Everyone dreams about a European vacation. However I was never interested in most of the normal European tourist sights (though I could probably put together a bucket list of sights I would still like to see) but I was always fascinated with the great Gothic Cathedrals of France. So when I had the opportunity, and a 10 week sabbatical, to head to France and Spain and make a pilgrimage on the medieval pilgrimage trail – The Camino de Santiago – I knew I also wanted to first visit some of these great medieval structures.

Imagine the medieval world of the 12th century, and a community dedicating most of its resources for many decades, even lifetimes, to the construction of their cathedral. It was quite an undertaking. The Church and communities had been building churches and sometimes quite large churches for centuries, but when three architectural innovations came along allowing cathedral builders to build larger and more beautiful buildings – innovations that allowed designers to include vast windows filled with stained glass – the desire and ability to build a Great Cathedral was born.

 

 

The three architectural innovations were: the pointed arch, the ribbed vault ceiling, and the flying buttress. The pointed arch better directed the forces from the great weight of stone down to the ground. The ribbed vault ceiling allowed builders to span larger spaces, and the flying buttress countered the remaining outward thrust from the weight of the stone, holding up the walls.

 

It was at the monastery of St. Denis to the north of Paris, that the abbot, who wanted to bring more light into the building, first conceived or was convinced of the possibility of building a church with great stained glass windows, and began in 1135 what is considered to be the first true Gothic structure.

 


 

 

 

Soon after the Abbey church of St. Pierre in Chartres (about 1140), and the Basilica of St. Remi in Reims (1170) were begun; all attempting this new ‘Modern’ (as they called it) style (gothic, referring to the Goths, was a derisive term at first). They are all a little out of the way and not much visited, but great examples of the medieval builder’s art.

 

About 1150 the bishop of Laon – an important ‘city’ in medieval times – began the construction of a new Cathedral in this new style. Perhaps you, like me, have never heard of Laon, yet I found it a fascinating place – a town built at the top of a hill (for its defensive position) with steep climbs, and grand views in all directions. I truly enjoyed exploring this old town with its ancient fortress walls and gateways, its cobblestone streets, old buildings, and its magnificent Cathedral, all of which are wonderfully preserved; I think it has become one of my favorite stops on the trip. The cathedral towers are considered by many as some of the most beautiful and the most unique in that they are topped with statues, not of saints, but of oxen. Yes oxen, on account of the Legend of a heavenly ox that mysteriously appeared to help a team that was almost totally exhausted from hauling its load of stone up that steep climb.

 

Paris, not to be outdone, soon began, in 1163, what has become the most famous of the Great Gothic Cathedrals – Notre Dame de Paris. Standing majestically there on the Ile de la Cité amidst the Seine River (imagine building that foundation!) it is constantly overflowing with visitors, but for a just reason. Entering from the bright sunshine outside into the cool interior with the light now filtered through the stained glass windows takes one’s breath away. The gothic builders strove to build ever higher, so that one’s gaze naturally begins to be drawn upward, heavenly-ward, following the great arcade pillars up several rows of stained glass to the high windows and vaulted ceiling.

 


 

 

 

 

Equally famous, and deservingly so, is the Cathedral Notre Dame de Chartres. Begun in 1194, it is one of the best preserved of the Great Cathedrals. Somehow it escaped the whims of changing styles, the wars of persecution, destroying mobs of the French Revolution, and allied bombing during WWII (all its medieval stained glass had been removed and stored in bunkers until the end of the war – just in case. And indeed the order had been given to bomb Chartres, but a brave soldier snuck behind enemy lines to bring intel that the Germans were not using the cathedral, and the order was rescinded.) Besides its stained glass, Chartres is renowned for its sculpture. The entranceways are surrounded by superb examples of medieval sculpture, inviting the worshiper to enter in together with all the saints and angels.

 

My trip allowed me to continue on to Reims, where the French kings were crowned, and to Amiens, Bourges, Rouen, Tours and Clermont-Ferrand. I soon ran out of superlatives to describe these Cathedrals, each one unique and seemingly more beautiful than the last. Those that were begun almost one hundred years after St. Denis first started this new style – Amiens and St. Ouen in Rouen for example – showed a more refined and flamboyant style, especially on the exteriors which are all highly decorated.

 

In all it was a trip-of-a-lifetime for me. I was truly blessed to have visited these holy sites. While I wasn’t able to do any woodturning, I still noticed the trees, and once-in-awhile came across an interesting one, like this great Cedar of Lebanon outside the art museum in Tours – planted in 1804, 31 meters high, 33 meters wide, and 7.5 meter in circumference.

 

If anyone wants more information on Gothic Cathedrals, I suggest www.mappinggothic.org .

Fr. Dave Means

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Saturday the 16th. Thanks for visiting Woodturners Unlimited.