I feel that it is important to remind readers that PJ and I are not practicing Christians and this blog is not intended to preach, convert, or apologize. We are simply trying to understand these churches which speak so powerfully to us. They awake in us sensations and thoughts which we try to express with our photography. Inevitably, they speak in the tongue of which they were formed – a medieval Christianity that we both admire greatly. And they point to the possibility of the divine, a presence we feel within so many of these stone walls.
People too often look through the telescopic lens of history and see the world as a progression, getting better or growing from one age to the next, each a transition from the one that preceded. While there is necessarily cause and effect from age to age, there is not necessarily reason to the rhyme. Disease may follow from a genetic predisposition, but it may be kindled by something else, something in the world around us. The genetic predisposition may be dormant without a catalyst.
If we look at the Romanesque as the genetic precursor to the Gothic, which surely sprang from its loins fully formed, we then tend to dismiss the Romanesque as merely a precursor. We forget that Gothic was a new form. Like the monastic-inspired Romanesque it was an expression of Christian belief and created extraordinary houses for the worship of God. It used the same building methods (or those derived directly from the Romanesque) and the same materials. It occurred in the same place, built by the same masons. But it’s purpose diverged in order to express something different, a secular perspective.
In this way the world changes over time, growing and contracting as a living entity. But if we do not look at the Romanesque through the lens of history, but instead look at it as a completed moment in time, something remarkable appears. It has been for good reason called the Age of Faith because it was a time where the entire social structure of Western Europe was united within a single system of belief. The law of God ruled completely and bent Counts, Kings and Emperors to its moral authority.
That system of Christian belief found its expression in hard, durable stone, molded with infinite care and thought by builders who didn’t even possess a ruler. A geometry as pure and expressive as scholasticism was the only tool necessary for the design; such a tool was sophisticated enough to calculate the cutting of stones on a quadripartite vault and could at the same time express the seven deadly sins or the Passion of Christ.
We are lucky to have thousands of reminders of that gift of that medieval world, the beautiful Romanesque churches of France. We can never fully understand their wonder and glory. They are more than buildings, more than art; something intangible was built into their stones and fired into their glass. The work of a man or a woman, another man or woman may understand. But these are the work of ages, of nations, of a civilization. They were parts of a marvelous drama, the ceremonial life of a people.
In their monuments, nothing is obvious, nothing is merely clever. Nothing is individual or marked out as artistic. They are as serene and perfect as a wonder of nature.