A “Sarum Use” church plant and why it wouldn’t work

Beholding Durham Cathedral in awe
Beholding Durham Cathedral in awe

A friend of mine once dreamt that I had started my own church following the liturgy according to the Use of Sarum. I’ve had a few encounters with Sarum Use, including translating some of its texts on this blog.1 I started to imagine what my Sarum Use church would be like. Obviously, despite my Protestant sentiments to the contrary, the liturgy would have to be in Latin. And it would have to follow the Use According to Sarum. This is not difficult to organise; the entire Missal and Breviary exist in modern printed editions. I would probably, however, print up glossed versions of the text for the congregants. Although it’s something that I’ve seen in Tridentine churches, it would be my first departure from the mediaeval liturgy. Nevertheless, this seems perfectly justifiable; the Middle Ages had a low literacy rate,2 so pew sheets would have been useless — plus, parchment and paper were rather more expensive then, and print was only around for a few decades before the Reformation, to boot.

Kitting out a full-blown Sarum church as recommended in the mediaeval sources would require no small sum of money — candles, censers, incense for the censers, vestments for clergy and the various assistants at the altar, altar cloths, banners for processions, chalices, patens (both plural, of course), monstrances, tabernacle for reserve host, etc, and more of which I am unaware.

The architecture of a Sarum church is important. I thought about this for a while — Romanesque or Gothic? Mosaics on the walls? I decided that, as much as I am fond of Romanesque and mosaics, it would have to be Gothic with a few carvings and frescoes because our sources for this liturgical use come from the period when Gothic in all its variety and Perpendicular reigned supreme in English church architecture. So it would only be fitting for my Sarum church to be Gothic. Unlike Victorian Gothic, however, the windows would be large, ablaze with stained glass telling the stories of Scripture and the saints, like Yorkminster (or, preferably, La Sainte-Chapelle).

This Gothic church would be cruciform in shape with the high altar just beyond the transepts. I would want a screen, but I’m not sure a. how authentic Late Mediaeval Rood Screens looked (besides Yorkminster) b. how much I want it to obscure the congregational view of the celebration of the Mass. My modern/Prot sensibilities intruding again!

The music for the liturgy is another question. When Sarum was last in use, it was blessed by the magnificent music of Thomas Tallis. But I am not sold on this sort of music for congregational use — I want the people of the congregation to engage with the words of the liturgy and recite/sing/chant as much as they can. This sounds very Protestant of me (because it is), but I’ve a feeling it would be in the spirit of the Dominicans and Franciscans, anyway. Perhaps a compromise with an ‘Anglican’ or Gregorian plainsong for most the liturgy, but then intricate choral singing while people receive the Mass?

Hymnody could come anywhere from the Latin tradition, I suppose. Perhaps restricting itself to hymns found in British sources? I wouldn’t want to restrict myself to pre-Elizabethan Latin hymns, though — I’d lose ‘Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,’ in that case!

The lectionary would be based on the Sarum sources and the preaching in the vernacular based on the lectionary. That’s simple.

I think I would like to restore the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval ‘cathedral’ liturgy of the hours. That is, Morning and Evening Prayer, Monday through Saturday, instead of Mass every morning which is contemporary Roman Catholic practice. But, since this is a parish church, no attempt at the monastic liturgy of the hours. I think a modern practice that could be acceptable, however, is a mid-week, midday Eucharist.

Thus the liturgy. Anyone with enough willing bodies and money could reproduce the Use of Sarum in an appropriate space. There are probably more people willing to get involved with such an experiment than one would think.

But is that enough?

Can we transplant mediaeval liturgy into the modern world and touch modern souls in the same way? If we were to transplant it, would touching modern souls as mediaeval even be the goal?

