The cathedrals scattered across the countryside “remain what they were a thousand years ago,” writes Simon Jenkins: “the closest England has come to the sublime.”
The line appears in Jenkins’s new book, England’s Cathedrals, a follow-up to his surprise 1999 bestseller, England’s Thousand Best Churches, and his 2003 England’s Thousand Best Houses. A former editor at the Evening Standard, the Economist, and The Times of London, Jenkins was chair of the National Trust, which administers state-controlled buildings of historic merit, from 2008 to 2014. Along the way, he has written widely on politics, English history, and the vast deposit of British architecture since the Middle Ages.
All of which positions him well to undertake a quick survey of cathedrals in the 41 Anglican dioceses of England—plus the national shrine of Westminster Abbey and ten newer Catholic cathedrals (built since the modern reintroduction of Catholicism into England; the medieval cathedrals were all originally Catholic, of course, before the late unpleasantness with Henry VIII). A breezy look at the art and architecture of the nation’s diocesan churches, England’s Cathedrals divides its tale into short essays on each building and its setting.
A kind of bastard octavo, 8 by 10 inches, the book is not the ideal size for this kind of text: neither big enough to be a true coffee-table book nor small enough to be a traveler’s guidebook. Still, beautifully illustrated and pleasantly written, England’s Cathedrals proves as gentle a look as one could imagine at the cathedrals from Carlisle to Canterbury, along one diagonal of England, and Truro to Durham, along the other.
Not that the book has much of a thesis. England’s Cathedrals belongs among those old-fashioned accounts once known as “appreciations.” Jenkins genuinely likes the architecture of England’s churches, and, like all enthusiasts, he insists that they are wonderful places to visit even for non-believers. “Millions who have no commitment to Christianity,” he claims, “are drawn to their embrace, to feel their spirits uplifted by beauty.”
When Jenkins uses such words as sublime and beauty, he probably doesn’t mean them in any strict, philosophical sense. He almost certainly intends them merely as loose synonyms for the pretty, the moving, and the numinous. But let’s pretend for a moment that he is using that language of aesthetics in a technical way. Discerning the actual effects and purposes of those old cathedrals may give us a way to understand how those buildings work—and how we should take Simon Jenkins’s appreciation of them.
Back in the second half of the eighteenth century, there was much intellectual agitation about aesthetics. From Edmund Burke’s 1756 Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful to Immanuel Kant’s 1764 Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, most of that high-modern discussion revolved around a distinction been beauty and sublimity. The beautiful was generally understood to be anything that matched the old classical definitions: balanced, proportional, formal, and uplifting to the viewer’s spirit. The sublime was thought of as raw, unbalanced, dangerous, and diminishing of the viewer. The beautiful taught us the mind’s elevated place in the order of the world, while the sublime taught us how little our bodies mattered to the universe. And thus, to use common examples of the time, the stately formal gardens of Louis XIV were beautiful, but the Matterhorn was sublime.
Now, Jenkins doesn’t think all of England’s cathedrals deserve great attention. The “three graces” of the nation, he writes, are Ely, Lincoln, and “especially Wells,” although, in his five-star rating system, Canterbury, Durham, Westminster Abbey, and Winchester also get top marks. He generally (and unusually) appreciates the much-maligned Victorians, going so far as to praise the Victorian restorations of the maddening George Gilbert Scott, but the Catholic churches that began to appear in the nineteenth century receive mostly one-star ratings from him, along with such Anglican disappointments as Blackburn and Portsmouth. Poor St. Paul’s, a genuinely Anglican church from Christopher Wren, is given only four stars by Jenkins, demoted because of the way modern London buildings have hemmed it in and destroyed its domination of the skyline.
Still, if Ely, Lincoln, and Wells are graces—by which Jenkins seems to mean something like the ten good people who would have saved Sodom from God’s wrathful destruction—what it is about them that makes them so? Is it that they are beautiful? Or that they are sublime?
Beginning with his 1905 Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams looked to the medieval churches of France for his thesis that the Blessed Virgin was the motor of the Middle Ages, much as the electric dynamo was the motor of modern times. The churches of England were not exactly less Marian than the churches of France, but they were, in their way, more settled: more precisely of their places. A cathedral like Chartes or Notre Dame, an abbey like Mont-Saint-Michel, intrudes on the landscape, pointing to God for travelers from miles away. In that way of viewing churches, the medieval British cathedrals often seem truncated, their crenellated fortress towers not topped by aspiring spires.
Nonetheless, their interiors are not exactly beautiful, in the eighteenth-century sense of the word. The modern impulse to make things coherent, simple, and uniform was joined (or even created) by the Protestants, and the Anglican Church has had centuries to tidy up the medieval churches confiscated from the Catholics. But still the old cathedrals defy modernity. They resist being clean, balanced, rationally organized places—and Jenkins rightly rages against the modern junk added to the ruins of Coventry. The medieval buildings resist being classified as beautiful, however pretty their stone fan work, stained glass, and cloistered walkways. These are messy places of tombs and side chapels and odd canopies and hidden gargoyles.
And yet, the cathedrals of England are not exactly sublime, either, at least in the old technical meaning. These are not Wordsworth’s Lake Country or the Fens. They are instead a built environment, intended for an ordered purpose. (For an interesting presentation of the contrast, take a look again at Dorothy Sayers’s classic 1934 mystery, The Nine Tailors, in which a Fen church on a hill, ringing the changes of its bells, stands as the beautiful enduring order that protects the townsfolk by outlasting the wildly sublime danger of the flooding fens.)
Perhaps all that befits something so medieval. The distinction between the beautiful and the sublime is an essentially modern one, born of the eighteenth century. The earlier churches did not operate under either its romanticism or its hyperrationality. The medieval cathedrals could be beautiful, balanced in the vaults of their naves and transepts, while simultaneously sublime, unbalanced and messy in their scattered parts. The medieval cathedrals could convince us of both the human ability to perceive a universe of order and the human incapacity to grasp the essence of the divine. They could sublimely remind us that we are as nothing compared to God—and yet beautifully convince that we matter, that we are able to discern and even instantiate in architecture the structures of the well-ordered universe. The great cathedrals lift us up and cast us down in the same breath.
To do so, they require a little belief and modesty. Simon Jenkins might actually be right, righter than he knows, when he conflates beauty and sublimity in his easy, gentle guide to the cathedrals of England—which may well be the most built environment in the world: even in its wildernesses, a nation of human construct and design. But he’s wrong, I think, to suggest that those with “no commitment to Christianity” will “feel their spirits uplifted” to the same degree as the medieval worshippers once did.
That’s just tourism. It teaches no more beauty than visitors with cameras learn at Versailles, and it inspires no more feeling of the sublime than tourists at the Matterhorn gain when they lean against the safety-tested railings and take a selfie.