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Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.
BY The Editors
his general audience on Nov. 18, Pope Benedict XVI explained how Christian
faith in the Middle Ages inspired some of the greatest works of art of all
time: the cathedrals of Europe.
Dear brothers and sisters,
In my catecheses during the past few
weeks, I have spoken about certain aspects of medieval theology.
However, our Christian faith, which
was profoundly rooted in the men and women of that era, gave rise not only to
masterpieces of theological literature, philosophy and faith. It also inspired
some of the loftiest artistic creations of all civilization — the cathedrals —
which are truly the glory of medieval Christianity.
Indeed, for almost three centuries,
starting from the year 1000, Europe was witness to an extraordinary artistic
A historian from that period
described the intensity of the enthusiasm which characterized that era:
“Throughout the entire world, especially in Italy and Gaul, they began to
rebuild churches, even though many were still in good condition and did not
need restoration. It was as though people were competing with each other. It
was as though the world, shaking off its old rags, wished to be clothed
everywhere in the white robe of new churches. In short, the faithful at that
time were restoring almost all the cathedral churches, a great number of
monastery churches, and even village chapels” (Rodolfo il Glabro, Historiarum
Various factors contributed to this
rebirth of religious architecture. First of all, the historical conditions —
including greater political security accompanied by a constant growth of the
population and the progressive development of cities, trade and wealth — were
conducive to this rebirth.
In addition, architects were developing
increasingly elaborate technical solutions to increase the dimensions of
buildings, ensuring at the same time their stability and majesty.
However, it was thanks primarily to
the ardor and spiritual zeal of monasticism, which was then in full expansion,
that abbey churches were erected where the liturgy could be celebrated with
dignity and solemnity and where the faithful could stop to pray and venerate
the relics of saints — the object of countless pilgrimages.
Birth of the Romanesque
Thus, the Romanesque cathedrals and
churches came into being, characterized by their longitudinal expanse, with
long naves that could accommodate a large number of faithful. They were very
solid churches with thick stone walls, stone arches, built along basic and simple
One novelty was the introduction of
sculptures. Since the Romanesque churches were places where monks could pray
and where the faithful could worship, sculptors, instead of being concerned
with technical perfection, took special care to ensure their educational goal.
In order to make a strong impression
upon people and to incite them to flee from vice and evil and to practice
virtue and goodness instead, a recurrent theme was the depiction of Christ as
judge over the entire world, where he is surrounded by figures from the Book of
In general, the doors of these
Romanesque churches were most apt to present this image in order to emphasize
the fact that Christ is the door that leads to heaven.
The faithful, crossing the threshold
of these sacred buildings, entered in a time and space different from ordinary
life. Entering the doors of the church, artists hoped that believers in Christ,
who is sovereign, just and merciful, might experience a foretaste of eternal
bliss in the celebrations of the liturgy and other acts of devotion that took
place within these sacred places.
In the 12th and 13th centuries,
starting in the north of France, another type of architecture began to gain
popularity when constructing sacred buildings: Gothic architecture.
Compared to Romanesque architecture,
these Gothic churches had two characteristics that were new: height and
Gothic cathedrals reveal a synthesis
of faith and art, harmoniously expressed through the universal and captivating
language of beauty, which continues to inspire awe even today.
Thanks to the introduction of the
arched vaults resting on strong pillars, it was possible to erect buildings
that were notably taller. The thrust of these buildings towards the sublime was
an invitation to prayer and was at the same time a prayer.
Thus, Gothic cathedrals sought to
translate — in their architectural lines — the soul’s yearning for God.
Moreover, with the adoption of new
technical solutions, windows could be set into walls around these cathedrals
and embellished with colorful stained glass.
In short, these windows were
transformed into huge, luminous images that were very useful for instructing
people in the faith. Scene by scene, these windows narrated the life of a
saint, a parable or some other event from the Bible.
A cascade of light fell upon the
faithful through these stained-glass windows, recounting the history of
salvation and involving them in this history.
The Gothic cathedrals had yet
another merit — namely the entire Christian community, as well as society at
large, was involved in building and decorating them, each in their own way yet
in harmony with each other. The lowly and the powerful, as well as the
illiterate and the educated, worked side by side so that all believers could
receive instruction in the faith in the house they shared together.
Catechesis in Art
Gothic sculpture made these
cathedrals “Bibles of stone,” depicting episodes from the Gospel and illustrating
the liturgical year, from Our Lord’s birth to his glorification.
Furthermore, an awareness of Our
Lord’s humanity was gaining ground at that time, and the suffering he
experienced during his passion was portrayed in an increasingly realistic manner.
Christus patiens —
the suffering Christ — was an image loved by all, able to inspire within all
piety and repentance from sin.
Figures from the Old Testament were
not overlooked. The faithful who frequented these cathedrals acquired a
familiarity with their stories as a part of the unique history of salvation
that we all share.
With faces full of beauty,
tenderness and intelligence, Gothic sculpture revealed a happy and peaceful
faith that took a special delight in spreading a heartfelt and filial devotion
to the Mother of God, who was sometimes portrayed as a young woman, smiling and
maternal, but who was mainly depicted as Queen of Heaven and Earth, powerful
The faithful who flocked to these
Gothic cathedrals also delighted in finding artistic expressions that reminded
them of the saints, models of Christian life and intercessors before God.
Yet, the more “secular” aspects of
life were not missing. For this reason, images of work in the fields as well as
images of science and the arts appeared here and there. Everything was oriented
and offered to God in the place where the liturgy was celebrated.
We can better understand the meaning
that was attributed to the Gothic cathedral by reflecting on the text of the
inscription carved on the central door of St. Denis in Paris: “To the passerby
who may wish to praise the beauty of these doors, do not be dazzled by the gold
nor by the magnificence, but rather by the hard and strenuous work. A famous
work shines forth here, but heaven desires that this famous work may make our
spirits shine forth so that in the light of truth we can walk towards the true
light, where Christ is the true door.”
Art and Faith
Dear brothers and sisters, I would
now like to highlight two elements of Romanesque and Gothic art that are useful
for us today. First, the masterpieces of art created in Europe over past
centuries are incomprehensible if we do not take into account the religious
spirit that inspired them.
Marc Chagall, an artist who was
always a witness to the encounter between aesthetics and faith, has written
that “painters for centuries have dipped their brushes into the multicolored
alphabet of the Bible.”
When faith, especially as celebrated
in the liturgy, encounters art, a profound harmony is created because both are
able and willing to speak of God, making the invisible God visible.
Secondly, the force of the
Romanesque style and the splendor of Gothic cathedrals remind us that the via
pulchritudinis — the way of beauty — is a privileged and fascinating
way to draw closer to the mystery of God.
What is beauty, which writers,
poets, musicians and artists contemplate and translate into their language, if
not the reflection of the splendor of the eternal Word made flesh?
As St. Augustine says: “Ask the beauty
of the earth; ask the beauty of the sea; ask the beauty of the air, so ample
and diffuse. Ask the beauty of heaven; ask the order of the stars; ask the sun,
which brightens the day with its splendor. Ask the moon, whose glow softens the
shadows of the night. Ask the beasts that move about in the water, that walk on
the earth, that fly in the air: souls that are hidden, bodies which are seen;
the visible that lets itself be guided, the invisible that guides. Ask them!
All will answer: Look at us, we are beautiful! Their beauty makes them known.
Who has created this mutable beauty if not Immutable Beauty?” (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 paths, perhaps the
most attractive and captivating path, to encounter God and to love him.