The liturgical practice of the Middle Ages was part of a much bigger spirituality that a single parish could not recreate today. This was a shared spirituality that, with some variety of region or religious order (Dominicans, Franciscans, secular clergy, monastics), embraced Europe from Ireland and Iceland to the Czech Republic, from Norway to Sicily (and sometimes Cyprus and the Levant). For all that pilgrimage has always had a hint of spiritual tourism, people would still have taken pilgrimages to Durham or Canterbury or St Andrews or Compostela or Rome or Jerusalem as part of an international spiritual piety that bound them together in a way that modern spiritual tourism does not. In England they would have had the religious world of the miracle plays on their doorstep as part of the regular life of a city’s entertainment. Monks and anchorites were available to learn from as an integrated part of a spiritual community rather than oddities or perceived as relics of a bygone age.

Some of this could be mitigated in artificial ways in the parish life of the Sarum church, I suppose — study groups of the mediaeval mystical tradition, for example, or trips to living monasteries. But I don’t think the spirit of Sarum could ever be recaptured precisely because we no longer live in the Middle Ages. Christendom has been torn asunder over the past 500 years, and any attempt to integrate the mediaeval with the (post)modern must acknowledge that fact and realise that anything it does will be, inevitably, different from what they did, no matter how one might try.

1. In real life, I have, in fact, been to a service at St Thomas’, Huron St, Toronto, that used the Sarum liturgy (thoughts here and here); before that, I’d blogged about Sarum Use at least once. As well, in my ‘Classic Christian Texts’ on this site, I’ve got Mediaeval Vespers and the Order for the Consecration of Marriage: Sarum Use, both translated by me. Never having footnoted before, I give thanks to Karl Winegardner’s blog Compendiums for showing me how to do this.

2. According to one source, England had a literacy rate as low as 6% in 1300, but in the 1400s literacy steadily increased.

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Melrose Abbey

After Jedburgh Abbey, I drove us to Melrose Abbey. I’ve wanted to visit Melrose Abbey since we first came to Scotland — Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried there, you see. His body is in Dunfermline Abbey (which I’ve seen) amongst other royal dead, and he wanted his heart to go on Crusade on his behalf. But the pilgrims carrying the heart got into some trouble (I think they were mugged in Spain), and were lucky to get back to Scotland, so they interred his heart there.*

Here’s me with Tim and Doreen at Melrose Abbey:

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Melrose is Scotland’s first Cistercian Abbey, founded in 1136 by David I just like Jedburgh (David I founded at least 12 abbeys of which we are aware). It was originally to be on the site of Old Melrose, an abbey founded by St Aidan (saint of the week here) and where St Cuthbert (saint of the week here) was admitted as a monk (thus giving me yet another Cuthbertian connection).

The monks for new Melrose Abbey were brought up from Rievaulx Abbey (founded 1132), and this became the mother house of the Cistercians in Scotland who were to become the most prominent monastic order in this country. Pre-Reformation Scotland had 11 Cistercian Abbeys; many of Scotland’s manuscripts are Cistercian in origin, and thus primarily religious texts (unlike Benedictines who copied out the pagan Classics, Cistercians devoted themselves almost entirely to sacred learning).

Cistercians, as a ‘reformed’ monastic order, sought to devote themselves to a very strict interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict. Their interpretation resulted in not really having enough time to devote themselves to the physical labour required to tend the abbey’s large estates or gardens or anything. As a result, the abbot with his 12 monks also had a much larger cohort of ‘lay brothers’ resident at the abbey. They were not required to follow the same rule of prayer as the monks and worshipped in their own choir, while the monks’ choir was separated from them by a screen bisecting the abbey church. You can see the screen just over Tim’s shoulder in the photo above.

The screen features this boss of Jesus right above you as you pass through:

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That boss and all that you see, besides a few foundations, date to after 1385.

Like Jedburgh Abbey, Melrose suffered from repeated attacks by the English. In 1385, the abbey was destroyed by Richard II. The old abbey would have been a fairly simple affair, whereas the new abbey follows the Gothic styles of the time — in the East, where it began, English Perpendicular style is visible. Check out the East window:

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As you move West, things get Frencher. A master mason called John Morow, from Paris, was involved (as his inscription says). The tracery is, perhaps, more flowing. Is this International Gothic? I’m not sure.

