The terrible fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has evoked sadness and horror among civilized people everywhere, and is one of those moments when we should, for a moment, set aside libertarianism and ideology, and simply be human.
It doesn’t matter whether the people in question would have worshiped at Notre Dame, or whether indeed they worship at all.
They are capable of recognizing beauty when they see it, and of understanding when something is meaningful, even if they may not be able to articulate that meaning themselves.
The Church’s physical structures have endured great devastation in numerous historical periods, to be sure, and in fact the monastery at Monte Cassino, the motherhouse of the Benedictine tradition, was sacked by the Lombards in 589, pillaged by the Saracens in 884, razed by an earthquake in 1349, pillaged by French troops in 1799, and wrecked by the bombs of World War II in 1944 — though each time, the monks returned to rebuild.
The cathedrals, however, occupy a special place in the European heritage. One art historian describes them as “the greatest accomplishments of humanity in the whole theatre of art.”
The more you learn about them, the more interesting and meaningful they become.
Thus at the time that Gothic architecture was evolving from its Romanesque predecessor, more and more Catholic thinkers were becoming persuaded of the link between mathematics — geometry in particular — and God.
Saint Augustine had made repeated reference to Wisdom 11:21, which describes God as having “ordered all things by measure, number, weight.” This idea became common currency among a great many Catholic thinkers, particularly those associated with the great cathedral school at Chartres in the twelfth century.
Ever since Pythagoras and Plato, in fact, an important strain of Western thought had identified mathematics with the divine. For mathematics was unchanging, as well as absolutely true at all times and in all places.
At the cathedral school at Chartres, explains Robert Scott (about whom more below), scholars “believed that geometry was a means for linking human beings to God, that mathematics was a vehicle for revealing to humankind the innermost secrets of heaven. They thought the harmony of musical consonance was based on the same ratios as those forming cosmic order, that the cosmos was a work of architecture and God was its architect.” These ideas led builders “to conceive of architecture as applied geometry, geometry as applied theology, and the designer of a Gothic cathedral as an imitator of the divine Master.”
Augustine, whose De Musica would become the most influential aesthetic treatise of the Middle Ages, considered architecture and music the noblest of the arts, since their mathematical proportions were those of the universe itself, and they therefore elevated our minds to the contemplation of the divine order.
The windows of the Gothic cathedral and the emphasis on light as it flooded these enormous and majestic buildings are perhaps its most salient characteristic. It makes sense, then, that the architect would have appreciated the theological significance of light. Augustine had conceived of human beings’ acquisition of knowledge in terms of divine illumination: God enlightens the mind with knowledge.
This idea of God pouring light into the minds of men proved a potent metaphor for architects in the Gothic tradition, in which physical light was meant to evoke thoughts of its divine source.
The Scholastic frame of mind has sometimes been credited with giving rise to the Gothic cathedral. The Scholastics, of whom Saint Thomas Aquinas was the most illustrious example, were intellectual system builders. They sought not merely to answer this or that question, but to construct entire edifices of thought. Their summae, in which they sought to explore every significant question pertaining to their subject, were systematic, coherent wholes, in which each individual conclusion related harmoniously to every other — just as the various components of the Gothic cathedral work together to create a structure of remarkable internal coherence.
You don’t have to know any of this to be awed by the cathedrals.
In fact, one of the great studies of the Gothic cathedral was written by — of all people — a Stanford University sociologist, Robert Scott, who fell in love with Salisbury Cathedral in England. He knew absolutely nothing about it. But his love for that magnificent structure led him to immerse himself in the culture that produced it — its intellectual, social, and religious life.
I don’t believe he is a Catholic. But he tells his readers, “I warmly welcome you to join me in the quest to comprehend these awesome, mysterious, and magnificent works of humankind.”
The cathedrals are flesh-and-blood examples of what we mean when we speak of the Western tradition. We have no shortage of people who say they defend the West. We have a great shortage of people who have immersed themselves in that heritage to the point that they really and truly know it.
What a shame. A true garden of delight awaits you, should you ever care to look.
And I’ll even guide you along:
(Don’t be misled by the URL; this is for you, too.)