiping Christ and elevating the faithful to Heaven.

I am surprised at how apparently ignorant so many Catholics are, including many in the hierarchy, about basic church architecture–or seem to be so. Churches are where we celebrate Mass. This is no small matter. Although, perhaps most Catholics are not as ignorance and not caring about such things, believing they are unimportant. However, the church building itself, though not absolutely necessary for celebrating Mass is, nonetheless, the normative place of worship. In it we meet the Real Presence of our Lord and savior, the King of Kings. If we take worship seriously then we should take church design seriously, including for the humble local parish Church. Catholics used to. But we haven’t for some time now. We must again.

I have frequently posted on this and related topics, for example here.

I also love how the speakers in the above video, Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, don’t shy away from orthodox Catholic dogma. This is not a video where the information presented has a condescending tone toward faith and believers. I have no idea if they are Catholics or not, but they just say things as though they are relating how Catholics ought to think of these things. I think this is the best way to present something like Chartres Cathedral. The viewer can make up their own mind, but at least one should know what the builders of Chartres believed and what led to make the kinds of decisions they did.

I have also been reading an excellent book, Visions of Mary : art, devotion, and beauty at Chartres Cathedral by Rev. Jill Kimberly Hartwell Geoffrion. She is a scholar, photographer, and Episcopalian priest who has come to love Chartres and Catholic history. (I pray she takes the leap and become Catholic–perhaps not easy for a woman who is an Episcopalian priest. She would have to give up some things precious to her.) This book takes a look at aspects that speak directly to the Holy Mother, her role in the life of the Church, and how Catholics (especially in times past) think of Mary. It does so by focusing and meditating on specific details of the cathedral. This book makes me want to go to Chartres and spend some significant time with the Cathedral, taking pictures and making sketches and just attending to it.

As I see it, architects should look at Chartres, and similarly excellent Catholic churches, as inspiration to how they should think about church design in general, and then apply that understanding to every Catholic church building, even the most humble and simple of churches. I also believe the faithful should know these things too, being encouraged in the faith, but also demanding churches actually be Catholic in their designs.

Of course, church design tends to flow from intended use, thus a church designed to serve the needs of the Traditional Latin Mass will necessarily look different than one designed to serve the needs of a Novus Ordo Mass. This is why, when the Novus Ordo was promulgated, so many older churches had their altar rails removed, altars brought closer to the nave, and other changes because the Novus Ordo felt wrong in a traditional space. And this is also why the Novus Ordo still feels out of place in a traditional church even after those kinds of changes have been made, because arches, stained glass, cruciform floor plans, and other harder-to-change elements don’t fit the New Mass. The contemporary modernist church needs a more Protestant style, entertainment hall. Thus, it’s more than merely the architecture that often needs to change.

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Filed under Architecture, Art, Beauty, Catholic Church, Church History, Curious, Education, Mary, Tradition, Video

Restoring the ambulatory at Chartres Cathedral

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The vaults before restoration. Photo by Andreas F. Borchert (source)

This video below speaks to my soul. Having been an art history major as an undergrad, and loving medieval architecture, and loving documentary film that just shows you the “thing itself” without commentary, videos like this one are wonderful. Full screen, turn up the volume.

Notes on the production:
“Ce documentaire vous plonge au cœur du chantier de restauration du déambulatoire de la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) et permet de découvrir les gestes des restaurateurs de l’entreprise Lithos, filmés par Anne Savalli. Il décline les principales étapes de la restauration et le savoir-faire unique des artisans opérant sur les échafaudages inaccessibles au regard du public.”

More on this project here.

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The Worldview of the High Middle Ages

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Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Octobre, the Musée Condé, Chantilly, circa 1440

The three videos below are of an amazing lecture series by Dr. Andrew Jones on the worldview of the High Middle Ages. It is fairly technical, but this is important. We inhabit our modern worldview(s) like fish inhabit the sea. It takes a lot to grasp one’s own worldview, let alone understand another so foreign to our sensibilities as the Medieval one. The depth of Dr. Jones’ talks provide much of the necessary perspective to understand a traditional Christian perspective that is, I believe, essentially foreign to modern Christians.