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And these men turn up as the bases of niches on the outside, drawing my mind to the similar ones I saw at the chapel of the Chateau de Vincennes in Paris:

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My Historic Scotland Souvenir Guide says that Melrose boasts the best Gothic sculpture in Scotland. Here are some of the stars of the show:

Pig playing bagpipes!
Pig playing bagpipes!
Greenman!
Greenman!
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Coronation of the Virgin
'Gnadenstuhl' image of the Trinity (although it's so worn, I can't spot the Holy Spirit) - boss above East end
‘Gnadenstuhl’ image of the Trinity (although it’s so worn, I can’t spot the Holy Spirit) – boss above East end

The ruined church is  about all that stands. The monks were allowed to stay after the Reformation, allowing for an embracing of the Reformed faith. The last one died in 1590. The church was converted to the parish kirk in 1610, thus ensuring some survival. Here’s a final shot of Gothic splendour for you:

South Aisle
South Aisle

*Fun fact: Sweetheart Abbey (which also I’ve seen) is another Scottish abbey with someone’s heart buried in it (hence the name). In this case, the heart is that of the heart of the husband (John Balliol, but not the puppet king) of the foundress, Devorgilla (gotta love that name!).

Jedburgh Abbey

This past Saturday, my wife and I rented a car with friends and fulfilled a desire we’d had almost since we arrived — we visited Jedburgh and Melrose Abbeys. Also, I drove on the left and succeeded in killing no one. Accident free. That alone made it a success.

Our first stop, after lunch at the Buccleuch Arms in St Boswells, was Jedburgh Abbey. We had seen Jedburgh Abbey driving up from a trip to England with the in-laws back in May of 2011. When you approach Jedburgh from the South, you are immediately struck by the long, three-tiered, Gothic nave of the abbey church. And it is pure awesome. Light and beautiful and … here, I’ll skip a thousand words:

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Of course, as this picture demonstrates, Jedburgh Abbey is one of those interesting places that is not a single architectural style. It has some Romanesque and some Gothic aspects. It was begun in 1138 under the patronage of Scotland’s great abbey builder, King David I (son of Queen St Margaret and Malcolm III [‘Canmore’], yes, of Macbeth fame) as an Augustinian Priory. By 1154, Jedburgh’s religious house was large enough to qualify as an abbey.

It was built from East to West (right to left in this pic). The chancel, where building began, was originally two Romanesque levels, but was modified and had a third Gothic level added in later years, along with an extension. I seem not to have a clear photo of this aspect, so this will have to do, looking West from the very end of the chancel — the walls are just visible on right and left before reaching the transept:

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Augustinians — who also had abbeys at Holyrood near Edinburgh Castle and Cambuskenneth near Stirling, places that, like Jedburgh, had royal castles — were not like the Benedictines (first in Scotland at Dunfermline in 1070 under Margaret & Malcolm) or the reformed orders that followed Benedict such as the Cistercians (first in Scotland at Melrose, also founded by David I) or Tironensians (first reformed order in Scotland Britain at Selkirk, later moved to Kelso, also founded by David I, also at Arbroath).

Technically, you see, Augustinians are canons not monks like Benedictines and the reformed orders (who follow the Rule of Benedict as well). Monks are meant to live in seclusion, away from the world, devoting their lives to simplicity and prayer. Augustinian canons, on the other hand, are all priests, and they take on responsibilities in local parishes. They, too, are meant to lead simple lives, but they combine the ministries of pastoring and prayer in a way that traditional monks do not.* They follow the Rule of St Augustine of Hippo, which was designed for parish clergy in the 4th-5th centuries; as an order, they were established in 1059.

This means that Jedburgh Abbey Church was also the local parish church. Local lay folks worshipped in the nave, on the other side of the Rood Screen from the monks. They entered through this Romanesque door:

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And they stood in this Gothic space:

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The canons, on the other hand, lived to the south of the church (so on the other side from the picture above). They entered from the cloister through either the East processional door, that went to the clergy-only area:

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Or the West processional door, leading to the nave (highly restored in 1876):

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Sadly, this abbey did not have an easy time of it. King David built it in the Borders, and he built it big and beautiful, specifically as a way of showing the authority and power of the King of Scots. Later centuries would see that power and authority challenged and hammered. The abbey was besieged and taken by the English on many occasions; Edward I even installed his own abbot.  It had to be repaired extensively in the 1400s, and in 1523, the Earl of Surrey, who had earlier slain King James IV at Flodden, set fire to the abbey. By the 1540s, only eight canons remained at Jedburgh.

