Cathedrals and the Crosstown Bus

Viewed through the radiant trefoil window of aesthetics, my love of Gothic architecture is boundless. Approached through the tighter, denser lens of prayer, however, that love shrinks. It pales and contracts to where I can barely see it. If at all.



The Cloister of Gloucester Cathedral


Christianity’s great truths come to us through a Nazarene carpenter—a tekton, a builder—whose handiwork we have no clue to. Neither do we have the faintest inkling of his response to Herod’s monumental temple complex. The whole of it, with its plaza, porticos, columns, and stairs was a glory of limestone, marble and gold. Yet Jesus directed eyes to the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, to bread, weeds and mustard seeds.

His inattention to cultivated Herodian aesthetics mortifies me some. It pulls me back—sometimes not far enough—from making a golden calf of my own sensibilities and everything they revel in. Once destined for the faithful, Christendom’s magnificent cathedrals remain great goods. But they are not ultimate goods. And when we honor them as ends in themselves, we fall into idolatry. 

Kathe Kollwitz. Woman with a Dead Child (1903)


Gerard Manley Hopkins, a theologian of surpassing lyricism, condensed into a single exquisite stanza all a Christian needs to know—or say—about beauty:

. . . Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

To the Father through the features of men’s faces. The call to charity implicit in that line is the governing principle and crown of the gospels. I cannot dislodge it from memory. It repeats like a mantra, an unceasing reminder that compassion—caritas—is a vehicle for worship. And that our faith is simpler than we make it. Simpler, certainly, than the grandees of theological aesthetics would have us believe.

The greatest cathedral of all, the only one capable of rising to the Paraclete, is the suffering human being next to us. Until we can worship on the crosstown bus, we have yet to greet the living God. 

Kathe Kollwitz. The Widow (1922-23).

Rodin’s “Cathedrals of France”

I should like to inspire a love for this great art, to come to the rescue of as much of it as still remains intact; to save for our children the great lesson of this past which the present misunderstands.

In this desire I strive to awaken intellects and hearts to understanding and to love.

—Auguste Rodin, The Cathedrals of France





August Rodin was an aggressive womanizer well into old age. The love of beauty that served him nobly as a sculptor served him as a man with notable difference. Francis Haskell described him as “Never a man of much moral conviction except in the practice and defense of his art.” For now, then, better to stay with the sculptor’s love of beauty as it manifested itself in his passionate admiration for Christendom’s exalted monuments.

Rodin kept voluminous notes but wrote only one book: Cathedrals of France, originally published in France in 1914 when Rodin was seventy four. It was not translated into English until a half century later. Beacon Press made up for that surprising lapse with its beautifully printed 1965 edition, illustrated with sketches from the notebooks.





The text is not an architectural treatise. It makes no attempt at scholarly appraisal or methodical observation. Compiled day by day through periodic visits to numerous cathedrals, it is thoroughly the work of an artist justifying his personal attachments. And doing so in terms of his craft.

Over decades, Rodin took notes on what he observed and made quick pen or pencil sketches. In 1908 he hired a secretary—first the Symbolist poet Charles Morice, down on his luck; then Rilke—to cull the cathedral passages in preparation for publication. He intended to reignite public sensitivity to the dignity and majesty of their Romanesque and Gothic heritage. (And, it should be added, to spur support for his own sculptural canons which absorbed so much from Gothic accommodation of chiaroscuro.) “The whole of France is in her cathedrals” he wrote, “as all Greece is epitomized by the Parthenon.”

It is open to question just how much the tenor of Rodin’s prose,  often mounting  to Symbolist excess and strains of Mallarmé, is owed to Charles Morice:

This is a morning painted by Claude Lorrain, admirable in depth. Spring is here. I breathe in the delight of spring mornings. The rooster announces the day. An immense sigh is exhaled. Oh marvel! The earth in love! Fresh and happy landscape!

Nevertheless, the bases of judgment are indisputably Rodin’s own. We are the richer for them, informed in their point and sweep by the knowledge of classical antiquity, especially Greek art and history.

Today’s readers need to discount for an overstrung chauvinism that is part ethnocentricity, part disdain for the character of modernity itself. Rodin had little patience for what he saw as the mechanized products and systems of the industrial age:

Will the genius of our race end by passing away like those pale ghosts and vanished forms that no one sees any more? Was it in historical or mythical times that the Cathedral, rowing through space by its buttresses, all sails unfurled, the French ship, the French victory, made beautiful as for Eternity, spread open at its apse the wings of a group of kneeling angels? . . .

But architecture no longer touches us. The rooms in which we consent to live are without character. They are boxes crammed helter-skelter with furniture. . . . How can we understand the profound unity of the great Gothic symphony?

In respect to the frequent crudity of nineteenth century efforts at restoration, Rodin’s distaste for modernity was both well earned and, at the same time, more modern than he knew. His championing of the Gothic seconded Victor Hugo’s earlier defense of the preservation of historic buildings. (“He understood as a poet; for cathedrals are vast poems.”) Rodin lent his voice to the still-young movement to codify principles and practices in maintaining cultural heirlooms. Reading his appraisals of vandalism in the name of restoration remain as instructive now as they were in the early twentieth century.

He was hostile to any method that spoiled the old in order to harmonize it with the new. Commenting on the pediment of Reims, he distinguished between the damaged but still original right gable and its retouched pendant piece. The right gable, untouched, still carried the power to arouse the sculptor’s enthusiasm. Not so its reconstructed companion:

But see how the other gable, restored, remade, is dishonored. The planes no longer exist. It is heavy, worked frontally, without profiles, without equilibrium of volumes. For the Cathedral, which leans forward, this gable is an enormous weight with no counterbalancing weight. Oh, this Christ on the Cross, restored in the 19th century! The iconoclast who believed he had ruined the gable did it no great harm. But the ignorant restorer! . . . By such heavy restoration the equilibrium is changed.

As if it were possible to repair these figures and ornament battered by the centuries! Such an idea could be born in minds that are strangers to the nature of art and to all truth.

Rodin’s personal life exemplified that lack of reciprocity between love of beauty and moral action that beauty cultists pull the shades on. Viewed in light of a bevy of mistresses scrapping over his will with a better-late-than-never mistress-made-wife, his many references to the female form and the feminine nuances of rounded elements resonate in unintended ways. Chaste analogies to architecture do not quite disguise the concupiscence that lurks even in chatter of the transcendental kind. Rodin makes of Woman—how to say it—a lovely piece of architectural moulding. Like Venus de Milo (“first source of nourishment for my intellect”), she is all graceful convexities. And, like a curving balustrade, inviting to the hand.

The fulsomeness of nineteenth century French prose aside, Rodin succeeds in revealing “the grandeurs of the Gothic soul” better than your Michelin Green Guide. There are no obligatory sights to consume. There is only the spirit of place to greet and savor. Episodic and personal, Cathedrals of France is a series of lyrical associations and descriptions that direct attention to minor churches such as those at  Chambord or Étampes. As Rodin knew: “We often learn far more from small things than from great ones.” And with him as company, we look at buildings more sympathetically as anatomies—embodiments of an élan that is so much more than style.