Cathedrals–built to eternally impress and inspire
Authors' note: This is the 15th in a series of blogs about our adventures traveling in Europe in 2019. They will appear here on the fourth Thursday every month, and will eventually be compiled into a book entitled: Taking Chances, or How to See the World Living with Chronic Illness.
When we planned our Scottish trip with Henning, our itinerary included no specific visits to any churches or houses of worship. But Linda and I were planning to be in England, Wales and Northumberland for over 2 weeks before meeting Henning in Scotland. It would be our fourth U.K. visit over a span of 40 years, and there were “bucket list” items we wanted to see, cathedrals and abbeys among them. Gothic cathedrals, especially, have always held a special place of admiration and excitement for all three of us.
Designed to reach heavenward, Gothic cathedrals did so by soaring to unparalleled heights for their time. Buttressed walls featuring jewel-toned, stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings defining sacred spaces built centuries ago are still masterpieces of architecture and engineering. To me there are no more impressive structures built by humans than cathedrals. I am not particularly religious, yet they make my heart leap each time I enter them. They fill me with awe.
Three such cathedrals were possibly the defining points on our entire trip to the U.K. and Denmark. They provided the ultimate reward for all the planning and research that such a journey entails when one is traveling under the constraints of chronic illness.
Wells and its unique “scissors arches”
I first saw Wells Cathedral during an art history lecture in college and always wanted to visit. The cathedral, dedicated to St. Andrew and begun in 1176, is in the small, ancient city of Wells in Somerset, not far from Bath in southwest England. On previous trips we had toured the giants of English cathedrals, York Minster and Durham. Wells definitely made the list in 2019.
Shortly after our arrival in Wells, we set off on the public footpath from our rural B&B, the cathedral towers beckoning in the distance. The view resembled a landscape by Constable. A place of quiet majesty and timelessness.
Wells is a gem of a still very active religious community inside a walled city. Named for its famed fresh-water wells, discovered by the Romans, the city and the cathedral grew up around them. The ecclesiastical complex includes the Cathedral, Bishop’s Palace and Gardens, and Vicars’ Close, the oldest (15th century), fully intact, purely residential street in Europe.
We took in all of the complex at a leisurely pace over the better part of a day, broken up by lunch in the cathedral café and browsing in the shop.
Wells has been called “unquestionably one of the most beautiful and poetic of English cathedrals.” Its overall design and setting are unmatched. And its breathtaking signature arches, unique to Wells, mark it exceptional and unforgettable.
I couldn’t wait to see the cathedral interior with its famed St. Andrew’s Cross arches, popularly known as ‘scissors arches’ because of their unique curves. The design grew not from the whim of the stonemason, but the necessity of keeping the cathedral’s tower from sinking. Created by master mason William Joy in 1338, the arches proved a brilliant solution. The tower hasn’t moved since.
Around midday, the 67-foot-high nave reverberated with the sounds of an organ recital. The excellent docent for our guided tour reminded us that the nave originally didn’t have seating. It was built for spectacle. Colorful processions and music were very important in the days when most people couldn’t read. Church was really theatre. Later we walked through the Vicars’ Close in the rain hearing strains of the current residents practicing on their instruments.
The Bishop’s Palace and Gardens make for an enchanting visit and symbolize the power and influence of the bishopric of Wells and Bath. The palace isn’t open to the public (the bishop still lives and works there), but the gardens, whoa. They are a voyage of discovery. Formal gardens, mimicking the X-shaped cross of St. Andrew and window tracery from the cathedral, give way to “natural” landscapes of astonishing textures. An ancient stone well house marks the water sources that gave the city its name. And then there are the swans.
Swans have inhabited the gardens since Victorian times. Shortly before we visited, the gardens welcomed a new pair of swans, Grace and Gabriel. Not long after we visited, they produced a cygnet. You can follow the swans on the Bishop’s Palace website. They have their own Swan Cam.
Serendipity in Glasgow
As we’ve mentioned many times before in this blog series, “we always allowed serendipity to slip unexpectedly into our travel plans.”
Glasgow Cathedral was one of the serendipitous visits we stumbled upon. While touring Glasgow’s eclectic arts and historical museum, the Kelvingrove, I came across a painting of the Glasgow Cathedral, and exclaimed, “I didn’t know Glasgow had a Gothic cathedral! We’ll have to go there.” All three of us have a great love for these magnificent edifices built between the 12th and the 15th century.
I have visited a lot of Gothic cathedrals, from the most famous, Notre Dame in the center of Paris, to countless ones throughout Central Europe, including the largest one in Cologne, Germany. And, like David said, their sheer size is one of the most impressive things about them, that and the fact that massive walls are covered in windows and not stone: stained glass windows, either in the shape of a circle with spokes of spindly stonework, called “rose windows” or in the shape of the traditional Gothic arch, which is characterized by a very pointy apex. The same arch is the most prominent feature of Gothic architecture. They weave in and out of each other in three dimensions, while the entire structure is held together on the outside by flying buttresses so that the enormous building will not collapse under its own weight.
