The Cathedral of Milan
When Europe covered itself "with the white garments of new churches"
by Benedict XVI
Dear brothers and sisters, in the catecheses of recent weeks I have presented some of the aspects of medieval theology. But the Christian faith, profoundly rooted in the men and women of those centuries, did not give rise only to masterpieces of theological literature, of thought and of faith. It also inspired one of the loftiest artistic creations of all civilization: the cathedrals, the true glory of the Christian Middle Ages.
In fact, for about three centuries, beginning from the start of the 11th century, one witnessed in Europe an extraordinary artistic fervor. An ancient commentator describes the enthusiasm and industry of those times: "It happened that all over the world, but especially in Italy and in Gaul, they began to rebuild the churches, although many of these, since they were still in good condition, did not need this kind of restoration. It was like a competition between one people and another; one might have believed that the world, throwing off its old rags, had wanted to drape itself all over in the white garments of new churches. In short, almost all of the cathedral churches, a great number of monastic churches, and even village oratories were renovated by the faithful" (Rodulfus Glaber, Historiarum 3, 4).
Various factors contributed to this renaissance of religious architecture. First of all, there were more favorable historical conditions, like greater political stability, accompanied by a constant rise in the population and by the progressive development of the cities, of trade, and of wealth. Moreover, the architects discovered increasingly elaborate technical solutions for increasing the dimensions of buildings, simultaneously ensuring both their solidity and their grandeur.
But it was mainly due to the ardor and spiritual zeal of a monasticism in full flower that the abbey churches were erected, where the liturgy could be celebrated with dignity and solemnity, and the faithful could pause in prayer, attracted by the veneration of the relics of the saints, the destination of incessant pilgrimages.
This led to the building of the Romanesque churches and cathedrals, characterized by the longitudinal expansion, in length, of their naves in order to accommodate large crowds of the faithful; very solid churches, with thick walls, vaults of bare rock, and simple, essential lines.
One novelty is represented by the introduction of sculptures. Since the Romanesque churches were the place of monastic prayer and of the worship of the faithful, the sculptors, rather than worrying about technical perfection, cared above all about the aim of education. Since it was necessary to create strong impressions in the soul, sentiments that would encourage the avoidance of vice and evil and the practice of virtue and goodness, the recurring theme was the representation of Christ as the universal judge, surrounded by the figures of Revelation.
In general, it is the doorways of the Romanesque churches that offer this representation, to emphasize that Christ is the Door that opens into Heaven. The faithful, by crossing the threshold of the sacred building, enter into a time and a space that are different from those of ordinary life. In the intention of the artist, once they were past the doorway of the church the believers in Christ – sovereign, just, and merciful – could enjoy a foretaste of eternal beatitude in the celebration of the liturgy and in the acts of devotion performed inside the sacred building.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, beginning in northern France, there spread another type of architecture for constructing sacred buildings, Gothic architecture, with two new characteristics compared to the Romanesque: vertical thrust, and luminosity.
The Gothic cathedrals displayed a synthesis of faith and art that was harmoniously expressed through the universal and fascinating language of beauty, which still causes amazement today. Through the introduction of vaults with pointed arches, resting on robust pillars, it was possible to increase height considerably. The upward thrust was intended to foster prayer, and was itself a prayer. The Gothic cathedral thus intended to translate, in its architectural contours, the yearning of souls for God.
Moreover, with the new technical solutions that were adopted, the outer walls could be decorated with stained glass windows. In other words, the windows became great luminous images, highly suitable for instructing the people in the faith. In them – scene by scene – were narrated the life of a saint, a parable, or other biblical events. Through the stained glass, a cascade of light poured out over the faithful to tell them the story of salvation, and involve them in this story.
Another virtue of the Gothic cathedrals consists in the fact that the entire Christian and civil community participated in their construction and decoration, in different but complementary ways: the lowly and the powerful, the illiterate and the educated all participated, because in this shared house all believers were instructed in the faith. Gothic sculpture made the cathedrals a "Bible in stone," representing the episodes of the Gospel and illustrating the contents of the liturgical year, from the Nativity to the Glorification of the Lord.
During those centuries, moreover, there was a growing perception of the humanity of the Lord, and the sufferings of his Passion were represented in a realistic way: the suffering Christ, the "Christus patiens," became an image loved by all, and capable of inspiring devotion and repentance for sin. Nor were the figures of the Old Testament overlooked, whose stories in that way became familiar to the faithful who went to the cathedrals, as part of the one, common story of salvation.
With its faces full of beauty, sweetness, intelligence, the Gothic sculpture of the 13th century reveals a happy, serene piety, which loves to pour out heartfelt and filial devotion to the Mother of God, who is sometimes seen as a young woman, smiling and maternal, and is mainly represented as the queen of heaven and earth, powerful and merciful. The faithful who crowded the Gothic cathedrals also loved to find artistic expressions there that commemorated the saints, models of Christian life and intercessors with God.
And the "secular" dimensions of life were not left out; here and there appear representations of work in the fields, of the sciences and the arts. All of it was oriented and offered to God in the place where the liturgy was celebrated.
We can better understand the meaning that was attributed to a Gothic cathedral by considering the text of the inscription carved on the central doorway of Saint-Denis, in Paris: "Passer-by, you who wish to praise the beauty of these doors, do not be dazzled by the gold, nor by the magnificence, but rather by the painstaking labor. Here shines a famous work, but may heaven grant that this famous and shining work give splendor to souls, so that with the luminous truths they may walk toward the light, where Christ is the true door."
Dear brothers and sisters, I am now happy to highlight two elements of Romanesque and Gothic art that are useful for us as well.
The first: the artistic masterpieces born in Europe in past centuries are incomprehensible if one does not take into account the religious spirit that inspired them. One artist who has always testified to the encounter between aesthetics and faith, Marc Chagall, wrote that "for centuries, painters dipped their brushes in that colored alphabet which was the Bible." When the faith, particularly as celebrated in the liturgy, encounters art, a profound symphony is created, because both can and intend to speak of God, making the Invisible visible. I would like to share this in the encounter with artists on November 21, extending to them once again the proposal of friendship between Christian spirituality and art that was desired by my venerable predecessors, in particular by the servants of God Paul VI and John Paul II.
The second element: the power of the Romanesque style and the splendor of the Gothic cathedrals remind us that the "via pulchritudinis," the way of beauty, is a privileged and fascinating route for approaching the Mystery of God. What is the beauty that writers, poets, musicians, artists contemplate and translate in their language, if not the reflection of the splendor of the eternal Word made flesh? St. Augustine affirms: "Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air, amply spread around everywhere, question the beauty of the sky, question the serried ranks of the stars, question the sun making the day glorious with its bright beams, question the moon tempering the darkness of the following night with its shining rays, question the animals that move in the waters, that amble about on dry land, that fly in the air; their souls hidden, their bodies evident; the visible bodies needing to be controlled, the invisible souls controlling them; question all these things. They all answer you, 'Here we are, look ; we're beautiful.' Their beauty is their confession. Who made these beautiful changeable things, if not one who is beautiful and unchangeable?" (Sermo CCXLI, 2: PL 38, 1134).
Dear brothers and sisters, may the Lord help us to rediscover the way of beauty as one of the ways, perhaps the most attractive and fascinating, to come to encounter and love God.
Rome, General Audience of Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Photo source: Google Images