The glory of cathedrals

YOU don’t have to be a church-goer or religious in any way to admire and love the great cathedrals. Historian and atheist Simon Jenkins is fascinated and awed by them.

We are lucky to live in an area with two of the world’s greatest – Wells and Salisbury … Wells with its magnificent West Front, currently embellished with a new Anthony Gormley sculpture, and its awe-inspiring scissor arches; Salisbury with its unfeasibly tall and elegant spire that seems to pierce the sky.

Both of these are featured in Simon Jenkins’ new book, Europe’s 100 Best Cathedrals, along with Canterbury, Durham, Exeter, Ely, Gloucester, Kirkwall, Lincoln, Norwich, St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, Winchester and York Minster.

France and Italy have the most entries, but Britain has six in the top 25, which is quite an achievement and Wells is one of Jenkins’ seven finest, with Amiens, Bourges, Chartres, Seville, Toledo and Venice St Mark’s.

We all love lists, and we all have our favourites – whether it’s classic films, cheeses – or cathedrals. You might want to put Salisbury in the top 25, but it’s hard to argue against such masterpieces of human achievement, faith and artistic ambition as the cathedrals at Cordoba, Paris Notre Dame, Siena, Burgos or Strasbourg. Goodness knows how Jenkins kept his top selection down to 25!

As anyone will know who has read and relished (and kept for regular dipping into) his other books, on history, parish churches and great houses,  Jenkins combines an engaging, readable style with great erudition and a constantly enquiring mind. So no surprise that this latest book is full of delights, architectural insights, forthright opinions, wit, wisdom and stories.

In the introduction, he writes: “Europe’s cathedrals are its finest works of art. They are testament to its Christian faith but also to its architecture, engineering and craftsmanship. Eight centuries after most of them were built, they still stride across the continent, towering over cities from Cologne to Palermo and from Moscow to Barcelona. As a group, nothing equals them in splendour.”

In a brief historical survey of their origins and Europe’s constant religious, political and social upheavals, Jenkins comments: “Their most remarkable feature is that almost all that were built are still standing, when castles and palaces have crumbled and passed away.”

This is a book packed with dazzling inspiration – the combined faith and skill that built the lantern over the crossing in Ely, the dizzying height of Salisbury, the power of the Church Militant epitomised in Albi, the meeting of east and west in the great Venice’s St Mark’s and its lesser known basilica on the island of Torcello, the unique fusion of Christianity and Islam in the cathedral of Cordoba and the magnificent medieval glass of Chartres.

Truly the great cathedrals are the wonders of the world. Jenkins, the atheist son of practising Christian parents, says his love of architecture “has always left me intrigued by how religious belief could fashion such material places of worship.” He concludes: “Even today, no other buildings on earth can compare with these structures.”

Europe’s 100 Best Cathedrals, by Simon Jenkins, is published by Penguin Viking.