Cathedrals and stained glass, and ruins of cathedrals and ruins of stained glass
(This is a lot more spacey and stream-of-consciousness than my usual pieces, so bear with me. Or as Prince Rogers Nelson once said, I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray.)
The Stained Glass Zealot tweeted an image of Reims Cathedral with the caption, “what does a society need to build this?” and the backlash was immediate. Anti-religious sentiment abounded; one of the comments was, “and to think that all of this is in service to a delusion.” There were prolific plugs for bitcoin, and a few for the Tartaria conspiracy and sacred geometry. All this rile-up due to an image of a cathedral! The takeaway is that cathedrals are still powerful symbols. But what do they signify?
In The Tuning of the World, R. Murray Schaeffer wrote about how medieval cathedrals would ring their bells at feast days and on Sunday morning; by being the loudest thing in the literal and sonic landscape, the organized church thereby asserted their authority over their surroundings, both geographical and cultural. This is not the case anymore—the roar of the interstate drowns out the carillon of the cathedral. Sunday morning comes, and we have learned to ignore the bells; we do not need to heed them because our calendars and alarms do that calling for us. As a consequence, we don’t hear church bells anymore, and if we did, we would not sense them as a summons that must be obeyed. Angry people are actually calling for the banning of church bells, asking “who else gets to make that kind of noise?”
But even if the bells are silenced, the cathedral’s physical presence is still there. It’s hard to look away from a massive building that dominates the city center, drawing the eyes of everyone by its monumental presence. “Monumental” indeed—cathedrals are monuments to the religious sensibilities of the people who commissioned, built, and subsidized them. For those who do not share that sensibility, the cathedral’s presence is an uncomfortable one—a constant reminder of where their culture used to be, what it used to believe in, and what the culture could return to.
It makes perfect sense when new religions destroy the symbols of what was worshipped before. Jewish tradition tells us that the first act of obedience the patriarch Abraham undertook was his smashing of his father’s idols. The nation of Israel was commissioned by God to destroy the temples and idols of the conquered Canaanites. I can completely understand the motivation behind the decision by ISIS to destroy religious landmarks in Iraq and Syria in 2014, and the similar decision by the Taliban to do the same to the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001—I don’t agree with the decision, but I can completely understand it.
Will the cathedrals of Europe be destroyed, not by religious zeal, but by non-religious apathy? What will happen to the cathedrals if they cease to speak to even a remnant of the faith that built them, and if their caretakers no longer care for the religion the buildings symbolize? Sometimes it seems that the only thing keeping the cathedrals in existence is the secular religion of humanism, and its desire to venerate the works of the human hand as such. What if even that isn’t enough to preserve the cathedrals from the destructive maw of indifference?
It was only last December when Omaha’s First Presbyterian Church removed the plywood from over its stained-glass windows, plywood which had been put up in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. For more than eighteen months the windows remained invisible, hidden for their own protection. Could it be that some kinds of beauty are so valuable that their beauty must be hidden? But how can they be valuable, if their beauty cannot be seen? And: is there an objective standard of beauty, which dictates that stained glass and cathedrals are inherently beautiful, whatever your own personal beliefs may be? Or can Reims Cathedral really be repulsive, because you believe it to be “in service to a delusion”? Were the pyramids of Tenochtitlan, monuments to slave labor and human sacrifice, beautiful in any way at all? Is it possible to separate beauty from the other subtexts and symbolisms inherent in any artwork? Is it possible for Wagner’s Rienzi to be considered beautiful once we know it was one of Hitler’s favorite operas?
I can imagine a fantastical future in which civilization comes unglued and roving bands prowl the streets looking for gasoline and shampoo. In this post-apocalypse, the beleaguered curators of churches and cathedrals cover their buildings’ stained-glass windows with plywood . . . indefinitely . . . permanently. Will they ever be seen again?
If cathedrals are symbols, they are, most of all, symbols of European cultural dominance. What better way to assert your culture’s dominance than by convincing the colonized to devote enormous amounts of material, money, and effort into making gigantic buildings in a style which has no relation to that of the indigenous architectural history? There are cathedrals in every corner of the world. There is a cathedral in North Korea, where Christianity is illegal. Is this a testament to the power of the Christian ideal of worship—or to the European ideal of culture?
America is a colony—an ideological colony of Europe. The American experiment— “we can make up our own society from scratch, thank you very much”—has always fed upon and derived energy from an oppositional ideal of culture, the European ideal. At times this idea has invigorated American culture; at times it has stultified it. But there has always been the ideal of Europe, guardian of the beautiful and aspirational, to goad American cultural figures into creating their greatest works. There was a time when it was fashionable for aspiring writers, painters, sculptors, and other artists to travel to Europe for a summer or a few years, there to absorb the lessons displayed in Europe’s venerated cities, churches, museums, and palaces, lessons of what was meant by High Culture, by High Art. The cathedrals played an imposing part in this education abroad. But for the last hundred years or so (perhaps due to the advent of new technics, perhaps due to shifting philosophies of what counts as beautiful), Europe seems to have stopped believing in its own idealized, beautiful, monumental past. The most influential European thinkers in architecture were not classicists—they were people like Le Corbusier, who propounded an art of the machine, or Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus School. America has embraced their more democratic cultural vision, and has left the old style of the cathedrals far behind.
There exists, now, a healthy pluralism in the arts. No one culture sets the tone for what is beautiful; no one culture should. Is this the end condition for the European cultural idea, the idea that there is a canon of taste? And if so, will the cathedrals be seen as less than memorials of an earlier style—will they be seen as symbols of a rejected cultural hegemony, and thus as baggage that ought to be discarded?
It ought to be remembered that nothing on this earth will not fade away. No work of human ingenuity will last forever; everything is subject to the forces of decay, entropy, and forgetting. Sometimes I wonder if this is God’s way of reminding us that we are not gods; our own creations have no permanence.
Ruins of cathedrals . . . will we sing about them the way the Saxons did about the ruins of the Roman town of Bath? “These wall-stones are wondrous—