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The Art of the French Cathedrals
April 8 - May 12, 2008

Of Stone and Cross

Exhibition Hall - 1st Floor, Nador u. 9. Monument Building


CEU Medieval Studies

Date and time of the Opening:
on Tuesday, April 8, 2008 at 17.00

Opening remarks by:
Gábor Klaniczay (CEU)

The Art of the French Cathedrals

Cathedrals and photography are identical in essence. Cathedrals, just like pictures, are the art of light. The cathedral opens a window to the Light of the World. Csaba Dombóvári the ’lightwright’ captures the radiance of these churches to build a cathedral of black and white light.

The art of the cathedrals, a synthesis of powerful spiritual experiments and intellectual speculation, appeared in the middle of the twelfth century in Île-de-France. Gothic architecture organized space into a clear, harmonic unity. Light that takes us up into the heavenly sphere suffuses the entire space. Abbot Suger, the builder of the first Gothic cathedral in Saint-Denis, near Paris, carved Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite’s theology of light in stone. The beauty of the material world leads to the contemplation of transcendental Truth:

“When out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God the loveliness of the many-colored stones has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to the higher world in an analogical manner.”

Between 1140 and 1280 more than eighty cathedrals were built in the episcopal towns of Northern France. These breathtakingly idealistic works of art are rooted in a surprisingly sober realism. Construction work required remarkable technical knowledge and work organization, as in that century alone more slabs of stone had been turned up and moved than in Egypt during the construction of the pyramids. Limestone blocks were carved out and used as panels in the skyscraping cathedrals, whose pillars made manifest the forces active in the building. The skilful use of flying buttresses made it possible to build extremely tall, thin-walled buildings whose interior structural system of columnar piers and ribs reinforced an impression of soaring verticality. Cathedrals, however, do not express technical innovation and prowess alone. Its best connoisseurs, Erwin Panofsky, Otto von Simson, Émile Mâle, Ernő Marosi emphasize structural similarities between gothic architecture and scholastic philosophy. Cathedrals are the triumph of thought over matter. The gothic cathedral is a Gesamtkunstwerk, an intellectual as well as a mystical experience that seeks to express the Ineffable.

The modern pilgrim to the cathedrals of Chartres, Évreux, Orléans Reims, Rouen, Sens, Troyes, Tours feels the same spiritual ascent that Abbot Suger:

All you who seek to honor these doors,
Marvel not at the gold and expense
but at the craftsmanship of the work.
The noble work is bright, but, being nobly bright,
the work should brighten the minds,
allowing them to travel through the lights
To the true light, where Christ is the true door.
The golden door defines how it is imminent in these things.
The dull mind rises to the truth through material things,
And is resurrected from its former submersion
when the light is seen.

Marianne Sághy

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