Yesterday on our pilgrimage to France we visited two wonderful masterpieces of Catholic architecture: the Romanesque abbey church of Fleury and the Gothic cathedral of Chartres.
It is often observed that the austere Romanesque architecture with its round arches, solid walls and simple windows was simply a development from the early Christian architecture which developed naturally from the Roman basilica. This is true enough, but architecture always reflects the culture and beliefs of its time. The beautiful austere simplicity of the Romanesque developed as monasticism developed, and the abbey church at Fleury (and also at Vezelay) is a perfect example of the suitability of Romanesque to the monastic ideal of the fusion of simplicity and beauty.
The Romanesque abbey churches of France reveal the austere simplicity and celestial beauty of the Benedictine way of life. They are sturdy, stable and serious, but they are also like stone lanterns of light. Designed to filter the light through stone, they are eloquent in their revelation that grace flows through the stable, serious and austere strictures of the Benedictine life. There is no nonsense here–no frippery or foolishness–instead a steady concentration of human hard work and the co operation of humanity with divine protection and providence.
Going from there to the Gothic masterpiece at Chartres was another lesson in history. The Gothic develops as the towns and cities grow. The stained glass windows in all their jewel like glory are sponsored by the various guilds throughout the city and in the corners are little medieval reminders of the guilds’ work. Almost like miniature advertisements they show the affluent life, the prosperity, hard work and ingenuity of the age. The carvings and the clever architecture combine to show an active, abundant, creative and fecund fellowship of craftsmen, clergy, architects, theologians, poets and artists.
The Gothic shows the fruit of the long dark age. Christianity has flourished and blossomed into this unbelievably inventive and creative age where the ingenuity and intellect, the skill and subtlety flow together and erupt in a profusion of amazing buildings. Furthermore, in many of the places where the Gothic cathedrals and churches sprouted there was already a perfectly functional Romanesque building.
But they were not good enough for this new epoch. They were replaced by this flowery, upward thrusting, further reaching architecture. Today as we travel to Mont St Michel we’ll see on top of the mountain how the two came together for the first church there is the solid, dependable, monastic Romanesque, but in the fifteenth century they started to rebuild. The high soaring Gothic choir stands in contrast to the rest of the church–which was never rebuilt.
And as such it is a testament to what was to come next. The fifteenth century suddenly climaxes in the building across Europe of the most amazing Gothic extravagance…before it all comes tumbling down in the tragedy of the Protestant revolution and five hundred subsequent years of revolution, rebellion and terror.