In the Year of our Lord, 1284, the ceiling fell.
In the centuries preceding that year, architects and stonemasons painstakingly pushed the boundaries of what the human mind – and stone – could do. What originally was a simple, cavernous space to mimic a ship and hold throngs of worshipping Christians became an obsession to reach heavenward.
|Reconstruction cutaway of Old St. Peter's Basilica,|
begun by Emperor Constantine. Circa 360 A.D.
The hodgepodge of house-churches, random, re-purposed buildings, and modest sanctuaries of the early Church took a big turn when the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to build Old St. Peter’s Basilica. Apparently, the emperor wanted EVERYONE to go to church. Capable of holding 3,000-4,000 worshippers at a time, the roof peaked at a little over 100 feet. The basilica’s height was necessitated by the girth of the massive building and its gabled roof. It was a mega-church and, yes, it screamed “Empire.”
That was the year 360. There were plenty of centuries afterward to ponder the nave and its size.
By the time the Gothic period strolled into view, the Vatican was getting deep pockets and every major city was antsy to obtain bragging rights for the most beautiful; the most grandiose; the most imposing cathedral in their neck of the woods. Not every city needed to cram in 4,000 worshippers, so attention – and expense – went in a vertical direction.
|Choir section of Beauvais Cathedral.|
Stained-glass windows had become an important ingredient, and architects understood what happened to the visual space when windows were maximized and supporting elements were minimized – the nave became ethereal and ceased to be of this world. The effect of sunlight playing with wafting smoke of incense and burning candles must have been certainly mesmerizing, and that same light obscured the reality of the nave’s ceiling.
Higher the architects pushed. Without the aid of materials analysis and computer models, advances were based on experience and guess-and-by-golly. Only when catastrophe occurred did ample safety margins reappear, resetting the bar. But still they pushed. It was an obsession, and one cannot but help hear the voices of a very different people who declared, “Let us make a name for ourselves.”
Beauvais Cathedral proved the limit, when, in 1284, the point at which spindly, stone supports could vertically hold a massive roof was passed and its lofty vaults collapsed. Only the choir section of the sanctuary still holds its original height of 157 feet – more than half a football field. The nave proper was never rebuilt.
The Lutheran church I attend is no cathedral. It has no cathedra (the seat upon which a Roman Catholic bishop sits). It was not funded by deep pockets from afar. It offers no bragging rights for the city in which it resides. It does not compare with the facades featured in architectural tomes. In fact, some visitors think it downright ugly.
|The chancel area of Our Savior Lutheran Church,|
Grand Rapids, Mich.
However, the nave of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich., does have one architectural element that puts it head and shoulders above the Beauvais Cathedral. Acting as a sort of baldachin, the roof visually comes DOWN over the altar, illuminating the altar linens with natural light.
What Christ said of “these stones crying out” is true, and the inanimate materials of architecture can, indeed, confess. Our very best striving to reach God is for naught. We build no ladders to heaven, and our “methods” to salvation are doomed to cave in. It is only when the Lord comes down to us; to serve us; to give us His Body and Blood; to forgive us; to wash us from our sins and make us His own; to feed us with His Word, that we gain anything – and everything. This, while in the hold of His ship; His Church.