“The Love Of Christ Jesus”/The Great Cathedrals

A Christ Filled Life – Getting To Know Jesus

I recently watched a Nova Presentation on “Building the Great Cathedrals”.  They ask “How did the medieval engineers construct magnificent skyscrapers of stone and glass?  Aired October 5, 2011.

Notre Dame de ParisDuomo di Milano, Northwest view

Notre Dame de Paris and Duomo di Milano northwest view

  Carved from 100 million pounds of stone, some cathedrals now teeter on the brink of catastrophic collapse.  From the moment they appear in Europe, about a thousand years ago, they spark an intense rivalry between cities. They consume the labor of entire towns, sometimes taking a hundred years to build. With just hand tools and stone, master craftsmen find ways to defy gravity, pushing to greater and greater heights.  What pushed cathedral builders to such dangerous heights? Experts explore a radical new theory: medieval builders used sacred numbers from the Bible as a blueprint.  Amazingly, Gothic engineers built thin, super-tall walls, made, not of stone, but mostly of glass. And somehow, these walls of windows support towering ceilings of stone. How did medieval builders pull off such a dramatic transformation?  Taller than the ancient pyramids in Egypt, large enough to hold the Statue of Liberty; a hundred million pounds of stone, seemingly weightless, yet as heavy as the Empire State Building. This is a revolution in building: Gothic cathedrals.

Medieval glass builders construct a kaleidoscope of colors, from which they create enormous, intricately detailed stained glass windows like never before.  These walls of glass depict narratives from the Bible, like Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  At Notre Dame of Paris, perhaps the best-known Gothic cathedral, Stefaan van Liefferinge, a physicist turned art historian, uses a laser scanner to investigate.  He measures the height of the church’s two levels. Each measures 32.8 feet. But medieval builders used a different unit of measurement.  If you translate it in Royal feet, which is the medieval unit, then that would be about thirty Royal feet for the lower level, and thirty Royal feet for the higher level.  The combined height is 60 Royal feet. These figures, 30 and 60, are strangely familiar to van Liefferinge. At one of France’s oldest libraries, the Bibliotèque Mazarine, he searches a medieval book written by the priest in charge of building Notre Dame.   What we have here is a manuscript from the turn of the 12th century which is a text that was composed by the chancellor of Notre Dame, Peter Comestor.   Called the Historia Scholastica, the priest wrote this book during the cathedral’s construction. He fixates on a passage in the Old Testament: a detailed description of the Temple of Solomon, in Jerusalem, which the Bible refers to as God’s house on Earth. Here, van Liefferinge finds an intriguing clue.  (Translating from Latin): “It was thirty cubits high, up to the first floor, upon which a second dwelling was built up to the second floor, also of thirty cubits.  This manuscript reveals that, to the builders of Notre Dame, the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple were profoundly important: 30 cubits to the first level, and 60 cubits to the second level. These numbers are built into Notre Dame.

In an age when few people can read and write, stained glass windows become the multimedia stories of their day, the Bible written in light.  These vast spaces, surrounded by towering walls of colored light, lifted medieval minds out of the dirt and darkness of daily life, creating an otherworldly experience.  What would have impressed an ordinary visitor the most is the incredible size and scale. They would hear the Mass performed, experience all the sights the sounds, the aromas of incense.  People could really experience, vicariously, Heaven on Earth.  The purpose of these immense, sacred spaces was spiritual: to bring ordinary people closer to God.

More to come and God Bless You.



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