Concluding thoughts on messy Christian history after Constantine

This is the final post in a series on the messy reality of church history after Constantine wherein I have tackled both those who decry ‘Constantinianism’ for ‘polluting’ a ‘pure’ church and those who believe the conversion of Constantine was the greatest thing ever to happen. The other posts are listed at the bottom of this one.

And what, after all this, do I think about church life after Constantine?

I think that relations between the Church/Christianity and the secular government have always, before Constantine and after, a mixture of pleasures and pains.

The Post-Constantinian Pleasures

Painted Cast of Prima Porta Augustus, Ashmolean Museum
Painted Cast of Prima Porta Augustus, Ashmolean Museum

Legal existence and imperial favour are not always bad things! Christians could now meet freely and evangelise freely. They could expand the houses-turned-churches. They could publically build more purpose-built houses of worship (meeting in houses isn’t some sort of pristine vision for Christianity but a necessity for the persecuted).

Christians could now more easily pursue careers in the public service. Sure, this sometimes meant compromise. But it also sometimes meant finally giving Roman government a conscience when it came to things like disaster relief and aid for the poor (beyond Rome’s pomerium).

Indeed, giving government something of a conscience is probably one of the greatest benefits of the cozy relationship Christians now had with Rome and, later, her successor states and other non-Roman Christian polities throughout history. Christians with access to persons of power, who sometimes were persons of power, and access to wealth could provide their nations with hospitals and houses for the poor and lepers.

Because the monastic movement in all Christian societies had some level of official sanction by the Early Middle Ages (if not earlier), monasteries/lavrae/hermitages/priories/anchorholds became alternative ways of living beyond the secular world of warrior masculinity and domestic feminity, of survival for the poor beyond subsistence farming, of, indeed, places for the otherwise voiceless to be heard — think of the monastic women such as St Hildegard von Bingen who had the ear of powerful men or male monastics of humble origin such as St Bonaventure. The monastic movement was also a legitimised counterculture for young men otherwise destined for earthly power and glory, such as St Francis of Assisi.

Notre-dame de Paris
Notre-dame de Paris

Another source of great fecundity in the relationship between the imperia and the church was artistic culture. I cannot stand in Notre-Dame de Paris or St-Denis or Milan’s Duomo or Sant’Ambrogio in Milan or St Paul’s in London or Glasgow Cathedral and say, ‘What a shame the Church teamed up with the secular powers in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.’ This legimation of Christianity in secular eyes has meant the preservation of our faith’s art. I am, as I write, listening to St Hildegard’s music; could this beauty have survived so intact if produced by a hounded, persecuted minority?

My research literally delves into the world of the mediaeval book. Canon law tomes are not, it is to be admitted, the most beautiful. But I wouldn’t want to live in a world where the Kingdom of Northumbria did not foster monasticism to allow the Lindisfarne Gospels, or the Kingdom of the Picts likewise with Iona and the Book of Kells, or the Carolingians likewise and the over 7000 manuscripts that exist from their century and a half, two centuries, alone — most of them driven by the desire of the Carolingian monarchs to reform their society and church around the Christian Gospel.

A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)
A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)

Think: Michelangelo. El Greco. Hieronymous Bosch. Da Vinci. Fra Angelico. Pre-Raphaelites. Raphael. Bernini. Or: Late mediaeval Flemish altarpieces. Stained glass. San Vitale’s mosaics.

A lot of Christian writings would not have survived, if they’d even been written. What would we do without the City of God? Dante’s Divine Comedy? What if Pseudo-Dionysius’ works had all perished? Life without John Donne? Would someone like Gregory Palamas, so dense and hard to comprehend, have made the cut? Would Bernard of Clairvaux have gone into religious life with no monasteries for third sons? No Bede?

Without Constantine (or someone like him) — none of this culture.

That would be a lesser world, wouldn’t it?

There have been pleasures and benefits for Christianity and the imperium, real, substantive benefits. We cannot deny this.

The Pains

Charlemagne, not that he had a beard in real life (Paris, Parvis de Notre-Dame)
Charlemagne, not that he had a beard in real life (Paris, Parvis de Notre-Dame)

But befriending the Emperor is kind of like befriending Two Face, isn’t it? For example, I’m in favour of St Boniface’s evangelising zeal. The early Carolingians supported his mission to bring Gospel and order to what is now Germany. But Charlemagne’s version of mission involved the forced conversion of Saxons whose options were baptism or death.

In Notker’s Life of Charlemagne we read of how Charlemagne induced Danish Vikings to get baptised by giving them gifts. One year, so many came they didn’t have enough white baptismal robes, and one Viking complained that his robe was shabbier than the one he’d got the year before! He protested the Charlemagne was getting stingy.

What does baptism even mean to that Viking or to the Saxons bathing before the Frankish sword?

Charlemagne is not the only ruler to evangelise by the sword. Both King Olaf Tryggvason (d. 1000) and King St Olaf Haraldsson (d. 1030) used this method to evangelise Norway. And, if Njal’s Saga has anything to say, the Olaf-sponsored missionary Thangbrand was not afraid of using violence to promote Christianity in Iceland.

It is said that in Latvia when the king converted he had everyone get baptised. They all went down to the river the next day to wash off their baptism.

The Christianisation of Europe, which brought with it a connection between the cultures of the North (from Iceland and Ireland to Estonia and Latvia to Russia) and the cultures of the classical Mediterranean, certainly tamed some aspects of life, although sometimes I wonder of some of the toning down of harsh aspects of law had more to do with Rome than with Jesus.

Mind you, sometimes Roman punishments and practices of law continued that Christians should have left behind, such as when Maximus the Confessor had his tongue cut out for espousing theology contrary to the imperial vision.

The Christianisation of Europe got a lot of people baptised. And many were sincere. But that was faith a mile wide and an inch deep. If these men were truly, deeply Christian, why did the Pope need to keep making up reasons to keep French nobility from killing each other? Why do Icelandic men keep the cycle of revenge, feud, honour killings, and the like after the conversion of the island in 1000? Why do people complain over and over and over again about the unholy, sinful behaviour of those on pilgrimage?

Finally, another problem arises when Europe starts meeting new people. The first priest in Canada is said to have uttered, ‘First these savages must be civilized, then they will be ready to receive the Gospel.’ An attitude that was hard to shake — for if everyone in Europe is a ‘Christian’, where does European end and Christian begin?

God never will never forsake us

In conclusion, however, I would like to state that God gigantic. He is bigger than Constantine, bigger than Quakers, bigger than Anglicanism, bigger than Charlemagne, bigger than bad missionaries, bigger than Gregory Palamas, bigger than the Great Schism, bigger than the Reformation, bigger than Icelandic sagas, bigger than everything good or bad the Church has done throughout history.

No matter how corrupt the institutions of the Church have become, and it has happened at different times and different places, God has remained faithful. And there have always been faithful Christians who are part of that Church, quietly going about holy lives or vivaciously calling for reform, whether Caesarius in 520, Boniface in 720, Francis in 1220, or Luther in 1520.

Part One is here. Part 2a is about the Late Antique targets for the regularisation of official orthodoxy; Part 2b is about the mediaeval targets. Part 3 is about the orthodox targets of official Christianity. Part 4 is about the Inquisition. I also wrote an excursus on the Synod of Whitby in 664.

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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.