On cathedrals

It’s not that I’m an expert in Gothic cathedrals, but I do know my way around all that stone and stained-glass. I don’t have a favorite, but I like Salamanca a great deal. León has the best stained glass. Segovia is such a late Gothic that it isn’t really Gothic at all. Burgos is total class, and Seville is monumental. There is little question that all of that carved stone heaped up in such a way as to create a sort of enormous stone cave is impressive. The vaults, the aisles, the alters, the choirs, the organs, the chapels all add up to an impressively chaotic and fractured version of reality. The cathedrals raise their stone arms up to heaven in a imposing array of arches, vaults, columns, and flying buttresses. This is supposed to be a big house, God’s house. The Gothic cathedral is built with an underlying theme–the pointed arch, which is used thematically throughout the entire building. What is difficult, at times, to stomach are the multiple layers of decoration which have been hung on the inside of the cathedral like so much ugly makeup. Cathedrals are really about lines of force, the harnassing of stresses, gravity, wind, and curves, and how all of those intersecting lines add up to a massive pile of stone. In the end, the cathedral is not the natural or logical outcome of the building process. Form and function are at odds with each other from the initial corner stone to the final key stone, and the laws of physics will be trying to pull down that stone roof even before it is put into place. The Gothic cathedral is a metaphor, then, for the struggle between man and stone to create an anti-natural structure based on the creative genius of man and his imagination to challenge those same laws of physics that are used to make those stone arches stay in place. Cathedrals are a living paradox of contrasting laws of nature where man has choosen to put his alters and proclaim his faith. I could do without most of the Baroque, Roccoco, or Neo-classic decoration and just roam the unadorned aisles as bovedas and arches sore above my head, knowing full-well that the columns and buttresses are all working overtime to keep the stones off of my head. Elaborate interior decorations do not speak to either my faith in God or my faith in man. Regular blocking, clean curved arches, and colorful rose windows tell me more about the art and skill of the tradesmen that built the place than the awful aesthetics of those who determined what would go into them at some later date, centuries after the builders had left. Today these stone monstrosities are a tribute to persistence and craftsmanship that is both forgotten and unappreciated. Unfortunately, many of the Gothic cathedrals of Europe are now located in regional backwaters that have long ago lost their importance as centers of power or eclessiastical greatness, and local parishes struggle to keep the lights on and the stone roofs from caving in. Cathedrals, at least to some extent, are anachronistic dinosaurs leftover from a time when building a big building was a big deal that not just anyone could do. Today, the Gothic cathedral is dwarfed by massive sports arenas, megalithic sky-scrapers, and gravity defying bridges that the medieval stone mason might have dreamed about, but never built.