Gothic Sound and Sacred Architecture

When we think of Gothic Architecture, images of grand cathedrals come to mind; Notre Dame adorned with her tiara of marvelous and mysterious gargoyles or Chartres with her gossamer wings of flying buttresses. The interiors of these sacred spaces are a filigree of stone and colored glass in homage to the triumph of light over gravity. It can be said that the architecture of the Gothic Era marked a technical and spiritual epoch equivalent to our space program; wherein the diverse disciplines of mathematics, engineering, materials science and human resources came together, driving a deep cultural transformation that reverberated through to the very core of our humanity.

Projects of the scope of any of these large Cathedrals were singularly rare in prior history. But during the Gothic Era, every city and almost every town in western Europe was involved in a grand construction project, all of them taking decades, and sometimes centuries to complete. The commitments and efforts of whole populations were required; from the sweat and blood of the quarry workers to the planning and designs of generations of engineers - from the carving of the first pediments to the guilding of the last finneal. New techniques were advanced and crafts were developed; engineering challenges were overcome through arcane methods that remain a mystery to this day. Through this was the desire to reflect the Glory of God in cathedrals that became ever more spectacular - reaching higher into the sky; including more light into the interior, more color and gold into the adornement.

These cathedrals appealed to the sensation of vision and the tactile perception of volume. The ornamentation of the interiors included representations of Saints, religious history and sacred allegories. But in a policy similar our sponsorship of public events through advertising, it also included representations of the weavers, woodworkers, merchants and stone masons whose contributions made the edifice possible. The opening masses of these spectacular cathedrals were pageants not unlike the huge concerts and sporting events of our time; sometimes even to the tragic occurrences of Crowd Crush, where supplicants and pilgrims lost their lives in the press to get closer to the altar.

There are those who feel that the very spectacle of these churches marks the schism of western civilization; when Christians left the Earth to worship the Sky. It is not surprising that at the time there were also skeptics - those who felt that these expensive and time consuming projects distracted from the more worldly matters of feeding the poor and healing the soul. These nay-sayers were not at the fringe of society, in fact many were at the very core of cultural momentum.

In France, there was a powerful movement of Cistercian Monks led by Bernard of Clarivaux who believed that the visual opulence of architecture was a deceptive distraction away from Divine truth; that the splendorous cathedrals of Chartres, Cluny and Saint-Denis were all diversions from the actual business of worship. Presented with the specter of dragons and chimeras, fish with heads of goats and grinning monkeys with wings, the sacred manuscripts of the cannon became obscured. Meditating on the fantastic representations of the ethereal world prevented us from meditating on Divine law. Bernard was wary of visual perception; understanding that humans could not set eyes upon the complete Glory of God with out being blinded. He believed that sound was the only possible means to convey truth to mortals.

The ascetic architecture of his Abbeys and Monasteries expressed these beliefs; visually stark and unadorned. Often with scarcely a suggestion of a cross or an altar. The architecture of sacred geometry simply conveyed in perfect proportions; tuning the acoustics of the interior to the divine order of Nature. Sounds in the chapels are poised in space where the draft of your own breath seems to come from within, and the sound of a pin dropped will sing like an angel. How much more effective the chants of vespers and evensong when the singers feel their voices blending their bodies in harmony with their surroundings.

Bernard's convictions were strong enough to threaten a schism between Rome and France. It was Sugar of Saint-Denis whose taste for opulence curried favor with the Pope; Bernard's charismatic prayer had captured the ears - and the heart of the French Monarchy. What perhaps saved Catholicism was the practical objection that a schism in the church would not be beneficial to France, Rome or the congregation. Many letters were written - distant visits were made, and deals were cut. The grand expression of the Cathedral was to remain the policy of the church.

For his part, Bernard was canonized and the next time we find St. Bernard is in Dante's Paradiso when Beatrice hands Dante over to him so she can take her place in the Rose of the Heavenly Host - and St. Bernard can reveal to Dante's eyes the full splendor of the Glory of God.

Michael Stocker

© April 1998