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Europe’s 100 Best Cathedrals by Simon Jenkins

26 November 2021

William Whyte reviews Simon Jenkins’s latest selection of churches

THIS Christmas, remember the poor people of Vézelay. Proud of their ancient Burgundian abbey, they will doubtless be pleased to learn that it has found a place in Europe’s 100 Best Cathedrals. They are, however, destined to disappointment. Despite its obvious beauty, which is well illustrated in a gorgeous photograph, and despite its description as “impressive”, “immaculate”, “serene”, and “pretty”, they will find that the abbey rates only one star out of a possible five. But perhaps they should be grateful for even that. Vézelay is not a cathedral. It doesn’t really belong in this book at all.

Yet Vézelay is, in many respects, typical of Simon Jenkins’s latest venture. Europe’s 100 Best Cathedrals is beautifully illustrated with sumptuous images selected by that peerless picture editor Cecilia Mackay. It is cheerfully opinionated and fluently written. It is healthily arbitrary in its mark scheme, and largely disregards official definitions in favour of the author’s own preferences. It is, as a result, a huge amount of fun.

The whole volume, indeed, is as much an invitation to debate as it is a guide book. If St Peter’s in Rome is “Christendom’s most spectacular creation”, then why does it rate only four stars? Is it more wrong to award only one star to Charlemagne’s great chapel at Aachen, or to include it in the book when it became a cathedral only in 1802, a thousand years after it was first built?

Those who love the architecture of Eastern Europe are likely to resent the fact that nowhere rates more than three stars — and that includes St Basil’s, in Moscow; St Vitus’s, in Prague; and even Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul. Those who adore Notre-Dame in Paris may equally object to the writing off of its nave as “gloomy and rather narrow”, filled “with the clutter of a theme park”.

123RF.COM/GIOVANNI SIMEONEAn interior view of St Mark’s, Venice, from the book. This basilica cattedrale patriarcale is given five stars

Pious Roman Catholics would be forgiven from recoiling at Jenkins’s account of his visit to Burgos Cathedral, which he finds “heavy with the clutter of centuries of Catholic worship”. “Indigestible to those of a sensitive disposition”, all this stuff propels the author out “for a stiff Protestant drink”. But that, of course, is all part of the enjoyment.

This is the latest in a long line of similarly beautiful and equally provoking books. And Jenkins knows his job well. He is a smart, well-informed, and attractive companion who teases his readers and quietly educates them, too.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

Europe’s 100 Best Cathedrals
Simon Jenkins
Viking £30
Church Times Bookshop £25

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