We were still in the cathedral, marvelling at both the tangible history and the artistry… far too much to show or to even take in. Everywhere you look, every surface from floor to ceiling bears the evidence of care and craft. In splendour is written the simplicity of the faith of the heart.
We stood at the Crossing, yet another Celtic cross, this time in marble. From the centre you can look up, up to the tiny hole in the floor of the bell tower from which we had looked down and through which a bell rope once hung. A giant St Christopher watches, carrying the knobbed club and the Child, himself carried upon the back of a grotesque figure.
Before you is the quire… pinnacles and spires of wood, static beauty that tells stories… little glimpses of humour and emotion, stories carved in wood captured in the screens, pews and misericords, the mercy seats, upon which the officers of the church could rest.
Geometries are laid out in marble upon the floor, pictures of biblical scenes, evangelists and strange faces. And then you look up at the painted glory of the ceiling, the delicate vaulting that supports the weight of the Church looking like wings that could take flight and carry the worshipper lightly to heaven.
There is a distinct difference in the feel of the various areas of the cathedral precincts. The cloisters whisper of prayers repeated in the contemplation of movement. The nave focuses the eye on the quire and altar, the chapels lend themselves to private moments between the heart and the divine and the courtroom seems to provide a link between the inner and outer worlds.
It is a curious place, the courtroom; a unique example of an ecclesiastical consistory court and the oldest in the country, dating back to 1636 AD. Within the enclosing walls there is yet another enclosure of time blackened wood with raised seats for witness and accused as well as the seat of judgement. Everyone had their appointed seat, their proper place beneath the legal authority of the law. The last case judged here was the attempted suicide of a priest in the 1930s.
The small room with its rigid structure seems to echo the confinement of the soul within the outer world, bound and constricted as it is with rules and regulations, social mores and the requirements of necessity. Yet beyond the door lies a lofty beauty accessible to all, regardless of some perception of social status, both affirming and inspiring faith in a way that seems common to all times, all places and all religions.
Why do we feel the need, I wondered, to construct such magnificence? Partly, I am sure, to assert the political and spiritual power of our religious bodies… a visible symbol that cannot be ignored. But there is more to it than that, for the need seems deep-seated within us. There was no political kudos to be gained when we painted the walls of caves with scenes of nature’s treasures, nor any when we decorate trees and wells with ribbons and flowers.
Within the churches the paint and glass tell stories for the unlettered, teaching the lessons of the Bible and the legends of the church… a moral guide book for the faithful. Symbols, some of which would have been readily understood at the time of their creation, wait side by side in silence with more arcane depictions, understood perhaps only by those who brought a deeper knowledge to bear upon them. It is a language to which we may have lost the keys, yet which speaks to mind and understanding through contemplation in ways for which we may never have had words.
It seems simplistic to say that we have raised such grand edifices to the glory of our gods, or even that we attempt to portray the wonder of our idea of heaven in the wood and stone of earth. I wonder if there is, in the artistry and vision we bring to the task, some attempt to capture that elusive quality of faith… the awareness of a sheer immensity of Love of which our human loves are themselves but a pale echo… a need to communicate, to find an answering recognition… or perhaps the art itself is a wordless expression of love.
There is something in that which seems to speak to us all, regardless of the path or faith we ourselves follow. We can appreciate the wonder of the created works, even if they tell of a path not our own. The temples of Egypt, the caverns of Lascaux and the Dreamtime paintings of Australia, the golden Buddhas and the temples of India… even when they are not to our taste artistically we can appreciate their art and craftsmanship and recognise the kinship of a shared, if differently expressed , vision of the divine.