In the 1560s it was converted into the local parish kirk, and operated in such a fashion until 1876.

Next up: Melrose Abbey. Then maybe some reflections on Augustinians and Cistercians.

*Mind you, the Benedictine monks I stayed with in Austria were involved in a lot of parish ministry, but that is not Benedict’s ideal.

La Sainte Chapelle: heaven on earth

The story goes that in 988, the ambassadors of Prince Vladimir of Kiev to Constantinople told their Prince that when witnessing worship in Hagia Sophia, they knew not whether they were on heaven or on earth. If they had waited until the mid-thirteenth century and visited Paris instead, I think perhaps the Kievan Rus could have become Roman Catholic rather than Eastern Orthodox.

I say this as one who has participated in a modern re-creation of mediaeval liturgy (reflections on that here), and I imagine that when such a liturgy was celebrated in La Sainte Chapelle in Paris, the lines between nature and supernature, earth and heaven, would blur amidst the dazzling walls made of glass, the gold, the incense, and the Gregorian Chant. The setting, of course, essential.

La Sainte Chapelle is located within the precincts of the old royal Palais de la Cité, situated on Ile-de-la-Cite, the large island in the middle of the Seine whereon you find Notre-Dame de Paris, herself a most remarkable woman almost 100 years older than Ste-Chapelle. Today, this palace has been modified and expanded around Ste-Chapelle as the Palais de Justice. But you can still visit the Radiant Gothic (rayonnant) holy chapel, no longer used for liturgical celebrations.

Ste-Chapelle was built by King St Louis IX (r. 1226-1270) between 1241 and 1248. Conceptually, it is inspired by the fantastic Romanesque palatine chapel of Charlemagne at Aachen (792-805). However, stylistically, it is a Gothic reliquary chapel, built in two storeys; the upper chapel was dedicated to the Holy Cross, the lower to the Virgin. Within the various subdivisions of Gothic architecture, Ste-Chapelle is a fine example of a Radiant Gothic church, whose rose windows have the style of rays spreading out from the centre (hence rayonnant).

Rose window of La Sainte Chapelle
Rose window of La Sainte Chapelle

Apparently, some people find the 19th-century attempts to classify Gothic architecture by its window tracings a bit misguided; one can certainly see stirrings of flamboyant in the window above.

The walls are almost entirely windows. Or, at least, they look it.

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There is more stone than it appears, including exterior buttresses. There is also a large quantity of metalwork holding the fabric of Ste-Chapelle together, much of it invisible because it is worked into the images of the windows themselves. Gothic architecture, as I have discussed before, seeks to maximise light in part because of the (Pseudo-)Dionyisian ideal of God as the Uncreated Light. In Ste-Chapelle, the amount of blue, red, and purple used to execute the various biblical and historical scenes portrayed in the windows gives an overarching sense of majesty and glory.

And why not? As I said above, Ste-Chapelle was built as a reliquary chapel. For which relics, you may ask? The Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross, acquired by St Louis as both an act of piety and of polity. You can see the top of the reliquary itself in the above photo, bathed in light from the apsidal windows.

Ste-Chapelle is one of the most remarkable architectural spaces I’ve eve visited. Because the north side is, I believe, flanked by a building (currently the windows are undergoing restoration), it is not as bright as I’d hoped. But it is still beautiful and noteworthy, a large, magnificent interior space drawing the eye upward and the soul outward to the Triune God.

Here are some more photos.

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King St Louis IX in apse of Lower Chapel
Me enjoying the Upper Chapel
Me enjoying the Upper Chapel

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Modern Roman Catholic churches: A superficial reason to stay Protestant?

