Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Monday, 29 December 2008

Probably worth waiting for

My non-proselytising atheism was under siege last night.

I had just paid my TV licence (£139) online and, yet again, BBC4 justified the expenditure. “How to build a cathedral” started in the Middle Ages when England was a building site devoted to fifteen great cathedrals, intended to create heaven on earth, an aspiration not as silly as it sounds. Some jobs were signed off in a mere sixty years. But when the money ran out it could take two hundred.

Dense technical detail interwoven with vivid upward-looking photography covered the progression from Romanesque (circle section arches) to Gothic (pointed arches) as master masons sought to reduce wall bulk, increase window area and let in more and more light. Some end-products are virtually skeletal, made even more delicate by such ingenuities as fan vaults (the inset is Ely). “The master masons deserve a place alongside Shakespeare and Turner,” said the presenter. That too wasn’t as silly as it sounds.

Sometimes things went wrong. But instead of inveighing against Jehovian whimsy when a tower collapsed the church took the opportunity to order a replacement even more elaborate and employing more recent structural techniques. Flying buttresses, for instance, de-stressed the walls but became another concentration of elegance in the process. No cathedral presently resembles its earliest finished state; all have been tinkered with, no doubt to a chorus of “Vandallyze nott our hovse of Godde”.

To me they are magnificent works of art. But I can appreciate how, if I were a Christian, I might look at them and feel smug.

8 comments:

Relucent Reader said...

I like the phrase, "concentration of elegance"; it sums up Gothic churches nicely.

Lucy said...

Good old Beeb 4, it often saves the television's bacon, though our licence goes on our habitation tax and is cheaper than yours!

Plutarch said...

Grow old along with me. This year they sent me a licence, which I didn't have to pay for!

Those cathedrals are indeed masterpieces. What is remarkable is that they seem to spring from the people, from the culture,rather than from a particular architect or planner. Some genius you think must have had a vision of Durham or Salisbury, York or Wells before the foundations were laid. But it is often difficult to know how and on what basis, the building progressed and how and against what plans progress was monitored.
I didn't see the progamme. No BBC 4where we live.

Barrett Bonden said...

RR: I hadn't realised that Gothic originates from the pointed arch. The interesting thing is that such developments occurred for technical reasons (in this case the basis for taller windows) but thereafter the technical merged effortlessly into the aesthetic.

Lucy: Cheaper but not necessarily better. And leaving me with so many questions. Why did the news have to start at 8 pm on all the channels? Who initially thought PPDA was a sexpot? Why do the French prefer dubbing to sub-titles on foreign movies? Mind you everything came right in July at three in the afternoon when, apart from watching the greatest sporting event ever, you could also enjoy a brilliantly photographed travelogue that proved incontestably that La France is belle.

Plutarch: I agree. Where did it all come from? It seems as if the beauty evolved from solving the technical problems.

Are you sure that a £100 digi-box won't get you BBC4 and the rest of the digital channels? I find it astonishing that the TV companies could be so negligent towards a sector of the country where so many movers and shakers live.

Plutarch said...

We have a digi-box. We can receive a number of stations including, at some times of year, BBC 1, 2, 3 and BBC news on digital. And most ITV stations. But the BBC transmitter apparently needs to be improved. Aerial erectors have confirmed that the problem is not at the receiving end. We cannot receive digital radio either!

The best technical solutions (aerials apart) nearly always result in beautiful structures.

Avus said...

Ah! Ely - one of my favourite buildings. To walk down that aisle and look up into that great lantern (itself the result of a fallen tower)is almost a religious experience.
How much more so must the average mediaeval peasant have been overcome with fear and joy.

Barrett Bonden said...

Avus: And it could affect those supposedly better educated. Researching his British Country Churches guide led to Betjeman's conversion to Anglicanism.

Avus said...

I am a great fan of Betjeman - his poems, books, films.
I knew, of course, of his "High Anglicanism", but the way this came about was new to me.
Thank you.