Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Edith Wharton on the moral importance of the great Gothic Cathedrals

105 years ago, Edith Wharton travelled France by car.  In her "Motor Flight Through France," she reflects on the Amiens Cathedral and the other great Gothic cathedrals of France:

[S]o strongly does the contemplation of the great cathedrals fortify the conviction that their chief value, to this later age, is not so much aesthetic as moral. ... Yes, reverance is the most precious emotion that such a building inspires: reverance for the accumulated experiences of the past, readiness to puzzle out their meaning, unwillingless to disturb rashly results so powerfully willed, so laboriously arrived at - the desire, in short, to keep intact as many links as possible between yesterday and to-morrow, to lose, in the ardour of the new experiment, the least that may be of the long rich heritage of human existence.  This, at any rate, might seem to be the cathedral's word to the traveller from a land which has which has undertaken to get on without the past, or to regard it only as a "feature" of aeshetic interest, a sight to which one travels rather than a light by which one lives.



Scaperlanda, Mike | Permalink


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Apparently, whatever moral lesson offered by Gothic cathedrals was never learned...or perhaps was untimely forgotten.

In 1915, Ms. Wharton penned an essay "In Alsace" (published in Fighting France: From Dunkerque To Belport. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918) which described Notre-Dame de Reims in August, 1915, after its bombardment by the Germans in September, 1914:

"Rheims itself brings one nearer to the war by its look of deathlike desolation. The paralysis of the bombarded towns is one of the most tragic results of the invasion. One's soul revolts at this senseless disorganizing of innumerable useful activities. Compared with the towns of the north, Rheims is relatively unharmed; but for that very reason the arrest of life seems the more futile and cruel. The Cathedral square was deserted, all the houses around it were closed. And there, before us, rose the Cathedral–a cathedral, rather, for it was not the one we had always known. It was, in fact, not like any cathedral on earth. When the German bombardment began, the west front of Rheims was covered with scaffolding: the shells set it on fire, and the whole church was wrapped in flames. Now the scaffolding is gone, and in the dull provincial square there stands a structure so strange and beautiful that one must search the Inferno, or some tale of Eastern magic, for words to picture the luminous unearthly vision. The lower part of the front has been warmed to deep tints of umber and burnt siena. This rich burnishing passes, higher up, through yellowish-pink and carmine, to a sulphur whitening to ivory; and the recesses of the portals and the hollows behind the statues are lined with a black denser and more velvety than any effect of shadow to be obtained by sculptured relief. The interweaving of colour over the whole blunted bruised surface recalls the metallic tints, the peacock-and-pigeon iridescences, the incredible mingling of red, blue, umber and yellow of the rocks along the Gulf of Ægina. And the wonder of the impression is increased by the sense of its evanescence; the knowledge that this is the beauty of disease and death, that every one of the transfigured statues must crumble under the autumn rains, that every one of the pink or golden stones is already eaten away to the core, that the Cathedral of Rheims is glowing and dying before us like a sunset…"


Joyce Kilmer's "The Cathedral Of Rheims" also reflects upon the shelling of the cathedral and concludes:

"And then
That which was splendid with baptismal grace;
The stately arches soaring into space,
The transepts, columns, windows gray and gold,
The organ, in whose tones the ocean rolled,
The crypts, of mighty shades the dwelling places,
The Virgin's gentle hands, the Saints' pure faces,
All, even the pardoning hands of Christ the Lord
Were struck and broken by the wanton sword
Of sacrilegious lust.

O beauty slain, O glory in the dust!
Strong walls of faith, most basely overthrown!
The crawling flames, like adders glistening
Ate the white fabric of this lovely thing.
Now from its soul arose a piteous moan,
The soul that always loved the just and fair.
Granite and marble loud their woe confessed,
The silver monstrances that Popes had blessed,
The chalices and lamps and crosiers rare
Were seared and twisted by a flaming breath;
The horror everywhere did range and swell,
The guardian Saints into this furnace fell,
Their bitter tears and screams were stilled in death.

Around the flames armed hosts are skirmishing,
The burning sun reflects the lurid scene;
The German army, fighting for its life,
Rallies its torn and terrified left wing;
And, as they near this place
The imperial eagles see
Before them in their flight,
Here, in the solemn night,
The old cathedral, to the years to be
Showing, with wounded arms, their own disgrace."


Photos of Notre-Dame de Reims and other cathedrals damaged during the Great War can be accessed at:


Posted by: dfb | May 28, 2013 6:02:07 PM

Thanks, Michael - very moving indeed. I recommend Ruskin's 'On the Nature of Gothic' in this connection as well. Especially as a complement, focused on the reverence of the workman, to Wharton's focus on the reverence of the 'consumer' - the viewer.

Posted by: Robert Hockett | May 29, 2013 10:58:10 PM

Thanks dfb and Bob for your comments and recommendations.

Posted by: Michael S. | May 30, 2013 10:27:00 AM