Yesterday after work at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Site Richelieu) I wandered through St-Germain l’Auxerrois. This is a church dedicated to St Germanus of Auxerre (readers of Jack Whyte will know the character), a Gallic bishop of the fifth century (yay fifth century!). The church of St-Germain l’Auxerrois is a fantastic piece of Gothic architecture, with one of only two Flamboyant Gothic porches in Paris (the other is that of La Sainte Chappelle whose interior is Radiant Gothic; this is a fifteenth-century style of Gothic arthictecture) — this is also the style of the Tour St-Jacques at Châtelet in Paris. The outside of St-Germain is clearly Flamboyant Gothic:

To compare, here is Tour St-Jacques:

So that should set the scene well enough.

The interior of St-Germain l’Auxerrois is not all Flamboyant Gothic. I only took a brief look, but there is some woodwork that is clearly Renaissance, and the nave looks to be an early stage of the Gothic era. Several pillars also look Renaissance, and there are portions rumoured to be Romanesque. Like all good Gothic churches, it has a rose window:

What the traditional architecture of St-Germain shows is the ability of these different styles of classical church architecture to join together and form a united whole. None of it feels awkward. None of it feels out of place. It all works, whether one type of Gothic or another, whether Romanesque or Renaissance.

This is the sort of beauty and grandeur that would have attracted me to the Roman Catholic Church a century ago.

Today, alas, visiting St-Germain l’Auxerrois makes me repeat this quote from a wee piece of mine entitled ‘The Allure of Eastern Orthodoxy‘:

If Jesus handed on his teachings to His Apostles, and these traditions were handed on down the ages, they would help provide the key to proper interpretation of the Bible.  And this is what you have in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

In the West, we used to have it with Rome and the Anglicans, but both of these institutions have reck lessly dived into the world of modernity as modernity flounders and sinks.

Today, where the transepts cross the nave, to align with Vatican II requirements, a Holy Table has been placed in the church besides the High Altar in the chancel. This sort of disruption of ecclesiastical architecture is frustrating, but I could maybe live with it. However, they have not chosen to produce something beautiful infused with the history and tradition and weight of the glory of God and his Saints and his Church on the new post-V2 furniture.

I didn’t have my camera with me yesterday, so I can’t show you the hideousness. But it does not match. It is beaten metal of silvern colour with what looks like an eye wrought in it from golden colour. A square table. An awkward lectern. This is what the Roman Catholic faithful approach every Sunday morning to take in their mouths the Most Sacred Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ?

At first glimpse, this is a superficial reason to stay Protestant, isn’t it? I mean, what about my other areas of disagreement — ‘St’ Joan of Arc, church governance, transubstantiation, justification, Marian dogmas, the cultus of the saints, and so forth? Church architecture and furniture? Really? Has the Scholiast really wandered that far down the traditionalist position?

To me, this new furniture that is jarring and matches NOTHING within sight is symptomatic. The Church of Rome has been trying to reform herself for centuries. What ‘reform’ itself is has changed over time, of course, and meant something different to eighth-century St Boniface (saint of the week here) as to thirteenth-century St Francis (saint of the week here) as to sixteenth-century Luther and Erasmus as to the men of Vatican II in the 1960s.

I believe in some of her 1960s reforms. But the liturgical repositioning and cutting down has allowed a swathe of hideous modern art to flood the churches of Europe in a way that does not integrate with the artistic integrity of their setting. Furthermore, these hideous monstrosities (visible amongst Anglican churches as well) fail to communicate the beauty, truth, and power of the Triune God in any meaningful way. All they can capture of our God is that he is enigmatic …

… in an age when ‘enigmatic’ is about as far as most people are willing to concede to defining the divine, shouldn’t we go a bit farther?

Gothic architecture makes my heart sing. I am too inadequate an art lover/critic to explain what La Sainte Chappelle does to me. But it is powerful and profound. And it was meant to do this to me. As I have discussed, Gothic architecture is meant to bring physical light to us as a manifestation of the uncreated light of the Trinity as well as to draw our eyes ever upwards in a search for the invisible God, symbolically in the ‘heavens’. Modern church architecture, whether a barren Megachurch(TM) auditorium or frankly monstrous Roman Catholic post-V2 furnishings does not, cannot, do this to me.

