Heaven On Earth

Emma J. Wells

The epic stories behind these vast structures are told in a new book.
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Across medieval Europe, people of all ages and backgrounds united in daily labours that echoed the biblical construction of Babel’s great ‘tower with its top in the heavens’, as described in Genesis. They harnessed themselves like animals to wagons, dragging stone from quarries and hauling wood, grain, and other provisions, while an ever-present hum of song reverberated off the stones as they toiled. All were on an effort to build Heaven on Earth.

Usurping the ‘Romanesque’ – that solid, robust, earthbound architecture indebted to classical antecedents – the great age of cathedral building in the Middle Ages would become associated, stylistically, with something quite different: Gothic. No one called it that the time, however. The ‘Father of Art History’, Giorgio Vasari, even lambasted it as ‘monstrous, barbarous and disorderly’. In reality, Gothic had nothing to do with Goths. And yet, it is now virtually inseparable from our very image of the word ‘cathedral’.

York Minster Chapter House. Credit: Creative Commons.

With Gothic came the dawning of a new era. Characterized by pointed arches, rib vaults, flying buttresses, and expansive stained-glass windows, this remarkable flowering of ecclesiastical architecture triggered an explosion of cathedral-building across western Europe. An enterprise of ‘cathedral makers’, sustained by kings, chapters, abbots and nobles of high society, mobilised a quest to literally build God’s kingdom on terra firma.

The stories behind these magnificent skyscrapers of glass and stone – the great cathedrals – are some of the most epic sagas in history. While many have chronicled their builders, style, and construction, this book is the first to bring together, under one roof, all aspects of their living histories, chipping away at previously unexamined details to reveal a fresh interpretation of these feats of imagination, engineering and mystery that we think we know so well. The stories contained within the fabric of great churches are not always reverentially dignified and certainly rarely – if ever – stories of perfection. Herein lie tales of calamities, of towering infernos and collapsing towers, of comical mistakes and bodge-jobs too, not to mention blatant vandalism. The fabric is both a roster and relic of the stories and characters responsible for their creation.

Transporting the reader from the chaotic atmosphere of the masons’ yard to the cloisters of power, each of the sixteen chapters is a journey of exploration through a glittering sequence of iconic structures, starting in sixth-century Constantinople and ending in fifteenth-century Florence, while taking in sites including Saint-Denis, Notre-Dame, Wells, Canterbury, Chartres, Salisbury, York Minster, and Santiago de Compostela en-route. Much more than a series of individual biographies of the buildings, Heaven on Earth is a human story set against the backdrop of the most astonishing achievements of Western culture, providing the reader with a sense of walking through this glorious so-called Age of Faith. Together, the stories reveal how these physical embodiments of Heaven helped shape modern Europe and changed the world – each a story more riveting than the next.

Emma J. Wells is the author of Heaven on Earth: The Lives and Legacies of the World’s Greatest Cathedrals.