Appreciating the Beauty of Ecclesiastical Architecture

I suppose I’m a bit of an odd fellow really. I’m an atheist who loves to visit and spend time in cathedrals, churches, minsters, temples, basilicas and pantheons. I’m fascinated with ecclesiastical architecture and like nothing more than spending time inside, next to and quite often on top of religious buildings. I’m an amateur photographer and so my enjoyment of ecclesiastical architecture has seen me develop a burgeoning portfolio of photographs, which you’re welcome to browse.

I’m particularly enamoured with Gothic architecture, but I also enjoy the neoclassical style (the pantheon in Paris is a particular favourite of mine) and the English Baroque style – St Paul’s Cathedral in London being the finest example. Having visited something like fifteen cathedrals and churches in a four day trip to Venice last year I’m now also quite smitten with the Byzantine style too. Some of it is truly breath taking and what I loved about the religious buildings in Venice is that they still have their colour and lustre, which is something conspicuous by its absence in Gothic cathedrals and churches in the UK. This seems to be the result of differing mentalities. In the UK, religious buildings tend to be preserved and left untouched; they seem to be viewed as museum pieces almost. Whereas in Italy there seems to be a philosophy of restoring and maintaining the original look and feel; a desire to keep the building and interior looking the way it was originally intended to look. In fact, when we visited the Chiesa San Sebastiano in Venice, there were a few men and women, deep in concentration, lying on their backs atop scaffolding, restoring the wonderful paintings on the ceiling.

There are a couple of particularly colourful churches in Amsterdam, namely Nicolaaskerk and Franciscus Xaveriuskerkthe former being more dazzling with its colours and the latter more subtle. I can’t help but wonder how many of the Gothic cathedrals in Britain would lookif their colours had been restored and maintained.

The Basilica San Marco in Venice, a particularly splendid example of the Byzantine style, has a delightful and dazzling golden interior. It’s massive and yet its walls and ceiling are entirely covered in mosaic tiles. Not big ones either, dainty ones, like the size found in high quality Roman floor mosaics. The mosaics on the walls are larger than life and as detailed as paintings. I cannot imagine how many mosaic tiles there must be on those walls or how long it must have taken to complete the interior. Whatever you think of religion, it would take a brave man to deny that the interior of the Basilica San Marco interior is nothing short of an astonishingly beautiful feat of human endeavour. Almost miraculous. Something that beautiful, made by human hands, makes you feel great to be human.

Some nature lovers, including myself, marvel at the enormous mounds created by termites, which often loosely resemble cathedrals funnily enough. They can be up to three times the height of a human, and so from the termites’ perspective these are super-mega-gigantic constructions! I wonder if advanced alien civilisations (if they exist and are able to observe us somehow) marvel at the cathedrals, churches, temples and pantheons built by humans on earth in the same way as we marvel at termite mounds. I hope they do. They should do.

I don’t know how people of a religious faith feel, but when I walk into a Gothic cathedral I feel in awe of the incredible craftsmanship and artistry of the human minds and hands that conceived, constructed, carved and sculpted it. I stroke the smooth cold surface of the carved stone or marble. I want to feel what the stone masons felt all those centuries ago. I crane my neck upwards. Looking at the angles, the lines, the arches, the curves and the depictions, I silently contemplate the incredible skill and patience required to produce such dazzling and beautiful architecture. How did they do that? Is the question I so often ask myself as I try to figure out the construction. How wonderful that they did do it, I say to myself. Broadly speaking, I love art that seems impossible, either because of its form or because it is so incredibly intricate and precise. The kind that you look at and have no idea how it was constructed or the kind that makes you say: “a person did this?” Gothic cathedrals and churches, the best ones, are this kind of art.

One of the pleasing things about living in the UK is I need only hop on a train to see some of the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals in the world. I’ve explored Ely cathedralSalisbury, Westminster Abbey, WellsWinchesterYork and Beverley Minsters, and King’s College Chapel. All wonderful in their own way. There are dozens more throughout the country and I plan to visit them all.

The fan vaulted ceiling of King’s College Chapel (pictured above) looks utterly impossible. So apparently light and airy, and yet of a solid stone permanence. It is a stunning piece of architectural sculpture. When you enter the chapel your eyes are instantly drawn up the clustered columns on either side and then inwards along the ribs of the vaulting on the ceiling. Almost every element of the interior draws your eye upwards, which is testament to the skill of the architect. The beautiful columns and ceiling at King’s have an almost organic feel to them. To me they resemble a soaring mesh of those thick vines you get in the Amazon rainforest. After a while you start to see how ecclesiastical architecture often resembles and is inspired by the patterns and shapes of nature.

There’s one building that was conceived by its architect as a ‘cathedral to nature’, which I believe is unique. The Natural History Museum in London resembles a Gothic cathedral on the outside and the inside – it has pointed arches and columns and so forth – but there’s not an angel, gargoyle or biblical scene anywhere to be found. Instead there’s a delightful array of plants and animals, such as monkeys, carved into the fabric of the building throughout. It really is a cathedral to nature. It’s a total triumph and the only secular building that I know of that even comes close to matching the beauty of any Gothic cathedral.

At each cathedral or church that I visit I love to ponder the fact that this incredible construction, this perfectly fluent form that looks like it must always have existed and is beyond mere mortals, was put together block by block, carved and sculpted chip by chip – by men. By individuals. By fallible, flawed men. By brilliant men. Men who channelled the artistry of their minds, their very imaginations through their hands and turned meaningless lumps of stone into beauty. Men who harnessed the logic of maths, trigonometry, geometry and physics to create beautifully coherent structures that obeyed nature, and that would not only stand, but stand the test of time.

Cathedrals, churches, pantheons et al are one of the most astonishing ways in which human beings create complexity out of simplicity; beauty out of meaningless matter. These constructions are more than the sum of their parts, more than just blocks of stone fitted together. To me they are wonderful works of art wrapped around incredible feats of engineering to be enjoyed and savoured. They are testament to the awesome power of the human mind.

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