Where is the glory of God for a lost generation? Where is the splendour of the resplendant Son of God for my thirsty soul?

Finally, what St-Germain l’Auxerrois says to me is: We used to know who we were and Whom we worshipped. But now we are chasing culture along with the Protestants and have forgotten.

The Spirituality of Gothic Architecture: Look Waay Up!

Portal to Basilique St. Clotilde, Paris (my photo)G K Chesterton, that famous penner of pithy wit, once remarked that some moderns were saying that Gothic architecture, with its towers and spires, was naught but a collection of phallic symbols. He challenged his opponents to build an upside-down cathedral. It’s impossible. Gothic architecture, he maintained, looks the way it does because that’s the most practical way to build a tall building – wide at the base, and skinny at the top.

Furthermore, may I add, the height is not there to make you think of penises. I’m sure this will come as a shock to many of my readers. But it is true! The height is there to draw your eyes heavenwards. To lift your gaze up and up and up. The sky is the heavens, and throughout the New Testament, the rule of God is referred to as the Kingdom of the Heavens. This metaphor is therefore actualised for us by the architecture of Gothic churches and cathedrals.

The Parthenon (by me)

Gothic architecture, you see, is designed to draw your eyes upwards. This is what I have always been told, at least. I have also been told that it is in contrast to Classical architecture and the Romanesque edifices that follow. Classical architecture, so beautifully achieved in the Parthenon or the Arch of Constantine, is an achievement of balance, of poise, of precise, human order.

Gothic architecture is also balanced. But you don’t look at it and say, ‘How geometrically precise!’ Indeed, take a look at Notre Dame de Paris, one of the most famous Gothic buildings on earth. You look at it and you say, ‘Wow, there’s a lot going on!’ And then, inevitably, you end up looking at those high towers with their loud bells between which Philippe Petit once walked on a tightrope.

Notre Dame de Paris (by me)

I’ve been told that it’s a result of the points on the arches. The viewer can’t help but keep moving the eyes upwards. I don’t know if any of this is true. All I can say is that it happens to me every time I visit a Gothic cathedral.

South Transpet, Notre Dame (by me)

Take, for example, Notre Dame again. I was recently there during Mass for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I spent my time walking through the arcades and ambulatory. The columns are your usual compounded columns of Gothic architecture. And I couldn’t help looking up. I even have the video to prove it. The eyes rise up and up until they hit the ribs and the arches and the groin vaults. It’s not their fault. Blame Pierre de Montreuil.

Once a Gothic church has stolen your eyes, it takes them on journeys of its own choosing. In Milan, you find the pillars topped by sculptures of saints and martyrs. The faithful are ever with you. At Notre Dame, you find Corinthian capitals (a bit of a yawn after the amazing Romanesque capitals in the crypt of St. Denis, that include a guy hitting the devil with a stick.

But you also find rose windows. As mentioned in the previous post, rose windows are part of the achievement in Gothic architecture in making space for light to transform the liturgical space. The first of Notre Dame’s rose windows that I saw, in the south transept, is known as the Rose du Midi. In the centre of this window is Christ as depicted in Revelation, a sword protruding from his mouth.

The Rose du Midi, Notre Dame (by me)

Images of the New Testament stories fill the rest of this rose window as well as 16 prophets who have the four evangelists resting on their shoulders.

Your eyes have been drawn upwards, and what do you find? You find Christ, his judgement, and his kingdom. He is the Light, symbolised in the physical light streaming through the rose window that illuminates the icon of the King of the Universe in the centre of this window.

The central reality of the mystical theology of the whole Middle Ages, from before Pseudo-Dionysius to the early modern Carmelites Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, is the ascent to and discovery of God. Having encountered Christ, the contemplative can have a union with him, can contemplate the reality of the Holy Trinity, something that the fourth-century mystical master Evagrius argues is the height of Christian living.

