Some of the most beautiful buildings are those that can harness natural light and bring it inside, giving the illusion of being outdoors. Churches in particular are good at this, often being tall buildings with lots of windows. La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona makes you feel as if you are walking in a forest, with the light filtering down through the trees.
St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, though done in a completely different style, is also amazing in this respect. The windows up high in the famous dome let heavenly rays of light come shining down.
Of course, natural light is part of what makes landscapes so compelling. In Ireland, the light is always changing as the clouds move, sometimes intense and sometimes soft. It’s part of what makes the “forty shades of green!”
Sagrada Família Basilica in Barcelona, Spain is a wonder of Modernisme architecture. Although I think of Gaudí’s style as being very rounded and natural, he also uses angles incredibly well. In the Passion façade, he uses stark angles to show the harsh bleakness of Christ’s passion and death.
In the interior, he uses organic angles on the tree-like pillars to give a sense of opening above. And outside, he includes many peaks that point heavenward.
As I mentioned last week in my review of the novel The Pillars of the Earth, the late Gothic period in Spain transitioned into a very ornate style of architecture called Plateresque. The New Cathedral of Salamanca is one example of this style.
Up close, you can see the incredible detail of the facades. “Plateresque” means “in the style of a silversmith,” so there are many little flourishes.
There were some renovations of the exterior done in the 90s, and the builders added their own touches, including this astronaut. See him on the left? It is definitely an unexpected detail!
As an elementary school student, I read a wonderful book called A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver and promptly fell in love with Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Middle Ages, and Abbot Suger’s idea that beautiful things could give glory to God. In his case, “beautiful things” included the first church in the Gothic style at St. Denis in France in the 1140s.
I did not get to see Gothic cathedrals myself until many years later, when I first visited Europe as a university student. I am still mad about them. I have seen many Gothic churches in several countries (though my favorites are in Spain).
From my Spanish art history course, I learned about the architectural transitions from Romanesque to Gothic, then to Plateresque in the late Gothic period and on to the Renaissance.
So it’s no surprise that I would love a novel about the building of a Gothic cathedral. But The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is more than that. This behemoth has hidden depths, and it made its way onto the top 100 list for the Great American Read for a reason.
Palma de Mallorca Cathedral, La Seu
Palma rose window
The novel works on several levels. At its most basic, it is a family drama, chronicling the struggles and joys of life over several generations. Tom the builder, his stepson Jack, the earl’s daughter Aliena, and the new earl William all deal with matters of life, love, and death, all watched over by Prior Philip, the leader of the Kingsbridge monks.
Choir of Burgos Cathedral
The setting of a village in England in the 1100s adds another layer of historical fiction, with such details as how cloth was felted, what people ate and how they celebrated holidays, and the hierarchy in religious institutions like a priory.
Cloisters of Jerónimos Monastery, Lisboa
Jerónimos Monastery, Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style
Lastly, it fits neatly into the epic narrative of English history, weaving in connections to events of the civil war between Empress Matilda (Maud) and her cousin Stephen, the ascension of Henry II, and the murder of Thomas Beckett.
The cathedral itself is particularly interesting. Each architectural element of the Gothic style is developed and explained organically as the story progresses: the pointed arches, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and stained glass windows.
Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona
Stained glass in Santa Maria del Mar
Pointed arches in Santa Maria del Mar
Pillars is inspiring not just because it shows a beautiful creation dedicated to God, but because it also shows that here on Earth, justice is possible and worth fighting for, whether it is the result of a curse by a “witch,” meted out by bishop or king, or at the hands of the mob/public opinion. Though the Catholic Church obviously features prominently, it is not an overly religious book. Also, the supernatural and the divine are presented as two sides of the same coin, which feels natural to the time period.
Follett’s prose is not the best I’ve read, but the twists of the story held my attention and kept me on my toes. I was surprised how invested I got in the details of the story and how all the events stayed with me. I’m sure somebody is going to have problems with the two main female characters, but I liked them both. I’m looking forward to reading the sequels which take place in the same area, jumping ahead several generations.
After all the hours I put into reading this book (for perspective, the audiobook version is about 40 hours long), I can say it was time well spent. I can easily see why many people name the informative but engaging Pillars of the Earth as one of their favorite novels. It has certainly stuck with me, and I look forward to continuing with Follett’s Kingsbridge series.
After some close-ups of architecture last week, let’s take a step back.
The cathedral in Palma de Mallorca, called La Seu there, is a classic example of Gothic ecclesiastical architecture. It was begun in 1229 and completed in 1601. The interior shows the expected grand nave, pointed arches, and rose window…with a few surprises.
Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí helped redesign some of the interior in the early 20th century. Over the altar is a canopy reminiscent of the one at Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.