‘Enjoying’ The Medieval Cathedral

August 13, 2019 Updated: August 15, 2019


For those who fear that the contemporary Christian church is spiraling into unseriousness and irrelevance, another sign has just appeared on the topocosm. The nave of Rochester Cathedral (second-oldest in England) has recently been converted into a nine-hole miniature golf course.

According to the Rev. Rachel Phillips, Rochester’s canon “for mission and growth,” the new temporary installation will ensure that visitors feel “welcome” and can look forward to “an enjoyable experience.” Referring to the numerous bridges that are signature features of the mini-course layout, she explained, “So while people are here, having fun and playing crazy golf, they will take the opportunity to reflect on the wider theme of building bridges, that they might find that they would like to pray, light a candle.”

Let me confirm that we golfers pray at the top of practically every backswing. And isn’t the purpose of the medieval church to serve as a symbolic “bridge,” a stepping-stone from the visible beauty of this world to the contemplation of the invisibilia Dei? It’s reassuring to know that the great British tradition of allegorical exegesis (as exemplified by such celebrated medieval scriptural expositors as the Venerable Bede, John the Scot, and John of Salisbury) is still alive and well.

As a frequent visitor to England, I can attest that mini-golf qua spiritual sacrament is no anomaly. It is ironic in the extreme that the descendants of the Puritans, who expunged the medieval English church of all “sensuous” imagery, should now preside over its conversion into a children’s theme park. In almost every English cathedral I have entered in the past few years, the aisles and transepts have been permanently ceded to kids’ play areas, whose disposable furniture, general disarray, and day-care cacophony effectively nullify the sense of cosmic order, transcendence, and immutability that the building’s architectural and artistic wonders were designed, 900 years ago, to communicate.

But mini-golf at Rochester may have turned out to be a “bridge” of a different kind from the one Phillips envisioned. It has managed, for the first time in almost 500 years, to unite Anglicans and Catholics in indignant opposition. The faithful of both denominations have widely called it an “act of desecration.”

Anglican Bishop Gavin Ashenden, once chaplain to the queen, lamented: “The Church of England, suffering a reductio ad absurdum, has turned its Catholic cathedrals into entertainment centers. Having lost contact with transcendence, the CofE has become a branch of the leisure and entertainment industry.”

Open now! Challenge your friends and family to a round of bridge-themed Adventure Golf in our free summer activity….

تم النشر بواسطة ‏‎Rochester Cathedral‎‏ في السبت، ٢٧ يوليو ٢٠١٩

Coming only a couple of months after the near-disaster at Notre Dame in Paris, the news of the re-dedication of Rochester Cathedral to “enjoyable experience” (through mini-golf) reminds one of how defenseless against human folly are such irreplaceable monuments of Christian civilization.

Like a multitude of others, apparently, I was taken aback by the intensity of my reaction to the fire at Notre Dame. Until it was ascertained that the great rose windows in the transepts and west front had been spared, my wife and I were on what was rather like a death vigil for an old friend.

The 13th-century rose windows enclosed practically the only painted glass that the anti-religious fanatics of the French Revolution—the secular forerunners of the Taliban—were unable to reach. (Much of the rest of the current structure, including hundreds of stone sculptures and dozens of windows, is the product of a 19th-century “restoration” by the erudite, but sometimes hyperactive, architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc) The besetting fear was that the lead câme securing thousands of pieces of painted glass might melt, even from the radiant heat of distant flames, and the glass would return to its sandy elements on the nave floor a hundred feet below.

Throughout the Middle Ages, churches have burned, and then have risen again from their own ashes, like the phoenix of the medieval bestiaries, the mythical bird that became a natural type of Christ’s resurrection.

In the late 1130s, after the previous 11th-century church had been devastated by fire, construction commenced on a new, grander edifice at Chartres, southwest of Paris. When all but the west front of the new structure was destroyed again by fire in 1194, the magnificent cathedral that still stands was begun. As a highly combustible material object, the medieval church is an apt symbol of worldly mutability and transience, as expressed in the double connotation of the Christian liturgical formula “ashes to ashes.”

Our own modern interpretation of architectural renewal is rather different from the medieval, which is one of the reasons, no doubt, for the widespread anxiety that the damage at Notre Dame might have been plenary. A completely new cathedral rising from the ashes of the old would probably have resembled the Pompidou Center, the pyramidal “crystal” at the Louvre, or any other of those daring experiments in conformism and vapidity that so fetch architects and urban planners today, none of whom seem to have recognized that the reason tourists flock to their cities in the first place is that the medieval and Renaissance buildings they come to see are so aesthetically retrograde.

