At the core of this project to document and explore the great Romanesque and Gothic churches of France and Spain lies a mystery. In this world “cloaking itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches” (the French monk Raoul Glaber wrote that after the turn of the millennium it seemed that “the whole world were shaking itself free, shrugging off the burden of the past, and cladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches”), our question is “Who were the builders?” Who were the people who, uncompelled, built their thousands of shrines that have lasted a thousand years? Their archives have disappeared, so often we don’t even know their names. But merely knowing their names would not tell us anything about who they were and how they came to perform such tasks. What kind of belief impelled and motivated them? That is the mystery we explore.
Three great ethical systems emerged from the Arabian deserts. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam shared a God, prophets, and a great text. Judaism was insular, however, the religion of a specific people. They were not intent on converting others. The Jewish faith always existed as the faith of a people obeying a covenant with their God, a people surrounded by others with different religions. Their faith marked them out as different, but that people had a home in which their laws were primary. They were confident in the superiority of their religion.
Christianity and Islam were different, more aggressive. The Christians emerged as a sect with no home, persecuted everywhere. In order to survive, they had to convert, to demonstrate to others the superiority of their religious beliefs. Conversion became a key goal of the religion so that it might survive in a world hostile to its very existence. The fledgling church used the abuses against the believers as a powerful weapon – the passion of martyrdom was proof of the enduring powers of their faith and their God. Eventually the Christians converted not only people, but the greatest political structure in the western world, the Roman empire.
Four centuries later, a third religion emerged from that same hard-scrabble Arabian soil. With the fresh energy of the newly birthed, Islam spread like a rushing tide across the Middle East, North Africa, and into Europe. Fueled by the twin confidences of belief and success, the Muslims seemed unstoppable. In Europe, they came into contact with a religion with the same antecedents, and that contact incited their enmity. Christianity was an older and seemingly corrupt relation. The conflict was of the peculiar destructive violence common to internecine warfare. It was a war of extermination. The threat of this war cut deep into the fragmented Christian society.
The Christian monastic orders were the mortar of society, the bond that kept it together. Through these orders, Christian Europe began to defend itself, not just in arms but philosophically. The Church needed to restate its very identity. That restatement was powerful and profound. The Christian identity was re-imagined completely, not merely rediscovered. The Church incorporated the new learning of the day – the sciences of logic and philosophy. In doing so, Christian Europe managed two monumental feats; they united faith and intellect and they transmuted stone into an expression of faith.
We are concerned with this second achievement, sending stone soaring to the heavens.