We have, whether by simply being created matter or through the Fall, gone away from God (exitus). It is now time to return to Him (reditus). Our spiritual eyes must ever stray upwards, up to infinity and beyond, into the starry heights. Somewhere out there, for the mediaeval believer, God was animating the Primum Mobile, and everything was moving and existing out of love for the Divine – this is the central reality of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the heart of Cistercian spirituality as demonstrated in the works of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (Saint of the Week here) – authors who frame the world of Gothic cathedrals (read this on their relationship).

Stained Glass of Notre Dame (by me)

Another theologian of the Gothic world was St. Thomas Aquinas. As mentioned before, Aquinas emphasised the theme of exitus-reditus in his Summa Theologiae. We are to return to God, the true source of all of our happiness and real joy. This is to be done through moral living, through following law, through studying Scripture. And at some point, Aquinas had a mystical experience whilst celebrating the Eucharist. After this, he never wrote another word of the Summa. Many take this fact as a pointer to the direction our own spiritual gaze must go – we are to turn our sights away from the earthbound reason of intellect and transform our nous, our soul, through spiritual insight and contemplation of the divine.

I, personally, believe there is room for both approaches, for the reasonable and the contemplative, for the apophatic and the cataphatic. And there is room for both visions of exitus-reditus in the cathedrals of Europe. We come to these majestic Gothic cathedrals and look up, up, up. There we can perceive the carvings and the architecture, we can perceive the images of the stained glass. Yet to see stained glass clearly, there must be the darkness around us. And often, a rose window is too far away to discern properly. We are in the presence of truth but unable to properly conceive it.

So, very often, with God.

And, like inconceivable Gothic stained glass, God is beautiful above all.

The Spirituality of Gothic Architecture: Fiat Lux!

Somewhere in the late fifth or very early sixth century, someone in the Levant, in Syria perhaps, composed a number of treatises on mystical theology using the pseudonym ‘Dionysius the Areopagite.’ The forgery worked, and for centuries people believed that these texts were by the convert of St. Paul.

Pseudo-Dionysius, as this author is known, became very popular, with translations from the Greek into Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Coptic, and was read widely throughout the various churches and communions of the Middle Ages; his popularity only waned in the modern era, when the hoax was revealed on the one hand, Protestants like Martin Luther declared him unbiblical on another, and – on the third hand – scholars detected and discussed his ‘Neo-Platonism’, a charge many a Christian theologian has had a hard time shaking.

The spiritual theology of Pseudo-Dionysius is about the glory and majesty of the Creator God whose very nature and power overflowed into the creation of the universe. God Himself is the light, and our goal, our telos as His creatures is our return to Him, our ascent and encounter with the celestial hierarchies. Our return, our reditus, is achieved through asceticism and mystical contemplation.

The Christian pedigree of these ideas lies within the trajectory of Origen-Evagrius-Cassian (as so much does!) with similarities in the Syriac Liber Graduum and St. John Climacus. The imagery of exitusreditus is an integral part of the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Dionysian spirituality is the cornerstone of St. Gregory Palamas’ theology. But more about them later. For more on Pseudo-Dionysius, check out The Catholic Encyclopedia.

As stated above, Dionysian spiritual theology was very popular very quickly. He is quoted by Mar Severus of Antioch, the Monophysite patriarch almost right away (if you do not believe these works to be by St. Paul’s disciple), and is soon translated into Latin. His popularity in the West increases, no doubt due to the prestige attached to the name as well as the importance of many of his doctrines, such as the incomprehensibility of God, and his similarities to the popular monastic writer St. John Cassian.

And so, in the ninth century, Hincmar of Reims, a scheming, strategising Carolingian bishop with a large library at his disposal, a knowledge of canon law, and a desire to see the fortunes of the western Frankish realms increase, took up Pseudo-Dionysius’ cause. Already the easy confusion of people named Dionysius had probably begun; Hincmar skilfully accelerated the process.

St. Denis, 16th-c statue I saw in the crypt of his basilique

The Areopagite was merged with a martyred bishop of Lutetia (Paris), who had died there around 250 (en français il s’appelle St. Denis). St. Denis of Paris was a martyr of the mid-third century who, along with his companions, was beheaded by the Romans on Monmartre (Latin: Mons Martyrum), today in the North of Paris. Upon being beheaded, he took up his head and walked to the site of the future basilica and declared that he was to be buried there.

