Wednesday, February 01, 2012

What is a Cathedral?

As I prepare for our trip to Europe, I have now finished my first Great Courses lecture series by William Kloss, World's Greatest Paintings. This morning, I started a new series, this one by Professor William R Cook, entitled The Cathedral. The first lecture was titled What is a cathedral? This is what I learned...
After the 1st century, when Jesus' apostles had all died, each community started having a local bishop who had authority in his region. These were small groups who often met either in secret or quietly because of persecution. In the fourth century, however, Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian and he legalized Christianity. Because of this, Christianity grew rapidly and the Christians were not being persecuted. And, the church starts to accumulate wealth.

(Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland - the only cathedral I've visited...yet!)

Each bishop, who was in charge of a region, sat in a seat called a cathedra. With larger numbers of Christians/Catholics, they erected buildings to house the cathedras, thus creating the first cathedrals. As the Roman Empire collapsed, the bishops role became larger. The people lived under "canon law" - the law of the church which was administered by the bishop sitting on his cathedra. Besides law, the bishops also had a political role since there were no Roman administrators left.
The bishops became very wealthy as the people gave gifts of land, jewels, gold, etc. Perhaps the gifts were of a pious nature, or perhaps they were trying to gain religious favor. The bishops used the wealth to create enormous cathedrals.
Relics were kept inside of the cathedrals. The relics were bones or other parts of the bodies of saints or other religious martyrs. These relics were believed to be powerful, so many people made pilgrimages to the cathedrals that housed these relics. One example is Canterbury Cathedral which housed the bones of the Holy Blissful Martyr, Saint Thomas Becket of Canterbury. This pilgrimage is the basis for Chaucer's book, The Canterbury Tales.
Why did the cathedrals need to be so big? One of the main reason was to house all of its members during feast days, which could be for the 'big' religious holidays (like Easter) or for local Saint's days. Also, baptisms were often held here. The baptisms could be collective for many babies, perhaps on a Saint's day, or could be for the child of an important family.
The cathedrals you can visit today are usually still in use and have goen through a lot of repair and remodeling. They are NOT museums. They do not look exactly like they did when they were first built. Some reasons include:
  • damage from revolutions (like the French Revolution)
  • damage from the Protestant Reformation
  • damage and abandonment by Communist governments
  • damage from wars (like WWI and WWII)
  • damage by natural disasters like fire and earthquakes
  • damage of erosion and discoloration by industrial pollution
Most of the lectures will cover Gothic Cathedrals which started in France so that will be the focus of the lectures. The term "Gothic" wasn't used until the 18th century. This style of building was considered "primitive" and representative of the superstitious medieval Catholic church. Gothic referred to the Germanic tribe of Goths so it meant they were "barbarian."

1 comment:

Melissa Telling said...

Very informative. I'm glad to see you're blogging again. :-)

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