I find the Middle Ages worldview particularly fascinating in light of Rod Dreher’s timely and provocative book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Dreher poses the idea that, since we live in a post-Christian world, Christians should recognize that fact and focus on what can be done to shore up the faith, including communities and practices that support the faith as a kind of bulwark against the prevailing winds of our time. This does not mean forsaking the culture and leaving it entirely to its own devices, rather he argues we should find other means of engagement than what we might be familiar with, while also focusing less on secular battles and more on building healthy Christian communities. Still, his vision is a kind of retreat into faith and Christian culture, and out of the culture wars and the insidious power of secular society. Drehere uses St. Benedict as an examples and talisman for his thought experiment — leaving us with more of a Medieval monastic approach than a modern sociopolitical stance. I find his argument mostly convincing — at least I want it to be, perhaps more than it is.

And yet, Dr. Jones’ approach is not about critiquing our modern world as Dreher does. He merely lays out the High Middles Ages worldview in such detail that one cannot help but compare it to our own. My reaction is basically this: Christians should jettison the modern worldview and embrace the medieval one. But this is no mere “Benedict option.” Rather, it is something even more profound. It would require a nearly total worldview, total cosmological reorientation of Christianity itself. In other words, what we call Christianity today is a far cry from what Christianity was in the Middle Ages, and we might want to grieve that loss.

Our modern worldview is the child of the Enlightenment. Modern Christianity, primarily Protestantism but also too much of modern Catholicism, is also a child of the Enlightenment, which was a child of Protestantism — a kind of serpent eating its own tail. In other words, once Western Civilization gave up on the Medieval worldview it’s been a slow slog downhill in many respects. Does this mean we ought to go back to the Middle Ages? No. But we ought to look deeply into their worldview and critique our own.

In short, we could only have ended up with the Novus Ordo Mass once we lost our understanding of the Medieval world view. It seems clear to me that the struggles many modern Catholics have with accepting the Traditional Latin Mass is that it truly seems fundamentally foreign to them, and in a sense it is. I would argue, and I think it is also clear from these lectures, that the Medieval worldview, at its core at least, is both more biblical and more human, than the worldview underlying much of what we might call “modern Catholicism.”

So, in another sense, we do need to go back. We need to recover the Truth about God, the Church, and ourselves. And we should look to the pinnacle of Christendom, its core beliefs, and its way of looking at the world and the life of man, to find that Truth.

For Protestants this will mean recognizing the more Biblical worldview is a traditional Catholic one. For Catholics this means the traditional Catholic worldview is one that far too many Catholics today (perhaps most) do not know or live. Perhaps what the Church needs is a new kind of renaissance — a rediscovery of what was lost, and then letting that discovery reanimate the Church and our lives. This could, then, become what brings Christians back to the same table, once again spiritually, liturgically, and visibly united in Christ.

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David Macaulay: Cathedral

This is a PBS special from 1986. Though dated in some ways, it still holds up as a great explanation of the gothic style and the basic concepts of cathedral construction of the medieval period. It also gives some idea of life in a medieval town.

From the DVD jacket:

Author David Macaulay hosts CATHEDRAL, based on his award-winning book. Using a combination of spectacular location sequences and cinema-quality animation, the program surveys France’s most famous churches. Travel back to 1214 to explore the design of Notre Dame de Beaulieu, a representative Gothic cathedral. The program tells period tales revealing fascinating stories of life and death, faith and despair, prosperity, and intrigue.

The book from which it is based was first published in 1973.

Naturally one would expect a program like this to focus more on the construction and unique stylistics characteristics of gothic cathedrals (suited more for the tourist than the worshiper). And is does do that. But one also gets a sense of the purpose of cathedrals and how they expressed the Christian faith and beliefs of the people.

I found this video because I am trying to educate myself on the meaning and purpose of Christian architecture.

Some teaching resources based on the book

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