Friday, July 15, 2011

Cathedrals & Aspirations & Lytton Strachey

Lytton Strachey portrait by Vanessa Bell,
sister of Virginia Woolf.

I just finished Michael Holyrod's way-too-long and way-too-heavy 1994 biography of Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), the eminent author of Eminent Victorians .  I liked it but, jeez, it could have been half as long and still be just as good.

When Lytton Strachey visited the cathedral at Chartres, he wrote to a friend: “It was wonderful coming into it yesterday in the dark, only able at first to discern dim shapes of pillars and those astonishing blazes of stained glass.  Gradually, as our pupils expanded, we saw more & more - all the glorious proportions at last, and the full sublimity.  Oh, my dearest creature, I wished so much for you to be with me as I stood at that most impassioned point - the junction of the transept & the nave, where the pillars suddenly soar and rush upwards to an unbelievable height, and one is aware of the whole structure in its power and its splendor.  The christian religion itself positively almost justified!   

Unmatched spires of 13th
century Chartres Cathedral

I have experienced that awe-in-a-cathedral feeling often; I recall attending Mass at Notre Dame in Paris on a Sunday morning in 1991.  Notre Dame is stupendously gigantic.  The organ, soaring heavenward, drenches one's soul.  The choir is so heavenly that it hurts.  One's passion for ritual and beauty could not be better fed; I felt sodden with the richness of an aesthetic exhilaration which, in my case -- as in Strachey's case -- was not enjoined by faith, making it all seem oddly barren, so that I stood there marveling at what, flooding my senses, man had wrought in his reach for a majesty that he refers to as God.

(I like the hint of blue in the sky on the day I photographed those spires.)

North windows of Chartres Cathedral


  1. Chartes is glorious as is Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur. I did visit the Cathederal in Ostende, Belgium and there is this wonderful rose window there. As to the Cathedral in Bruges, it has a glorious state of Mary and Child by no less a person than Michaelangelo. I think it the only work by Michaelangelo outside Italy.

  2. yes to the beauty...'n at the same time I think of the process...of the why of it..I think of what these creators would have been doing at that time if religion wasn't...if Church wasn't..imagine if they'd all been atheists...if Atheism had been the official place of cathedrals etc..what? I think of how empty many of these buildings are will they be transformed..the cost of upkeep is astronomical...there's a cathedral in oh my each week the $sssss that are required...'n yes...the buildings are breathtaking...