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  • ANCIENT MEGASTRUCTURES

SACRED DESTINATIONS: HISTORIC CATHEDRALS

Holly Hayes has an M.Phil in religious history from Oxford University and is the founder, author, and co-photographer of Sacred Destinations - an illustrated website guide to sacred sites, religious art and historic holy places of the world. National Geographic Channel spoke to her to discover the most impressive Ancient Megastructures from around the world.

What do you think are the most impressive ancient buildings you have visited?

Lincoln Cathedral, England.

The visual impact of Lincoln’s cliff-like facade, amplified by the dramatic approach through a smaller gate, is second-to-none. By the time I visited Lincoln, I had seen quite a few cathedrals and was in danger of becoming a bit jaded. But when I walked through the gate and looked up at that huge wall of stone, I was blown away. I also admire the way in which the original Norman portal was preserved within the Gothic  facade and the fine views of the Angel Choir and chapter house at the east end. Inside it is impressive, too - soaring vertical lines in the nave, a beautiful medieval choir, and the intriguing rose windows in the transepts dubbed the “Dean’s Eye” and “Bishop’s Eye.”

The Pantheon, Rome

A close runner-up is the Pantheon in Rome. It’s not as beautiful as Lincoln Cathedral, but it’s big, it’s ancient, and it’s unusual. The dome is a remarkable feat of engineering for its time and it uses concrete, which we think of as modern. The oculus provides a dramatic and unique way of lighting the interior, as well as visually connecting the temple to the heavens.

Chartres Cathedral, France

There are so many wonderful medieval cathedrals, but if I must choose a favourite it has to be Chartres Cathedral. It is exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally old (1194-1260), religiously important (thanks to its relic of the Virgin Mary’s tunic), and positively overflowing with magnificent medieval art. Architecturally, it was built during the transition from Romanesque to Gothic and seems to incorporate the best of both styles: it has all the graceful beauty of a Gothic cathedral while retaining a certain level of Romanesque strength and restraint. The portal sculptures are magnificent, the medieval labyrinth is a rare and fascinating survival, and the 13th-century stained glass windows are spectacularly beautiful.


What do you think led people to build such massive, awe-inspiring buildings with limited technology available?

Ancient religious megastructures made a statement about the prosperity and importance of the builder, just as they do today. The Pyramids of Giza reinforced the greatness and authority of the pharaohs; the temples of Rome, Athens and Ephesus showcased the importance of those cities; medieval European rulers competed with one another to build the most impressive cathedrals and attract the best artists. But alongside these political purposes has always been, I believe, a strong and sincere desire to please the gods. Religious scepticism is nothing new, but it is easy to forget that it was really pretty rare until recently. So whatever other motives may have come into play, most people donated money and labour to the construction of huge religious buildings in the hopes of gaining spiritual merit. And finally, I don’t think we should overlook the motivation of art for art’s sake, which seems to have been an important factor throughout history as well.

Do you know on average how long it took to build a Cathedral in medieval Europe?

The time it took to build a cathedral in the Middle Ages varied quite a bit since construction was always dependent on things like continuity of funding and support, a lack of engineering ‘issues’ (like towers falling down), and a certain level of peace and prosperity in the city. Chartres Cathedral, for example, was built exceptionally fast - the main structure was completed within just 25 years. This was due in large part to widespread public support for the project, based on the miraculous survival of its holiest relic in the fire that destroyed the old cathedral. Taking it as a sign from the Virgin Mary to rebuild (a view encouraged by the bishop), the townspeople volunteered to haul stone from quarries 5 miles away! Salisbury Cathedral was also quickly completed: everything except for the spire was done in just 45 years. Notre-Dame de Paris took about a century, as did Lincoln Cathedral. At the other end of the spectrum, Cologne Cathedral took over 600 years to finish!

Which ancient craft are you most in awe of when it comes to ancient buildings?

I am probably most impressed by sculpture, because there is so much room for creativity and often little room for error. When carving a nave capital, for example, sculptors cannot usually start over if they make a mistake!  And perhaps because sculptures tend to decorate more out-of-the-way places than other art forms, sculptors seem to have been given almost free reign in their designs and subjects, resulting in some very fascinating and unexpected images.

Is there any particular architectural style that you find the most beautiful?

I can appreciate most architectural styles, but my heart belongs to Romanesque. More than any other form of architecture, it has a harmonious visual rhythm that I find very appealing. Pairs of square or round towers, a rectangular nave crossed with a transept, semicircular domes cascading like a waterfall from the apse – simple geometrical shapes come together so gracefully in Romanesque churches. And they can be fully appreciated because there are no flying buttresses or sharp pinnacles to get in the way of the architecture - there is just enough sculptural decoration to lighten the structure and add visual interest. Romanesque churches also tend to be free of the memorial chapels and extensions that later became fashionable; these obscure the central plan and result in a confusing conglomeration of structures.

Are there are any modern buildings that you think we will look at in a thousand years time and marvel at?


That’s an interesting question. Upon reflection, it seems the ancient structures that impress us most are those that incorporate feats of engineering remarkable for the level of technology at the time and those that have new and innovative designs.  Gothic architecture, for example, was an engineering marvel in its use of walls for delicate beauty rather than strength and it had a bold new appearance that significantly differed from the solid Romanesque buildings. To my mind, then, modern buildings likely to impress in a thousand years might include the astonishingly tall new buildings springing up in places like Dubai, as well as the unique modern designs seen in structures such as the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the glacier-inspired Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik, and the ultra-modern (and earthquake-proof) cathedrals of Los Angeles and Oakland.

Where would you list St Paul’s Cathedral in a Top 10 list of most remarkable Cathedrals?

I’m afraid I would list it at number 10 if I must include it at all. I certainly recognize its architectural merits and I’ve never seen a cathedral that isn’t beautiful in some way, but St. Paul’s is just not one of my personal favourites. It lacks the venerable age of most other European cathedrals and I’m not especially fond of the Renaissance and Baroque styles. The nave is quite lovely but the decoration becomes increasingly over-the-top as you move east; the dome is very impressive but merely a shadow of St. Peter’s. Also the admission is the most expensive of any cathedral I’ve visited and does not include permission to take photographs – but I can’t blame Wren for that!

Learn more about sacred destinations from around the world and view some fantastic photographs at: www.sacred-destinations.com

Image: © Sacred Destinations
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