What we know for certain is that there was a Christian church on the site since at least the fourth century and that there seems to have been some sort of crypt beneath. The church was rebuilt in the Carolingian era and again later on when the abbey that came to be connected with it increased its fortunes through royal associations – starting with Dagobert I (d. 639), the majority of the kings of what we know think of as France were buried there.

The Basilique St-Denis, Paris

Eventually, the abbey and its Romanesque basilica got a new abbot, Abbot Suger (abbot 1122-1151). Suger, it seems, was a reader of his abbey’s patron, St. Denis (the Areopagite, of course; that this is a likely possibility, read this article about twelfth-century Dionysian influences). And the cornerpiece of Dionysian theology is light. God is light (is Christ not the light of the world?). Therefore, Suger rebuilt the apse with a double ambulatory as well as the chevet. The apse of a church is the round bit that sticks out the back and frequently houses the holy table; an ambulatory is a space that allows you to walk around the back of the apse; a double ambulatory is one such that has two aisles, with side chapels radiating out from the apse where priests can say private masses. The chevet is the entryway that you pass through before the narthex and nave.

What Suger created was the oldest existing Gothic architecture. When I visited St. Denis, a request was made to explain what makes it Gothic. The appellation has nothing to do with Goths, first off (it is a Renaissance denigration). Gothic architecture is light and airy, whereas its predecessor, Romanesque (Norman), is still heavy, blocky, dense – although late Romanesque such as Durham Cathedral is moving towards the airiness of Gothic.

Romanesque Basilica Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (my photo)

The most important feature for this airiness is the pointed arch. Pointed arches enable the builders to span wider spaces. Thus, we get such places as the majority-Gothic Duomo in Milan and York Minster that have very high ceilings and very wide naves. The Basilica Sant-Ambrogio in Milan, on the other hand, cannot span as great a distance, being a tenth/eleventh-century Romanesque construction. The Duomo is the largest interior space I’ve ever been in that wasn’t a hockey arena, if that gives you an idea of what Gothic can do.

These pointed arches bear the majority of the weight of the roof and structure. Therefore, walls of glass become a possibility. When perhaps the walls alone are not enough, another Gothic innovation is the flying buttress. Flying buttress are supports on the exterior of the building that bear its weight almost as half arches, thus not casting shadows and saving light. The double ambulatory at St. Denis has flying buttresses outside.

The Apse of Basilique St. Denis (my photo)

As a result of these two innovations, Abbot Suger’s double ambulatory is radiated with light on all sides, as the sun shines through the coloured panes and across the altars arrayed there. We often have an image of the Middle Ages as a dark, grim world. Gothic architecture defies the darkness and grimness of stone and allows God’s first recorded words to be realised in the space of worship – Fiat lux.

Eventually, in the mid-1200s, the Romanesque nave of St. Denis was replaced with Gothic architecture as well, with the addition of transepts (imagine a medieval church as a cross – transepts are the arms) and a renovation of the upper portions of the apse. The apse is almost all window now, and the transepts are adorned with rose windows, filling the space with the beauty of light:

Nave of the Basilique St. Denis (my photo)
Rose Window, North Transept of Basilique St. Denis (my photo)

Light, light, light. I write as though this is all that Gothic architecture cares about. To a degree, it is. My first encounter with a real Gothic cathedral was St. Sophia’s in Nicosia, Cyprus. Today it is a mosque (I found it amusing that my first Gothic church was a mosque). The walls are whitewashed and there is no ecclesiastical furniture, let alone statues, grotesques, frescoes, or mosaics, to adorn it. But it is a large, bright, cleanly-lit space.

Some of the architects of the Gothic Revival in the nineteenth century believed that Gothic architecture was that form of architecture best suited to capturing and most devoted to embracing light. I think they may have been right.

For more images of Basilique St-Denis, click here. There is also a Flickr Group called Gothic Churches. To contrast, check out the other Flickr Group Romanesque Architecture and Paintings.