Monday, April 11, 2011

Cathedrals and Lack Thereof

I noticed that Martin Rees in his Templeton Prize speech mentioned Ely Cathedral:
All too often the focus is short term and parochial – the urgent and the local loom higher on political agendas than even the gravest long-term challenges. We downplay what's happening even now in impoverished far-away countries. And we give too little thought to what kind of world we'll leave for our grandchildren.

As regards my own "philosophy", I continue to be inspired by the music, liturgy and architectural tradition of the Anglican Church in which I was brought up. No one can fail to be uplifted by great cathedrals – such as that at Ely, near my home in Cambridge. Ely Cathedral overwhelms us today. But think of its impact 900 years ago – think of the vast enterprise its construction entailed. Most of its builders had never travelled more than 50 miles; the Fens were their world. Even the most educated knew of essentially nothing beyond Europe. They thought the world was a few thousand years old – and that it might not last another thousand.

But despite these constricted horizons, in both time and space – despite the deprivation and harshness of their lives – despite their primitive technology and meagre resources – they built this huge and glorious building – pushing the boundaries of what was possible. Those who conceived it knew they wouldn't live to see it finished. Their legacy still elevates our spirits, nearly a millennium later.

The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Ely is a good example for his purposes; it is a massive and stunning cathedral in a tiny town -- about 15,000 people -- that has never been large. The Cathedral website has virtual tours, so if you've never been there you can see some of it for yourself. The current cathedral goes back to a Benedictine monastery founded about 970; this was converted into a cathedral about 1109. Its most distinctive feature, the Octagon Tower, was completed by about the middle of the fourteenth century.

William Whewell once argued that Gothic cathedrals are dominated by the Idea of the Vertical, precisely because it gave the sense of the indefinite, and thus of aspiration:

The ornaments, openings, windows, pillars, which had formerly been governed by the most imperative rules of horizontal arrangement, had been disbanded, or at least their discipline had become good for nothing. The Gothic architect restored the reign of order, and rallied these vague elements in a vertical line. A new thought, a new idea, was infused into the conception of such members, which at once gave them connexion and fixity. The previous change from classical architecture had been a breaking up of the connexion of parts, multiplicity without fertility, violation of rules without gaining of objects, degradation, barbarism. The change now became the formation of connexion; the establishment of arrangements which were fertile in beautiful and convenient combinations; reformation; selection of the good, rejection of the mere customary.

And since Panofsky the analogies between the Gothic architecture -- up and up -- and medieval intellectual life -- also "vertical, aspiring, indefinite," to use another phrase by Whewell -- have often been noted; and what is remarkable is that they both were in their own way conceived of as a shared patrimony, a resource for everyone. We don't really have anything similar (I once suggested, only halfway with tongue in cheek, that the architectural work that most completely expresses our intellectual life is the parking lot). Rees notes this, and suggests that perhaps instead we can work cooperatively to leave our children "a fair inheritance" -- a healthy planet, and the like.

Which is a nice idea, but honestly I don't see it happening. In today's "runaway world" we don't even have the attention span to plan something like a cathedral for centuries; and it strikes me as very plausible that the sort of project envisioned by Rees will require much more planning and have to last for centuries itself.

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