Friday, January 11, 2013

Middle-aged Cathedrals as cultural mirrors

In order to help me process Europe, and its accompanying museums, galleries and cathedrals, I’ve been reading A History of the World in 100 Objects. It’s a great book. It takes 100 objects from the British museum. Not just high profile items, but also ordinary things like wine jugs and loose change. And places them in context and culture. And so provides windows into cultures and patterns and ways of being through time and space.

Object number 20 was the statue of Ramesses II. I read it the day we visited the Cathedral at Cologne. Described as an Everest among cathedrals, it is one of the largest in the world in floor area. I must confess to having a rather allergic reaction to cathedrals. I struggle with the fusion with military conquest, with the way God is imaged as remote, so inaccessible in the height of roof and distant altar.

So what does this have to do with the Statue of Ramses II?

This serenely smiling sculpture is not the creation of an individual artist, but the achievement of a whole society – the result of a huge, complex process of engineering and logistics – in many ways much closer to building a motorway than making a work of art.

So a cathedral is much more than a reflection of God and church. It’s also about society. How a town can show off their organisation and culture, their ability to plan, resource, be a team.

It’s also a way for artists to participate. I mean, there were no galleries back then. So you can have your work locked up in kings collections. Or brought by wealthy benefactors. All remove your work from the public. Or participate in cathedrals, thus engaging the public.

In other words, I need to understand cathedrals within their cultural context. And to appreciate how they flow within a society, in community rather than through an individual “God and me” lens. They are mirrors not just off the church, but of the whole of society.

Posted by steve at 04:56 AM

1 Comment

  1. Steve there is a series that ABC recently aired from the UK called ‘Pillars of the Earth”. It is the story of the Kingsbridge community and priory in the building of the cathedral. Though it is obviously a fiction story based on a historical community and cathedral.
    One of the main characters, Jack the Builder, shares something very similar to you final comments. The cathedral, for him and the community, became as much a symbol of the community who built it as an expression of God greatness.

    Comment by Matthew Stuart — January 11, 2013 @ 7:21 am

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