Review: The Pillars of the Earth

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.

Segovia Cathedral

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).

Salamanca’s New Cathedral, late Gothic

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.

Ciudad Rodrigo Cathedral, transitioning from Romanesque to Gothic

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.

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 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.

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.

Sevilla Cathedral

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.

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.

Aix Cathedral, Aix-en-Provence, France

Follett’s prose not the best I’ve read, but the twists of the story held my attention and surprised me.  I was surprised how invested I got in the details of the story and how all the events stayed with me. I know 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.

Nave of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, modernisme style based in Gothic. Yes, this blog post was just an excuse to post all my pictures of churches.
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Lens Artists Photo Challenge #38 – Weathered or Worn

Ballcarbery Castle was once the home of the McCarthy family, built around the 15th/16th century.  Now it is being reclaimed by nature, exposed to the weather as well as some tourists and cows.

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It was my favorite of all the ruins we visited in Ireland.  Around every corner there was some new beauty.

Apparently you cannot get this close to the castle anymore, but it is still worth a trip to Cahersiveen in County Kerry to see it.

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You can find more weathered and worn things at the original Lens-Artist challenge.

Lens-Artists Challenge #36 – Around the Neighborhood

In university, I spent a semester studying abroad in Spain.  I fell in love with the university town of Salamanca, with its history, culture, and of course nightlife.

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I stayed with a host mother in an apartment just a few minutes’ walk from the Plaza Mayor.  I walked with one of my other friends to our classes every day and came to love our little neighborhood.  There was a tobacconist shop, some bars, a salsa dance club, a butcher’s, and many other little shops.  In the winter, vendors sold roasted chestnuts on the street corners.

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The local plaza was under construction while I was there; they made a lot of progress over a few months.

You can find more neighborhoods at the original Lens-Artist challenge.

Lens-Artists Photo Challenge #35: Architecture

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.

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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.

You can find more architecture at the original Lens-Artist challenge.

Lens-Artists Photo Challenge #34: Close-Up

My cameras and phones have never been really good enough to get good macro shots, so here are some close-ups of architecture: Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, Spain; the capital of a Corinthian-style column in Venice; a bench wall by the sea in Palma de Mallorca, Spain.

And just for fun, I was playing with my phone today, so here is a close-up of my cat Juhani.

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You can find more close ups at the original Lens-Artist challenge.