The Cathedral as the Allegory of Strength and Beauty
And What It Means for the Knight
Of all the wonders achieved by the builders of the Gothic cathedrals, my favorite lesson they teach involves the relationship of strength and beauty, specifically the ennobling of strength by bringing it into the service of beauty. “Architecture is,” as Archbishop Sheen wrote, “a reflection of a philosophy of life.” This connection has unmistakable implications for anyone interested in the code of chivalry.
It’s easy enough to take for granted what the medieval builders achieved and to assume that the Romans and Egyptians and other ancient societies did something comparable. But that is not the case. The great cathedrals followed from an outburst of creative energy unlike anything the world had ever seen. Before them all upward aspirations in architecture were, in the words of Kenneth Clark, “limited by problems of stability and weight.” A building was a load on the ground. You could dress it up with all sorts of fanciness, but it was still a load. Medieval builders wrought something like a miracle in raising structures higher than ever thought possible, making “stone seem weightless."
Engineering innovations enabled this elevation—particularly the pointed arch, ribbed vaulting, and flying buttress. Once upon a time, I assumed these features were nothing more than frills or adornments, put there because people thought they looked cool. That was all I understood aesthetics to be—just about looking cool.
But arches, vaults, and buttresses are anything but frills; they are pure strength. And their make room for beauty, as the walls of the Gothic cathedral draw the eyes ever upward in awe. Not only that, these innovations free the high walls from having to bear weight, which meant that they could be decorated with stained glass windows that tell the stories of the Faith and flood the church with otherworldly glowing light. The overall effect, as Clark says, is to make the visitor feel vibrations in the air.
Beauty depends on strength to create the conditions in which it can flourish—no engineering fortifications means no high walls and no stained glass. And in the service of beauty, the arches, ribbing, and buttresses are ennobled and become strangely beautiful themselves, particularly as part of a larger unity. Beauty and strength fuse in this created order of the cathedral.
What’s especially fitting is that the age which built the Gothic cathedrals also invented chivalry, a code about ennobling strength by putting it to beautiful use in a man's life and making room for beauty to flourish.
The knight is more than just a brute—his strength serving higher purposes than a brutish dominance over others. Capable of matching and exceeding that brute in terms of sheer force, the knight also dedicates his strength to the service of God, his loved ones, his country, and those without anyone to protect them. Widows and orphans depend on him for help against those who would exploit their vulnerabilities. The third commandment of Gautier’s Code of Chivalry reads, “Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.” This is what makes him so essential. To paraphrase CS Lewis, the stakes of knightliness are nothing less than civilization itself: you cannot have one without the knight’s protective strength.
If we want to rebuild something beautiful in the wake of the disaster that’s befallen us, we must also refound the order of knightly strength that serves and makes beauty possible.
Hear hear! This was a great article.
Also, I’ve started a kind of RCIA at a local TLM parish I am providentially blessed to live near!