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Wentzel ’14 Questions Cathedral’s Light

Jeremy Wentzel ’14 - On Monday, the class made two site visits in the City of Le Mans.  The first and most in-depth visit was to the Cathedral at St. Julien, and the second being at Eglise de la Couture.  Being written after a tremendous class discussion on the return to Paris this evening, this blog seeks to identify key themes in that were captured by the group.  These site visits marked the first of many for the class, therefore the excitement and intellectual romanticism of freshly observed sites flowed freely in the discussion.  Importantly, the ideas presented at this evening’s discussion and within this blog offer insight into the large questions about architecture, religion, and political power that will guide us through visits to other cathedrals in the week.

LightWhat does light and darkness have to do with the individual’s perception of oneself in relation to God?  No – not good and evil, but quite literally lightness and darkness within the cathedral.  How do the natural elements (or lack thereof) of the exterior of the cathedral engage the senses as to what role the individual has, and what role those above the individuals have?  Finally, how does order make individuals feel, and how does architecture – the cathedrals support it?  These questions illuminated our group conversation at a café during sunset in the heart of Paris.  Ultimately, these questions will aid us in forming a more solid connection between politics and architecture in medieval and gothic churches.

In the role of discussion leader, I took note of these questions and more.  Upon examining the interior and exterior of the Cathedral of St. Julien, I found the cathedral to be living and in harmony with nature.  Sitting atop the highest point in Le Mans, the cathedral is visible by many places in the city, and sits in bright harmony with its built environment.  Some scholars have suggested the cathedral to be robust and lively – a joyful celebration.  I couldn’t agree more.  The light wind sweeps through the elegant structure.  The sun amplifies the elaborate stained glass, and provides reflection off the lightly colored walls inside.  The green exterior surroundings enhance the feeling that this cathedral is alive.

But on to the question of power – does a cathedral that feels alive, both inside and out, give some agency to the individual?  Does the individual feel closer to God if the church is more inviting?  Is the plain style inside the structure (made quite visible through the contrasting high gothic and Romanesque styles fused together) inhibiting of order?  I dare to suggest that the Cathedral at St. Julien provides a closer connection to the individual and God through its architecture.  Yet, because it does this, there are considerations to be made.  If the individual is somewhat empowered – even a presumably illiterate individual from the times – how much power does the church have over that individual?  When examining the question of political power, we see numerous relationships from the individual: an individual/God relationship, an individual/intermediary relationship (the church as an institution and church leadership, both as “intermediary”), and an individual/intermediary/God relationship.  We found that architecture of a cathedral directly affects our perceptions and/or the realities of each of these relationships.

Consider the Eglise de la Couture, whose darkness provides a sense of mystery.  The darkness of the cathedral, through fewer windows and its presence in a neighborhood built environment, is striking in comparison to the Cathedral of St. Julien.  While the group had differing interpretations of the darkness, it was clear that in all interpretations was the notion that the eeriness of darkness was powerful.  I suggest that darkness reinforces the power the intermediary has.  In other words, the darker the cathedral, the more one feels small and distant to God.  Thus, the necessity for a priest and church leadership provides a sense of security for the individual in the quest to feel or search for God.  My personal opinion (thus far) is that a successful cathedral incorporates a healthy individual/intermediary/God relationship.  This means that the individual does not feel too close or too far from God.  There is the presence of a priest – and institution that seeks to promote duty and accountability, but does not suppress the role of God.  This model, in my opinion, relates healthily to notions of reason and searching that we see in writers of metaphysics.  As a result, political power is not dominated by one source: the individual, God, or the intermediary.  Instead, while perhaps imbalanced, there is not a monopoly on power, but instead a distribution of it.

Our conversations were fruitful.  Our thoughts were even more so.  The organic nature of the intellectual flourishing that occurred here today is a sure reflection of the power and necessity of immersion learning at Wabash College.  Our uncertainty and bold unabashed idealism will be certainly refined over the course of the week.  Yet, there is a beauty to the excitement of the first full day – an excitement that comes only from a step outside the classroom at Wabash.