The other day I was in Winchester Cathedral marvelling again at the glory of English medieval architecture and its central place in the life of the pre-Reformation Church. Bosses and corbels, windows and screens – each add to their practical functions the role of narrating the events of sacred and secular history: telling the tales and giving their moral meaning.
Because of their public setting these illustrations were equally accessible to all, and censure and praise were sometimes accorded without regard to rank. In Exeter Cathedral, for example, there is a particularly fine depiction of the murder of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. It is elegant in composition but unsparing in showing the swords piercing the skull. The penitent King Henry II, who walked barefoot in sackcloth through the streets of Canterbury while monks flogged him, might have been absolved of his sin in licensing his knights to “rid him of this meddlesome priest”; but forgiven is not forgotten and the martyrdom of Thomas became a matter of common knowledge and frequent depiction throughout England and across the Continent. Soon the pilgrims flocked to Canterbury, and still they do. My mother took me there many times, pointing to a blackened patch of stone on one of the pillars saying this was a shadow cast by the dying saint. Whether this legend of the etched image was an old and familiar one, or just her own invention, I do not know. Yet the tendency to invest a discoloured patch of stone with such significance is itself a kind of creative act – far humbler than the art of the carvers of the Exeter boss, but borne of the same desire to embody narrative and meaning in the very stones of England’s ancient cathedrals.
The reformers recognised the power of pious imagination and the capacity of sacred spaces and religious images to inspire it. Hence the destruction of the old Catholic icons and the banning of pilgrim rituals. In 1538 Henry VIII directed “that from hence forth the said Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed, nor called a saint, but bishop Becket, and that his images and pictures, through the whole realm, shall be put down and [expelled from] all churches, chapels, and other places”. Happily, the Exeter boss and a few other medieval depictions of Becket’s murder escaped the iconoclasts and serve as links to the old faith. Back in Winchester, standing in the south-east quarter of the retrochoir, behind the high altar, one can look down through the the solid Norman columns and rounded arches of the transept and beyond to the series of fluted pillars and wishbone Gothic arches of the south aisle. Turning to the right one also sees stunning examples of early English and decorated styles: tall lancet windows framed by columns slender as drainpipes and leafy and blossoming pinnacles. It is a glorious structure, and a glorifying one; a brilliant embodiment of speculative and practical theology, testifying to a sure belief in the purposeful ordering of nature and in its power of instruction.
The architects of classical antiquity and of renaissance and later neo-classicism were resolute humanists. For them, man and measure go together, either with man being the measure of all things, or else in his measuring cosmic order through his ability to discern mathematical sequences, ratios and parallels.
The principle architectural expression of this abstract ordering is the façade or wall divided into parts: surface and spaces defined by classical geometry. When competently conceived and executed such schemes are undeniably pleasing, like the rhythm of a wellordered rhyme. But the inspiration is less to do with what is observed in nature than with what is reasoned to through mathematics and philosophy. The Gothic, by contrast, takes its key from the living world of ordered growth. From beneath the earth the germinated seed breaks through, first establishing a stem, then branching, next putting out leaves and buds, then in turn producing flowers and fruits. The order is not one of mathematical design but of organic progression; and it preexists invisible but immanent within the seed.
Like plants, Gothic buildings grow out of the earth and are developed upwards, drawing material from below but reaching for the light. They represent a recognition of the order of nature and an identification with it; acknowledging and seeking to imitate divine design.
Look to an illustration of the fan vaulted ceiling of the chapter house of Wells Cathedral, or that of Sherborne Abbey, and imagine standing beneath the canopy formed in an avenue of overlapping trees, or imagine the undersides of the leaves of those trees. The resemblances between nature and architecture are striking. Through trunks or pillars the lines of growth rise up, branching out and arcing across; in vaults or leaves the veins spread, holding between them the intervening fabric.
Besides appealing to the eye, and evoking familiar forms from nature, these Gothic designs suggest an argument to design. Just as the intricacies wrought in stone imply the work of architect and builder, so the intricacies of organic growth suggest the designs of an author of nature. Centuries on, and in the year of Darwin’s bicentenary, we are apt to take organic order for granted as if it were simply a product of chance and survival.
But the theory of evolution sought to explain the diversification of living forms, not the very origin of life. So the power of England’s Gothic cathedrals to prompt wonder at the order of nature and to encourage speculation about the source of that order is not altogether diminished. Hundreds of years on from their first appearance they remain sources of theological inspiration and reminders of the possibility of integrating intellect, imagination and sense in the embodiment and recognition of religious meanings. Make a point of trying to visit at least one or two medieval cathedrals or churches in what remains of the summer. You are certain to find treasures there, and be sure to support their upkeep.