Chain, Chain, Chain

Last evening I watched the rebroadcast of a somewhat disappointing PBS documentary on the building of Gothic cathedrals which, while not quite as eye-rollingly ridiculous as your standard Conspiracy Channel – aka History Channel – piece, still had some rather bad bits to it. This is, as always, based on a lack of understanding of the history and teachings of the Church, and an unwillingness or invincible ignorance on the part of the filmmakers either to educate themselves or their audience. Among other curiosities for example, the generalized assertion was made during the film that a cathedral could not have been built without the invention of the pointed arch. However cathedrals, with and without pointed arches, existed both before and after the period in which Gothic structures were built.

Any Catholic knows (or ought to know) that what makes a cathedral a cathedral is not the style or the size of the building, but rather the fact that a cathedral is the seat, or “cathedra”, of a bishop. Thus the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, while the largest church in the city, is not the cathedral, for it is not the seat of the Archbishop. Similarly, the Cathedral of the Assumption and St. Stephen in Speyer, Germany, is a Romanesque building, and the Cathedral of St. Matthew, here in Washington, is a Neo-Byzantine building. The former predates the Gothic era, and the latter postdates it: neither of these has a pointed arch in sight, but each is still a cathedral.

A more interesting part of the film dealt with the issue of height and how the effort of builders during the Gothic age to build impossibly tall vaults often led to disasters. The Cathedral of Beauvais is perhaps the most famous example, and it was astounding – indeed, quite frightening – to see the present state of the Cathedral there, with horrific bracing and scaffolding trying to keep the whole thing from collapsing. I have written about Beauvais recently as regular readers will recall, but to see mass being celebrated amidst terrifying structural supports was truly a skin-crawling moment.

In examining the Cathedral of Amiens, the documentary showed how the vaults are both caving in and pushing out, using laser-guided computer modeling taken at the site. Many of my readers may not be aware that probably the only thing keeping this beautiful structure from tumbling into ruin is a massive, wrought-iron chain. It was installed, red-hot, around the triforium of the crossing in 1497, and down the length of the structure. The hope was that, as it cooled, it would pull the walls and columns of the building back into place and hold them there, which it has done successfully for over 500 years now.

The use of chains as integral engineering design or post-construction patchwork to support tall structures is not unique to Amiens; in fact historically, the use of enormous iron chains proved particularly important for domed structures. For example, inside the great dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Sir Christopher Wren wrapped a giant wrought iron chain to keep the sides of the dome from spreading and causing the structure to collapse. A similar design was used by Brunelleschi when constructing the iconic dome-within-a-dome of the Cathedral of Florence, as well as in restoration of the dome of the Hagia Sophia in present-day Istanbul, and even in the restoration and support of Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s in Rome.

As the film moved on, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the documentary’s review of the decoration of the great French Gothic cathedrals was what I believe to be a missed opportunity to consider their facades. In addressing the aesthetics of these churches the filmmakers focused on the stained glass, naturally enough, and presented a bit on the design of a cathedral portal, although this latter was particularly unsatisfying. The filmmakers thought it odd that Ancient Greek philosophers and scientists would appear, sculpted in stone, on a cathedral facade. Again, as in the case of what makes a cathedral a cathedral, the film shows only a cursory understanding of the Church. We know that many theologians in the Scholastic era of the Church looked back to the preserved knowledge of the ancients for clues as to the Mysteries of Creation and the Incarnation.

So for the enjoyment of my readers, I wanted to show an image of what the exterior decoration of Amiens originally looked like. Our ancestors in the Faith were a far more colorful and interesting people than the stark, sometimes imposing, present-day condition of their churches would in certain instances lead us to believe. In this sense, there is a conceptual chain which links them to the classical past, which itself was not the blindingly white world that modern interpretations of classical architecture, such as the monumental core of Washington, D.C., would otherwise indicate.

As you may be aware, the Greeks and Romans did not build the white-washed temples that we see today, but decorated their facades with brightly, often garishly painted sculptures. The decoration of the facade of the Philadelphia Museum of Art gives us some notion of what the Parthenon, for example, must have looked like in its heyday, before the effects of weather, war, and decay bleached it to its bones. Similarly, the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages loved color on the exterior of their buildings, as much as they loved it on the interior; the latter aspect is more familiar to us as exemplified in the stained glass windows and altarpieces which have come down through history.

When the Cathedral of Amiens was being cleaned in 2000, researchers came across multiple traces of polychrome decoration on the sculptures of the West Front, underneath centuries of dirt, grime, and pollution deposits. The carvings themselves were completed between c. 1230-1240, a remarkably short period of time, meaning that they have a wonderful harmony of design. Using their findings and computer imaging, experts were able to come up with an overlay projection of the original decoration of the facade. This is now projected on top of the West Front in the evening during summer and at Christmastide; a photograph of one of these illuminations is reproduced below.

If this writer is ever fortunate enough to make his way to Amiens on pilgrimage, he is hopeful that it will coincide with one of these displays, for it no doubt will be an awe-inspiring thing. Certainly I would like to see the great chain that keeps the entire thing from going the way of Beauvais, but I would also like to see this projection as a kind of chain in and of itself. For after all, Christianity is not a break with the Ancients, but rather the final, missing link of centuries of human yearning for something more, beyond the hedonism of pagan times.

The West Front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Amiens,
with an approximation of its original polychrome decoration
projected onto the facade.

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