I visited my first cathedral aged ten. I remember three things about it; 1) the vast height, 2) my uncontrollable hiccupping spell which interrupted the guide’s tour every 3 seconds, and 3) being bought a book about cathedral architects on the way out. It was in Portugal on holiday with my family and I’d already read all the books I’d brought with me. The cathedral book was the only English-language book my parents could find for me. I didn’t mind. It contained a dramatic account of an architect betting his life that his vaulted ceiling would hold and sleeping under it to prove his point.
Since then my knowledge of cathedrals has increased via visits to St Paul’s in London, Malta, Notre Dame and St. Chapelle in Paris and more. So when I spotted “The Age of Cathedrals” on the 501 list I decided to improve my architectural trivia base.
Duby’s book, which I had to source second-hand from Oxfam, was written in the 1960s and covers 980-1420 so includes Romanesque and Gothic buildings. What I hadn’t realised was that it covers a lot more than just architecture. It’s a social history of the world surrounding the cathedrals. Why were they built? By whom? With whose money? As society emerged from feudal times and edged towards the Italian renaissance, it was a time of huge flux in religious beliefs and in the power structures of the world, not to mention the Crusades and their influence on faith, populations, and economies.
The book is packed with facts about life of the time. Although I had understood that the carvings around church doorways were meant to educate an illiterate poor, I had no idea how influential cathedrals were in fighting particular heresies, or rival dogmas, of their day. Duby doesn’t limit himself to cathedrals and social history either as he shows how the art of cathedrals led to free-standing sculptures, commissions for secular patrons and beyond. Did you know that the first portraits sprang from effigy tombstones or that the first painted landscape was to illustrate Good Governance on a municipal building in Siena?
The book is fascinating but I would have a few quibbles about it. 1) the illustrations in my edition were only referenced in the final chapter and all located at the back. 2) Georges Duby is French and I would know that even without reading his author bio because he barely mentions the work of Irish and Scottish monasteries in preserving religious art in the years up to 980. In fact it nearly kills him to admit that the artistic torch later passed on to Italy for the renaissance. 3) the book took me months to read (interspersed with other novels) because the information is so densely packed that I barely managed ten pages at a time before needing a break.
So who would like this book? Any reader with an interest in European history, art, or art history. But be prepared for a long and detailed read. This is not a page-turner, but you will learn about the origins of art in Europe, and much more. If you want something lighter, try Ken Follett’s excellent “Pillars of the Earth” fictional, but well-researched, novel about the building of a cathedral in England during the same period.
(read June-September 2012)