Medieval Cathedrals Blend Faith and Art

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

During 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 fervor.

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 3,4).

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 lines.

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 Revelation.

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.

Gothic Architecture

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 luminosity.

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 yet merciful.

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.

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