The Glasgow Cathedral, also known as St Mungo’s after the patron saint of Glasgow, is the oldest building in Glasgow still standing, just like it is the oldest cathedral in Scotland. It sits on top of a hill surrounded by a beautiful park with great, old trees that beckoned us to take a stroll in the park before going into the cathedral.
It is up there among the most impressive Gothic cathedrals I have visited. The central nave is 105 feet high, almost as high as the nave of Notre Dame in Paris at 115 feet. It has a timbered roof which is visible, revealing that it was taken over by the Protestant church after the Reformation. Before then it would have been painted brightly with images of famous Bible stories as well as those of different saints. This change in status also meant that none of the stained-glass windows were original. In the 1850s, artisans in Munich, Germany, were commissioned to make new windows for the cathedral but unfortunately, they didn’t last nearly as long as hoped for. So, now the rose window above the South entrance is the only one left from that period.
At the opposite end of the church is the newest window, known as the Millennium Window. It was installed in 1999. The rest of the windows are from the 20th century and created by local artists, many of them with themes that are not directly religious but certainly very stylistically eclectic, from one consisting of entirely clear panes with a crest in the middle of each of the three main sections to others consisting of rather darkly tinted panes with intricate colors, patterns and motifs. It was a lot of fun going from one pane to the next because it was always a surprise what you would find.
Inside the cathedral is a rood screen separating the smaller choir and altar from the nave, which is the main part of the building. This structure was erected to separate the common people from the clergy - commoners in the nave and the clergy in the quire. Even though it was built in the 15th century, the screen is in the traditional Gothic style and looks as old as the rest of the cathedral, with arches and balustrades surrounding its central doorway. This detail in the middle of the cathedral would have been an impressive building all to itself, but it works as an imposing interior divider putting the size of the building into perspective.
Being a “Gothic-cathedral-nutcase,” I will say this one was well worth the visit. The cathedrals that have remained Catholic are usually filled with gaudy paintings, sculptures, stained glass windows, depicting multitudes of saints as well as Jesus, Mary and other Biblical figures. But the Reformed Protestant church tried to strip buildings of most of these references, making cathedrals much more stark. This allows one to observe the magnificence of the building in a different way than when it is filled with art that acts as a veneer. Not that one is better than the other, they are just two very different ways of showing off the might and power the church holds.
And now David will talk about a modern version of the Gothic cathedral that has taken starkness to its extreme.
Copenhagen’s New Old Gothic Cathedral
On the way back home from our day on the Øresund, having dropped off our Viennese friends Helga and Hans at their hotel, Henning had a surprise for Linda and me. He said, "I want to make a slight detour and show you something very special." He wouldn't tell us what it was but knew it would amaze us. Through all our travels, Linda and I have always sought out great architecture. And first among such buildings are cathedrals, especially in England and France, where the Gothic style reached its peak. Henning knew this.
As he directed me through the dark streets of Copenhagen (I was driving), we came upon a very large, very tall edifice in a quiet residential neighborhood. Looming above us over 72 feet high was a modern Gothic cathedral, completed in 1940. Henning called it Grundtvig's Church. I was so impressed, I said, "I need to see this in the daylight. We must we come back tomorrow."
And we did.
The cathedral, named after the famous Danish pastor, philosopher and hymn composer, N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), was designed through a competition in 1913. Construction began on Grundtvig’s birthday in 1921. A good friend of Henning’s lives in the village built around the cathedral to provide a community for the church, almost like a medieval village. She gave us a tour of this impressive edifice.
Impressive as is its exterior, the interior is more stunning—for its modern simplicity, lack of color and soaring vaulted nave. What you see is its magnificent bones: its engineered symmetry and simplicity.
To me, Grundtvig's Church is Danish modern design meets Gothic architecture — very little ornamentation, like most post-Reformation churches, intentionally devoid of color. But like the Gothic style, the emphasis was on height with soaring arched vaulting. I wasn't just impressed; I was blown away. A simple, four-arched altar was made of beige building bricks, and a similar round pulpit seemed more like crow’s nest on a masted ship than the carved wood and gilt altars in most cathedrals. Chandeliers were simple rings of lights, weightless like mobiles suspended in space.
The only bit of ornamentation was a model clipper ship suspended above the floor like the chandeliers. Henning explained this was typical in Danish churches, as it honors the long sailing tradition of this small nation with its heroic Viking explorers. Also, the Danish word for ship, skib, is also the word for nave.