I promised myself I would only have one super nerdy post this trip – and here it is.
So there are a lot of cathedrals in Europe. Back in the day building cathedrals was a very popular pastime. People here don’t seem to realize how unusual this is. IT’S SO WEIRD HOW THERE ARE SO MANY GINORMOUS AND BEAUTIFUL AND OLD CHURCHES EVERYWHERE. They are so big and so old and so interesting and EVERYWHERE.
After a very confusing first visit to a cathedral in Cologne, Alex and I watched this awesome NOVA documentary about cathedrals and learned stuff. If you want to spend a nerdy hour, here it is – NOVA Building Gothic Cathedrals. Armed with a tiny bit more knowledge we are avidly consuming European cathedrals right and left.
Introductory cathedral trivia –
1) A church is designated to be a cathedral because it serves as the seat of the bishop. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the building itself. That’s why there are three churches in Speyer that look just like cathedrals (to me), but only one of them technically is.
2) Almost everything in a cathedral is symbolic, even the shape of the building itself, which is usually a cross.
But the big question that I didn’t even know I had until I watched that documentary was about how people learned to make cathedrals in the first place. For a really long time if architects, engineers, and builders wanted to make a really big building they had to make the walls super duper thick in order to hold up the weight of the enormous building. Hence, the images of medieval castles with tiny windows and draw bridges and clunky towers. But then, all of a sudden, people suddenly started building REALLY big buildings with soaring parapets and extremely skinny walls that were filled with stained glass. Apparently, it took modern day people a while to figure out how ancient architects could have made this extreme jump in engineering knowledge.
Turns out it’s all about the arches. A rounded arch can hold a lot of weight, but an arch with a pointy top can hold A LOT OF WEIGHT due to the angle of gravity or something. Once they figured this out they started making pointy arches right and left and were able to build churches so, so tall.
This was pretty fascinating for me to learn, because the cathedrals I’ve seen so far totally illustrate this.
Here is the Speyer Cathedral. It is a Romanesque design, which means it was pre-Gothic, and they started building it in 1053 (which was before the Great Schism when the Orthodox church broke off from the Roman Catholic church – also, fyi, the Pope and the Orthodox leader are planning an official get-together for 2025…that’s crazy! and unprecedented!). You can see how the windows are quite small and all the arches are rounded. It’s very square and solid and robust.
The word for cathedral in German is Dom. You can see on the sign – Dom zu Speyer.
But then, they figured out the pointed arches thing…..
And you get this! The Gothic Cathedral in Strasbourg, France. Very tall, elegant, and detailed.
You can get a really good feel here – see the pointy arches and the walls almost entirely made up of glass?
Also, contrary to my belief that flying buttresses were a made up thing said by Cogsworth the clock in the Disney Beauty and the Beast, a flying buttress is actually a very important arch that was put on the outside of cathedrals to help support the other arches. In this way they could just build up and up and up!
You can see the flying buttress arches over the green roof area on the side here.
There is a very interesting part of the documentary where they talk about cathedrals that are falling down and why and how people are trying to fix them. They do a lot of futuristic things with lasers.
Okay, so Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals….but mostly Gothic. Blowing my mind since 2014. As much as I am nerdily obsessed with churches, these cathedrals (while impressive and awe-inspiring) were not wholly unfamiliar to me. I mean, I’ve seen the Hunchback of Notre Dame and everything.
But then we went to St. Ignatius Church in Prague and….well….you’ll just have to take a look for yourself.
Here is the outside – pretty innocuous.
And then the inside…BAM. It’s like a little girl’s princess tea party threw up in the church. Twice!
Pink and frilly, anyone?
I couldn’t stop laughing when I first saw this. It was just SO unexpected and SO different from all the Gothic churches we’d been looking at. Our friends didn’t really understand what was so funny, they had just tried to take me to see a church, which is what I had asked for. But holy garlands and gold, Batman!
And that, my friends, is what you get with the Baroque style. Gothic just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Also, when I just tried to google this church to find the name I got off track for a minute because there is another more famous Baroque style church with a pink interior in Prague. Seriously.
Oh man, I just love this so much.
Okay enough churchiness for today. I leave you with this one last random cathedral related thought from the documentary. Apparently William Randolph Hearst once bought an old cathedral from Spain and had it shipped (stone by stone) to California where it hung out in a pile in a barn for 50 years. Ten years or so ago, some people started trying to put it together again, but no one really knows how the cathedral was originally built so it’s taking a long time. And a lot of science.