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Heaven on Earth: The lives and legacies of the world’s greatest cathedrals by Emma J. Wells

23 December 2022

Janet Gough reviews cathedral storytelling

INTEREST in historic church buildings is enjoying a renaissance. Perhaps it started with Ken Follett’s 1989 Pillars of the Earth. Who would have thought that a novel on the building of a cathedral in the aftermath of the 1130s English Civil War could be so gripping? Certainly, by 2016, people were talking about Simon Jenkins’s England’s Cathedrals and eagerly awaiting his 2021 Europe’s 100 Best Cathedrals. Then, last July, at a time of peak political turmoil, The Sunday Times devoted its page 3 to a spread on Lincoln Cathedral. Now, after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Westminster Abbey and St George’s Chapel have become even more familiar.

So, Emma Wells’s Heaven on Earth, combining an academic approach with captivating storytelling to describe 16 cathedrals, should find a receptive audience.

It is beautifully illustrated, with a helpful ground plan at the beginning of each chapter. The premise is that Europe’s great cathedrals tell the story of Christianity. Specifically, in her introduction, Wells argues that “these great multifaceted buildings were attempts to make the spiritual concrete”, and “represent symbolic voyages between this world and the next”.

Wells tells the stories of the people and politics behind the often centuries-long building, extending, repairing, and reshaping of cathedrals, beginning with Emperor Justinian’s remarkable, ornate church of Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, which became a mosque, a museum, and now a mosque again, and influenced many (including Christopher Wren). It ends with Brunelleschi’s 1435 cupola for Florence Cathedral, which “synthesized Gothic configuration and Neo-classical style”.

With Gothic as the backbone to the book, the chapter on Abbot Suger’s “Festival of light, the basilica-cathedral of St-Denis, Paris” is central in explaining Opus Modernum: Suger’s term for architecture that let maximum light into a church. We witness “Cults of the Carts”, and labyrinths, and follow the 13th-century draftsman Villard de Honnecourt.

AlamyA photo of the interior of the central dome of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, used in the book, which is our Christmas Crossword prize this year

Wells starts each chapter graphically, with a church builder and his motives for (re)building a great church, emphasising the ongoing challenge of raising funds. She sets out circumstances and obsessions, from building shrines for still-to-be-canonised local saints (key to revenue generation) to establishing cathedral status, ranking (York alongside Canterbury), and establishing Reims for French coronations. Town versus church, riots, structural weaknesses, fires, towers collapsing — we experience it all, including greedy and evil motives, and nasty, often legalised retribution.

Perhaps we could have learned a little more about the goodness of those who, against all the odds, caused these ambitious, beautiful, and holy buildings to be built to transport us to heaven.

Heaven on Earth is timely and brave, and contains much information and drama. I admire the ambition if I cannot vouch for all the stories. The book demonstrates thoroughly how buildings encompass our histories. The cameras inside Westminster Abbey for the recent state funeral were marvellous, but nothing beats visiting and experiencing a cathedral in person: one’s own heaven on earth. Wells’s book encourages us to do just that.

Janet Gough is a writer and lecturer on cathedrals and church buildings. Her latest book is Cathedral Treasures of England and Wales: Deans’ Choice (Scala, 2022).

Heaven on Earth
: The lives and legacies of the world’s greatest cathedrals
Emma J. Wells
Head of Zeus £40
Church Times Bookshop £36

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