For God (and us)

The histories of sixteen great cathedrals from Hagia Sophia to Santa Maria del Fiore.

Wells 1857
Wells Cathedral, photographed by Alfred Capel Cure in 1857. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Many cathedrals are so old, large and familiar that it’s tempting to see them more as a landscape feature than as something someone built. Like an ancient crag, they sit at the heart of their cities. They seem somehow inevitable and also unchangeable: permanent, immutable, inert.

In her latest book Emma Wells offers a somewhat different perspective. Her short, punchy chapters tell the stories of 16 different cathedrals – from Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Above all, she recreates the building histories of the great Gothic cathedrals constructed in England and northern France, showing that these apparently sempiternal edifices were in fact the outcome of deliberate decision, fierce determination, creative improvisation and luck.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for many readers will be the realisation of just how often cathedrals burn down. Amiens, Chartres and York were hardly unusual in experiencing catastrophic fires almost every hundred years – at Amiens the flames came so frequently and conveniently that many, probably rightly, suspected arson.

Cathedrals also fall down. Arches collapse, spires tumble, foundations fail. At Wells, the cracks in the walls were spotted in time to construct a brilliantly clever engineering solution, the so-called scissor arch that is such a distinctive feature of the place. But many cathedrals were less fortunate and others were left incomplete for centuries.

Heaven on Earth is particularly good on how these avowedly holy buildings were often the product of less than wholly pious motivations. Worldly ambition and fierce competition encouraged conspicuous construction among cathedral builders. Reims was rebuilt to outpace Paris; so, for that matter, was Westminster, which was also intended to outrival Canterbury. Salisbury was likewise the outcome of a battle for power between the Church and local secular authorities. Winchester represented another bid for primacy, as the bishop sought to assert the city’s claim as the true capital of England.

Still more strikingly, Wells is able to show the influence these imposing buildings exerted on their inhabitants. Intended to communicate through their ornaments, sculptures, windows and other features, these were works of theology as well as pieces of architecture. Housing the relics of the saints and other memorials to the dead, they were charged with sometimes remarkable energy. The cathedral in Santiago de Compostela was built as a repository for the miraculously rediscovered bones of Saint James, which attracted thousands of pilgrims every year. It also played host to the investiture of Alfonso IX in 1188. Alfonso’s authority was confirmed when he was struck in the face by the statue of the saint, whose mechanical arm was specially designed for the purpose.

At the same time, the book is clear about the importance of the people who built these places: the ambitious monarchs, assertive bishops and acquisitive cathedral chapters who built for God – certainly – but also for their own particular purposes. Nor does Wells lose sight of the architects and masons who actually did the work. It was gruelling and dangerous and, as the impossible arches and vertiginous towers rose, it must often have seemed implausibly demanding. Small wonder that the architect of Cologne was believed to have entered into a pact with the devil as he despaired of ever finishing.

Heaven on Earth: The Lives and Legacies of the World’s Greatest Cathedrals
Emma J. Wells
Head of Zeus 512pp £40
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William Whyte is Professor of Social and Architectural History at the University of Oxford and the author of Unlocking the Church (Oxford University Press, 2017).