“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
What could be less imposing substance than a piece of rock, a stone? It is simple, commonplace, and plain. The stone adorns no crown or tiara and is hard, unwieldy, and intractable. Of all the materials on earth, inert stone is probably the least likely to make ascent to the heavens. So how is it that stone was chosen as the medium for some of the most perfect expressions of faith in human history?
How is it possible to quarry a piece of rock, shape it and carve it, and combine it with thousands of similar stones to create something as exquisite and evocative as a Romanesque or Gothic church? How is it possible that this most earthbound of materials can soar across the sky in great arches, climb to dizzying heights, and create buildings that stand solidly a thousand years after they were built. Buildings hewn from the roughest stone express the loftiest aspirations, most delicate thoughts, and the most profound emotions known to mankind. They are the substance of structures that physically manifest prayer and belief.
In the Middle Ages, men chose stone for protection and safety, but they were not content to build thick walls, moats and towered gates. If safety and protection had been their only goals, they would have constructed forts and castles. They knew how, because those structures had an unbroken history throughout civilization. Men always walled their cities, towns, and palaces, even their houses. But in the 11th and 12th Centuries, mankind chose to build something far more important and expressive. They built a place to worship their God. They did not build temples to house the gods themselves, because their single God did not dwell on Earth. They built structures which made it possible to understand what was asked of his people, and made it possible for them to find the salvation that they so desperately desired. In their churches, they could read the book of their faith.
The world of can be dark, violent, random, and destructive. The Church gave people faith in the sheltering hands of God, and they built churches that represented that faith. This was a great spiritual alchemy. God was made man. His only son was sacrificed so that mortals might live forever. Sinners were turned into saints, the lost were found. In doing so, believers transmuted base stone into soaring vaulted roofs supported by graceful arches.
All of this they built from rock, from stone, fired at the very birth of the planet itself.