Saturday, August 3, 2013

Cathedral Paradox. A Review of Great Gothic Cathedrals of France by Stan Parry.

Cathedrals are marvelous, three-dimensional works of art that one can walk around inside. Certainly, for Christians, there is an additional layer of emotion concerning their feelings about biblical mythology and legends about the life of Jesus. But even for me, an Atheist of Jewish ancestry, the joy of aesthetic appreciation alone is incomparable. Additionally, I experience conflicting emotions: revelry in the beauty; alongside sorrow over the poverty, social inequality and predatory Church hierarchy, which produced such magnificent buildings.

Great Gothic Cathedrals of France is one architecture-lover’s research from his once-in-a-lifetime journey.  Each chapter represents, an individual cathedral visited by the author. There are 17 buildings covered in all. Most of each chapter is devoted to an exhaustive description of the external and internal features. The descriptions are accompanied by 173 color plates and photos.

Clearly, Stan Parry loves his cathedrals. He has an excellent grasp of the architecture. But the history in his book can most charitably be described as politic. The author understands that his audience is largely composed of tourists who are in France for a pleasant lark. Why disturb them with the darker facts about cathedrals? It might affect book sales. And especially if the audience is Christian, they may just be offended.

So Mr Parry sticks to the unexamined official history. He claims that these edifices were built “for immediate religious and community needs as well as for the glory of God and posterity” (Parry, p. 2). This is, at best, a half-truth. Cathedrals were also built to display the temporal power of the Church, thereby inducing awe and obedience among the peasant majority. It is unnecessary to have such a huge building in which to pray.  Jesus advocated humility in worship. These buildings are anything but humble. Parry does mention that these religious structures were paid for through the unethical practice of selling indulgences. But he does not go that step further to explain that the money from those indulgences came from taxing serfs and forcing them to pay rents on land that they could not leave.

Throughout French history, cathedrals served many unsavory political purposes.  In Toulouse, the Jewish community was forced to choose representatives who went to the cathedral for a weekly, public ear-boxing as punishment over the death of Jesus. (Virtual Jewish History Tour; citation below).  In Laon Cathedral, Nicole Aubrey was publicly exorcised of a demon by eating the host. (Ferber, pp. 30-33). The incident was used as a foil against Protestant Huguenots who, of course, deny the magical properties of the Eucharist. In Paris, the signal calling Catholics to begin the St. Bartholomew's Massacre was the tolling of the cathedral bells. (Richard, p. 1). These huge buildings were centers for propaganda as well as symbols of power.

Instead of critical thought, the reader is regaled with stories of miracles like that of The Virgin’s Tunic. After the 1194 fire in Chartres Cathedral, their relic, The Virgin’s Tunic, was discovered undamaged. (Parry, pp. 64-65). There is no skepticism concerning the veracity of this or other claims about relics and miracles.

As an examination of architecture, Great Gothic Cathedrals of France is a meticulous resource. For an understanding of the history of these religious institutions, I’m afraid the reader will have to turn elsewhere.


Ferber, Sarah. Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France. London: Routledge Publishers, 2004.

"France: Virtual Jewish History Tour." France: Virtual Jewish History Tour. The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2013. Web. 22 July 2013.

Parry, Stan. Great Gothic Cathedrals of France. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2001.

Richard, Henry J. "Huguenots." Huguenots., 1997. Web. 22 July 2013.

For a book review on Paris architecture, see: