In the years before our lives became eclipsed by the challenges of this pandemic era, we witnessed the rise of social media activism across platforms; a generation rose to fight for justice.
On the 15th of April 2019, a different sort of hashtag began to trend. Social media feeds became inundated with the arresting image of the world’s most famous cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris, alight against the mid-afternoon sky. The single burning spire of a medieval building in Paris triggered a global sense of solidarity; regardless of race, colour or creed, the world was briefly united in the tragedy of Notre Dame de Paris.
Even as a protestant with no personal connection to the building, I found myself struck with the same grief and wondering why.
Ask any stranger to consider the church and the image that comes to mind is the Gothic cathedral. Glorious monuments of stone that dominate the landscape of cities and townships the world over.
They might describe its stained-glass windows lighting every gilded and decorated corner of the structure in streams of coloured light. Despite the corruption often associated with the medieval church of Europe, the intention of the Gothic cathedral was not as a display of wealth and power, rather an act of worship and invitation.
To set the scene, the influence of the 12th century medieval church of Europe had proliferated into social, political, and personal spheres across Europe. The successes of the crusades had supplied the church with an abundance of wealth and zealous supporters.
Meanwhile, the limited size of church buildings was constrained by the architectural limitations of the time. The cultural segregation of the clerical, noble and common classes led to disunity of congregation. Wycliffe and Luther would not be born for another few hundred years, and aside from a few common language passages, scripture was entirely inaccessible to the laity.
Even much of the clergy remained illiterate and uneducated in scripture, as nepotism was commonplace in the medieval church. The body of Christ was being held together by loose tendons.
Enter the Abbot of St. Denis. In a mission to break down the social, linguistic and structural barriers that impeded the spread of the gospel and contributed to the disordered state of the congregation, Abbot Suger embarked on the truly monumental task of remodelling the abbey.
With Paul’s letter to the Galatians as the spiritual blueprint for his cathedral, Suger commissioned his master builder to create a space that united the people of St Denis in the knowledge of Christ as they had united under their king. It is this creative venture that was the inception of Gothic architecture.
Taking inspiration from Romanesque and Middle Eastern architecture which had become accessible due to the crusades, Suger and his builder developed advances in building practices that had never been seen in Europe.
The flying buttress
The flying buttress to support the building from the outside was a significant innovation. The high vaulted ceilings and arches starkly contrasted with the shallow, dark halls of the day; allowing space for the entire township to gather to worship. It was these structural developments that allowed perhaps the most iconic and purposeful feature of the cathedral, its stained-glass windows.
The significance of these advances was not in the monument itself, rather the evangelistic opportunity it afforded. Imagine yourself as a Medieval commoner. You’ve never read; in fact, you may never have understood a full sermon, only fragments of the Latin that resembled your own dialect.
You recite the catechism and creed, but never have had scripture illuminated; until you walk through the door of Suger’s cathedral. You see the stories of God’s faithfulness throughout the Old Testament; the ram sent to Abraham in Isaac’s place, the Red Sea parted, on each window a new story and at the centre of it all, a man slain on a cross.
It’s suddenly clear; that man is Jesus Christ, the Son of God who died in my place and rose again!
The Gothic cathedral of St. Denis was born from a dream that broke barriers of class and united the scattered unto Christ. It is no surprise that the fire of Notre Dame de Paris united masses, it stands as a symbol of the truth as written by Paul,
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. (Galatians chapter 3, verse 28)
This generation craves truth and justice, it craves oneness with a saviour it simply has not yet seen. Suger took his vision of the gospel and translated it into stone and glass that has stood the test of time. It is our turn to take what we have; dreams, expertise, resources, and engage our creativity and our faith to illuminate the gospel for those who’ve not yet seen Jesus Christ. As it is inscribed on the door at St. Denis:
“…Bright is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work
Should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the
To the True Light where Christ is the true door…” (Suger)
Laura Wardrop has undertaken further study in the areas of Linguistics, Art, and Ministry. She currently works a graphic artist and painter, and takes a keen interest in exploring all areas of human creativity as a reflection of God’s character. She lives with her husband Stephen and two children in Brisbane.