No such fear would have discomposed the medieval peasant whenever a new cathedral was being contemplated.  However much art historians obsess over the technical or stylistic novelties associated with the distinct periods of medieval ecclesiastical design (Early Christian, Romanesque, High Gothic, Late Gothic), what is overwhelmingly plain is the unbroken continuity of architectural syntax (nave; aisle; transept; choir; pier; column; pilaster; arcade; entablature; tribune; clerestory; vault). As understood until recently, renovatio (structural, intellectual, or spiritual) is predicated on looking backward in gratitude to the harmonious beauty of the past (with the emphasis always on the re, not the nova).

When a “new” monastic church was being planned in the 1130s just north of Paris at St. Denis—which was to become, in fact, the innovative prototype of the Gothic—its brilliant architect Suger (also theologian, poet, and abbot of St. Denis) looked decidedly backward for his inspiration to the writings of the late fifth-century Syrian mystic known as the Pseudo-Dionysius (who Suger assumed was even more ancient, since he was identified by tradition with the first-century Dionysius the Areopagite supposedly converted in Athens by St. Paul, as recorded in the Book of Acts). Here is one of the passages that palpably enflamed Suger’s architectural imagination from the Pseudo-Dionysius’s seminal “Celestial Hierarchy”:

“Every creature, visible or invisible, is a light brought into being by the Father of the lights … This stone or that piece of wood is a light to me … For I perceive that it is good and beautiful; that it exists according to its proper rules of proportion; that it differs in kind and species from other kinds and species; that it is defined by its number, by virtue of which it is ‘one’ thing; that it does not transgress its order; that it seeks its place according to its specific gravity. As I perceive such and similar things in this stone they become lights to me, that is to say, they enlighten me. For I begin to think whence the stone is invested with such properties …; and soon, under the guidance of reason, I am led through all things to that Cause of all things which endows them with place and order, with number, species and kind, with goodness, beauty, and essence, and all other divine bequests.”

For Suger as architect, every “stone” and piece of glass in his new church was likewise a “light” that lifted up the observer to the contemplation of the Light of lights. As Suger wrote in his invaluable analysis of the architecture of the new church, describing his rapture upon seeing the precious stones that glowed on the main altar:

“When—out of my delight in the beauty of the House of God—the loveliness of the many-colored stones has called me away from cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.”

And in a poem explaining the doors of the west portal, which, in gilt-bronze relief, depicted the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension:

Marvel not at the good and the expense but at the craftsmanship of the work.

Bright is the noble work; but being nobly bright, the work

Should brighten the minds so that they may travel, through the true lights,

To the True Light where Christ is the true door.

In what manner it be inherent in this world the golden door defines:

The dull mind rises to truth, through that which is material.

We have heard any number of glib analyses of the mood of prayerful concern that descended over the world in the hours following the outbreak of the fire at Notre Dame, including that it has always been a beloved “tourist symbol of Paris” (to be checked off, one supposes, after the Eiffel Tower). This is especially and ironically anodyne in that, as described in the liturgy of the medieval dedication ceremony, the church is above all a symbol of no earthly city, but of the Celestial Jerusalem. That, again, is its “anagogical” function: to make you look “upward,” from the visible to the invisible.

In a materialist, post-Christian age, in which the visible and literal—as opposed to the invisible and symbolic—are the only accepted realities (and everyone is, in any case, looking downward at the “selfies” they’ve just taken on their phones, with buildings like Notre Dame subordinated as background to their own cosmic grandeur), one doesn’t expect the ordinary Parisian to understand anagogy.

But then, how can one account for the emotional effect of the fire, or the general outrage at the news of Rochester Cathedral’s re-dedication as a miniature golf course? Might not humans, even in this secular epoch, retain some vestigial, archetypal awareness that they are not merely creatures of matter and time, an awareness which the prospect of the loss or disfigurement of a magnificent medieval cathedral has dimly reawakened into consciousness?

The medieval church, moreover, has been fittingly described as a “summa in stone.” As the eminent medievalist and art historian Émile Mâle has pointed out, the Middle Ages was the age of the encyclopedia, and the medieval church, an encyclopedia in visible form, is a veritable compendium of all human wisdom and knowledge. In sculpture and glass at Paris, Chartres, Rochester, and throughout Europe, we see emblems and personifications of every human art, craft, and industry, of the liberal disciplines (literature, philosophy, oratory, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music) of the ancient and medieval curriculum, of the virtues and vices that conduce to a life of happiness or misery.

Like Notre Dame and Rochester, medieval churches are thus celebrations and fortresses of the religious, intellectual, and moral traditions and norms that have sustained Western Civilization since antiquity, and are now everywhere under attack by the vandals of post-modernism. Isn’t the potential loss of that, too, what the people of Paris, England, and throughout the world have been—at least subliminally—reacting to?

Harley Price has taught courses in religion, philosophy, literature, and history at the University of Toronto, U of T’s School of Continuing Studies, and Tyndale University College. He blogs at Priceton.org.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.