Medieval cathedrals reach for heaven

~ Posted by Ann G. and Jen B., who have contributed several posts together on different subjects as portrayed in nonfiction and in fiction.

brunelleschi's dome
Brunelleshi’s Dome Photo by Stuart Caie

Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture
by Ross King

Imagine that you had to climb Mt. Everest– as Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did, with no modern climbing equipment and 44-pound packs.  Now imagine that with no modern calculating tools or materials, not even a carpenter’s level or a scaffold that would reach above about three stories, that you had to build an enormous dome, with no equal in size or grandeur before—or since (at least, without modern steel).  Hillary’s accomplishment is perhaps more imaginable to us, yet the latter is what Filippo Brunelleschi did.

The accomplishment is phenomenal, and yet it’s such a human story!  King’s book, which makes the history into an entertaining page-turner, takes us through both the building’s immense challenges, and the human toll.  The city fathers had a cathedral with a huge hole where a dome should be, and they sponsored a contest to find someone to make that dome.  The size was meant to announce to all the world that Florence had arrived, and was a city to rival Rome.  Brunelleschi, a goldsmith with an amazing facility for tinkering and engineering, came up with a breathtaking design. For example, to overcome the scaffold deficit, Brunelleschi created an intricate series of hoists to lift materials up the vast distances.  They alone revolutionized architecture!  There was heartbreak and devastating disappointment as well, but somehow, finally the dome did rise, and still stands.  It is even more incredible to behold when you know the story behind it, expertly told by King.

Ely_Cathedral_seen_from_Palace_Green by Innocenceisdeath
Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Bringing a human perspective to medieval architecture, Follett’s historical novel dramatizes the conception, design and building of an English cathedral during the twelfth century. Like Brunelleschi’s Dome, the fictional cathedral in Kingsbridge is conceived by a man with dreams of grandeur – of putting his town on the map and showing the world what a wonderful monument to God men can produce. But building a cathedral is not the work of one bishop, architect or stone mason and in the medieval world, this was especially true. Working in the winter, architects manually inscribe plans onto wooden templates for the stonemasons. During spring and summer full-scale stonework plans are incised onto huge tracing floors. Follett masterfully outlines these “architectural drawing” techniques; brings readers into the quarries where hundreds of stone cutters chisel rock from the earth and traces the builders’ agonizing progress as towers and buttresses yearn toward the sky.

Follett omits no aspect of medieval life. The odors of mud, blood and animals are visceral: the squalor of the poor, arrogant church officials and royals vying for the throne, in dramatic contrast to each other, are set against the cathedral’s miraculous grandeur.

(The story continues in a sequel called World Without End.)


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