My Middle Ages - page 2

Soon after, I started studying medieval architecture in earnest. If I hadn't been snagged by literature first, I might well have become an art historian. Why? Because the cathedrals and churches were deeply impressive in a variety of ways. A monastery like Mont St. Michel, built on an island in the English Channel, needs no justification from me. It is profoundly beautiful. Within the walls, it has a cloister (as all monasteries do), a covered walk where the monks could walk for exercise or meditation, could wash, could copy manuscripts in good light without being subject to the weather directly. Every cloister is different in its details and its proportions, and--to my mind--every one is beautiful, with its changing light and its garden or cloister "garth."

Cathedrals also have towers of myriad kinds and sizes and styles, depending on the region and the period. West Walton, in Norfolk (in the east of England), has a beautiful late medieval parish church with a stepped tower that seems more magnificent than a church its size would warrant, but then we all know about people who show off when they build. Just look at the Empire State Building--or the big houses in the historic district of any American town old enough to have one.

At the other end of the spectrum, Exeter Cathedral has monumental towers from the Norman period, some two hundred years earlier. Not only are they beautifully designed, but they have elaborate surface decoration, a different pattern to each level of the tower, that makes them more than just "a pile of old stones," as a friend once off-handedly described (all) cathedrals to me. Other cathedrals are like "cities of towers"; the effect inspires not admiration for a single piece of work, but dazzlement at so much in one place.
      Walk around any cathedral and try to imagine how men built them without modern technology. Below are the facades (fronts) of Exeter Cathedral, in the south-west of England and St. Albans, just north of London. Think of building them without the engineering expertise and equipment available to us. On the other hand, don't imagine medieval builders as primitive. These buildings are not like the pyramids, built with slave labor. These builders had machines of many kinds (winches, cranes, and such, though not of course built of steel like ours) and a deep understanding of geometry. "Primitives" do not build flying buttresses, like the ones you see in the third picture of the east end of Bourges Cathedral in France. Those buttresses allow such huge structures to contain very large windows while still supporting the walls. Not bad for the fourteenth century!

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Revised 11/05