Why Visit Gothic Cathedrals Part II

29 Mar

There is a slight problem with discussing the emotional side of Gothic cathedrals. Emotion, as I’m sure you’re aware, is a very personal thing. What I find amazing about Gothic cathedrals might not do anything for you. I’m not trying to make you have any one particular feeling about the structures,though. I’m just hoping that the next time you visit one you’ll take a moment to soak up the atmosphere instead of just ticking it off your list like any other tourist attraction.

Of couse a certain amount of the emotional impact of a Gothic cathedral depends on a person having at least some appreciation for religion, even if one is not religious themselves. Critics will focus on the negatives, but it’s helpful to stop and think that for many people a cathedral, and by extention religion, is a source of comfort and charity, to say nothing of the incredible impact the church has had in the world of the arts over the centuries. We can’t forget that religion is responsible for just as many beautiful things as it is for the faults for which many people condemn it. If you close your mind to this fact you’ll never be able to enjoy your surroundings. I’m not asking you to suddenly find God, I’m just saying it helps to appreciate that, “Someone was feeling something when they built this,” as a friend of mine once said.

When I enter a cathedral I’m normally struck first simply by how beautiful the space is. I first notice the pools of colored light on the ground from the stained glass windows before my eye is drawn up past the sculptures on the column capitals to the soaring roof. The whole scene is breathtaking, if you take the time to just get a feel for the space. And once you’ve enjoyed the overall atmosphere a bit, there are thousands of details to notice. If visiting during the summer, feel the cool when you step into the building. Look at how worn the floor is at certain points from the thousands of feet that have passed over it. Smell the lingering scent of incense left from the latest service. Take notice of the names on the memorials located throughout the nave.

Part of what makes it amazing is the fact that very few other buildings from that time are still used for their original purpose. Think about that for a minute. A roughly similar ritual has been happening on a regular basis for between 800 and 600 years. Through disasters such as war and plague and celebrations like weddings and coronations, cathedrals have continued with their original missions. If you pay attention you’ll often notice a priest or other church official caring for the building and its treasures or preparing for the next service, just as they have for centuries.

It’s also nice to stop and think about how people would have seen such a structure when it was first built. Well, once it was finished being built, that is. The construction of a Gothic cathedral often took centuries. At the short end of the scale, Chartres Cathedral took approximately 57 years to build; Cologne took 632. There was a very good chance that if a cathedral was begun during your lifetime you wouldn’t live to see it finished. Even so the parts you could visit were often wonders to behold, and the completion of a cathedral was cause for a major celebration.  These weren’t only the tallest structures for miles, but the grandest.

Overall there’s so much to see while visiting a Gothic cathedral it’s a shame they’re often so crowded. Even so, they still provide the perfect opportunity to sit and contemplate not just religion but the very nature of history. You can still find time to really look at the intricacies of a stained glass window. Look up, look down, and take it all in. Regardless of your religious beliefs, you’ll be amazed.


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