For a period of several hundred years, if your average Joe (or José or Giuseppe) wanted to see fine art, he had to go to church. Well, that might be exaggerating slightly, but there really wasn’t much art in public places other than that building in the middle of town that was named for some saint.
The first museum didn’t come along until the late 1600s, but giant churches, such as Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, had begun to be built in the 6th century. Inside these buildings were works created by great artists and intended to help a largely illiterate population comprehend stories from the Bible. Many of the masterpieces of painting and sculpture were commissioned to convey concepts of saints and angels, and to literally scare hell out of parishioners.
When stumbling off a tour bus in some European city, one sometimes overlooks the fact that specific works inside the cathedral are not as impressive as the building itself. As Paul Johnson says in Art: A New History, “The medieval cathedrals of Europe… are the greatest accomplishments in the whole theater of art.”
Not only were painters and sculptors and woodcarvers involved, so were stonemasons and glaziers and grunt laborers, hoisting massive stones hundreds of feet off the ground and nudging them into place. The tools of their day were primitive by modern standards, but they were used to create incredibly elaborate works of art.
Think about the challenges of building Notre-Dame de Paris (begun 1163) or the Cologne Cathedral (begun 1248) or St. Mark’s in Venice (consecrated in 1094). Some of these churches took hundreds of years to be completed — several generations of the same family might have worked on it.
We tend to consider all giant church buildings as cathedrals, but in Catholic tradition, a cathedral is a church that is the official seat of a bishop. Another kind of grand church is called a basilica; it has been given ceremonial significance for some reason, such as containing the bones of a saint.
But let’s get back to cathedrals. Although there are differences in design and decoration (Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic), most of them have these characteristics:
• The front of the building faces west; the end of the building is to the east. That means that worshipers look toward the rising sun, a symbol of Christ’s resurrection.
• The floor plan is in the shape of a cross. That can be hard to make out sometimes because of side chapels and other architectural embellishments, but that’s the general idea. The nave is the long part of the cross, and is the main assembly area in the church; the transept is, in effect, the cross’s arms. Where they meet is known as the crossing (some architect must have spent several seconds thinking up that term).
• At the eastern end is the apse, a semicircular niche that serves as a sort of visual framing device for the altar. Sometimes it also provides seating for the clergy.
• The aisles are along the outside walls. Above them, just under the ceiling, is the clerestory. Yes, that looks like someone’s bungled attempt to spell cholesterol, but it’s an actual word, pronounced “clear-story”. that’s where the windows are that admit light into the cathedral.
Everything else I know about cathedrals could probably be exhausted in a couple of hundred words, but that’s enough for now. The main thing to remember is that the building doesn’t just contain works of art — it is itself a work of art.