Most religions concretize their idols and stories via art — statues and paintings of Buddha, Krishna, the images and activities of countless gods in ancient Greece, etc.), but the Medieval Catholic Cathedrals took art in all its forms to a level of glorious and persuasive splendor matched by none other before or since.
The exterior of their Gothic architecture boasts multiple spires that point to a heavenly God. Every niche, corner, and surface of available stone is ornamented with figures to enchant, shock, or frighten — bugle blowing angels, saints standing at vigil, fantastical birds, animals, and staring-down-at-you gargoyles — that served as entertaining features during an age of superstition when illiterate laymen’s preoccupation with everything magic from medicinal elixirs to priestly-maneuvered miracles was at its height.
The interior spaces soar upward to make humans feel small and overwhelmed, but they also provide intimate prayer chapels for lighting candles and pursuing personal interaction with individual saints.
Brightly colored stained-glass windows glitter in the sunlight delighting the eye and mesmerizing the mind while portraying characters and stories to instruct or remind parishioners about biblical events or religiously inspired behavior from worship of God to the loyalty and comforts of communal or family life to the bravery or sacrifice of individuals in honor of those who defended or died for their religious convictions.
The Nave stands at one end of the structure as the focal point of the entire design, elevated to stimulate reverence and usually with a large and spectacular backdrop of sculptures and/or paintings often depicting Jesus or Mary or both.
The altars and accoutrements for priestly rituals are in place there as is (usually) the choirstall from which the voices that praise the Lord will emanate to fill the building with sacred song.
Indeed, the Nave is where the grand Drama will unfold. The opposite end where the faithful enter for Mass features a large Rose window and usually a huge organ, which sometimes is placed on one of the side walls but in every case is impressive in size and sound.
A pulpit for sermons will be located near the Nave but isolated to the side for the purpose of commanding full attention from the "Flock" to the words — the litany that becomes the literature of the Mass — that will by cadence and repetition instill devotion to God while expounding on patterns of behavior to direct the daily lives of listeners.
The pews for parishioners fill the long span between the Nave and the entrance; the seats are low and the kneeling bar very close to the floor ensuring that attendees will experience the humility required for patiently standing in line to receive the sacraments (which will come later).
And these are only the main attributes of the physical building and its architectural adornments.
The visual arts — painting and sculpture — are arranged in significant places throughout the cathedral so an otherwise uneducated people may absorb the beauty and meaning inherent in important biblical personages. These depict not only the main characters of religious adoration such as major saints but also may feature the whole entourage of Christian notables from both the Bible and real-life, especially those in the latter category who have commissioned art as significant as Michelangelo’s "Sistine Chapel" and "Pieta."
Much of the great art in these magnificent spaces was created by names that have come down to us as some of the most important artists of any period in history.
Music fills the air as the organ and choir emit harmonious and emotionally uplifting melodies that stir the hearts of worshipers with wonder, hope, and joy. Intermittent singing along with the organ’s glowing support on the part of the faithful stimulates feelings of communal camaraderie, of belonging, of security.
These Churches are the centerpiece of every Medieval city shared by all inhabitants and symbolic of God’s grace bestowed on all no matter how humble their own dwelling may be.
We now have highlighted how all of the arts are in active emotional-psychological-physical play during a holy Mass: architecture, painting, sculpture, music, and literature.
Acting on the stage of the Nave, however, becomes the main focus of this exotic drama. Priests and attendants are costumed in magisterial attire to inspire authoritarian awe, and their well-rehearsed lines of incantations are delivered in poetic rhythm with fervent believability.
Every sensory organ of the audience is activated by dozens of steadily flaming candles, elaborate floral arrangements, music, the fragrance of incense, and, finally, to the taste of wafer and wine during the Celebration of the Eucharist as church members partake personally in the climactic scene of the drama, each individually, by ingesting and imbibing the body and blood of Christ, their Lord and Savior.
It must be appreciated that all of these art forms and dramatic activity were (and still are with lesser impact) experienced at one time in one setting, creating a universe of its own where townsfolk can gather to pray, to listen, to look, and to confirm their own blessed place in something larger than themselves.
The desire for connection to some "other" that offers affirmation of one’s personal worth in the vast impersonal cosmos into which we are born and live out our own individual time on earth is inherent in the human psyche, and for the meek, ignorant, and often downtrodden people during the Dark Age of western civilization’s history the Catholic Cathedral provided that crucial confirmation and respite from the harsh world of daily toil; thus, the brilliant use of all of the arts at the same time in the same beautiful place provided that supreme haven for rest and renewal.
As scientific knowledge and secularization have advanced over the centuries these religious monuments may stand as relics of past eras, but they still remain stellar examples of the grand communicative power of art.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation. She has written for many publications, including "Reader's Digest" and The New York Times. She is the author of "Crosspoints A Novel of Choice." Her most recent book is "Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks." For more on Alexandra York — Go Here Now.
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