Cathedral Dreams: Chancel

Into the sky. Photograph © Carsten on Flickr.

Into the sky. © Carsten on Flickr.

[This post is part of a series that pops up every now and then, envisioning the building of a Gothic cathedral.]

As I’ve hinted at earlier, cathedral design has figured prominently in my thoughts of late, perhaps in an effort to think through aspects of imagery and symbolism, particularly as they facilitate reverent meditation on what God’s word reveals. In this post I’ll be focusing on the chancel of the Gothic cathedral I’m imagining, since the chancel’s perhaps the heart of a church building.

All sanctuaries have walls, and the sanctum of a cathedral’s no different: for reverence and dignity, along the same lines as the Eastern exclamation ‘the doors! the doors!’, its proceedings are veiled from the eyes, sometimes called profane, of those who don’t confess the faith. Nolite dare sanctum canibus. Kept out of the chancel, then, until they can fully confess the creed of the Holy Catholic Church, are the pagans, the catechumens and the excommunicate (including heretics), who in earlier times were probably kept to the church narthex.

Choir enclosure at Notre Dame de Paris. © Aidan McRae Thomson.

Choir enclosure at Notre Dame de Paris. © Aidan McRae Thomson.

What I envision architecturally and ornamentally is like the walls of the choir in Notre Dame de Paris. As seen from the ambulatory, friezes of the life of Christ run along the left and the right, the north side depicting what precedes the Crucifixion and the south side depicting what follows the Resurrection; the ellipsis is supplied by the liturgy that takes place within the walls. Two doors open from the sanctuary, on the north and south sides, for access to the prothesis (which holds vessels) and the diaconicon (which holds books and vesture). Angels with flaming swords guard the east end of the walls, because none may enter but by faith. The wall of the sanctuary, figuratively, is the holiness of Christ.

The crossing of Lincoln Cathedral. Photograph by Tilman2007.

The crossing of Lincoln Cathedral. Photograph by Tilman2007.

A lantern tower’s a useful support to the layout of the sanctuary. The lantern tower over the crossing of Lincoln Cathedral, shown at right, has higher vaulting and a ring of windows that illuminate the area below; other lantern towers have been built, in England as well as in France and Spain. This feature improves on the crossing in Westminster Abbey, flooding the interior with light as Hagia Sophia in Constantinople is filled with light streaming in from forty windows around the base of its great dome. As emissaries to Constantinople reported to Prince Vladimir, ‘We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth.’

Beckoned to the Lord’s Supper by the minister’s prophetic exhortation, the worshipper passes through this light externally, as internally he receives from the Holy Ghost a spiritual understanding of what he’s now approaching. He comes up to a rood screen, ideally executed in wood in allusion to the Tree of Life; atop the screen is a wooden crucifix representing the Crucifixion, without the supporting figures of the Virgin and St John so common in the Middle Ages. The idea of the rood screen in Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, in the spirit of the Epistle to the Hebrews, is very fitting: the Tabernacle curtain, rent in two, is drawn apart by angels to reveal Christ standing within the Most Holy Place in heaven, risen and ascended and interceding on behalf of his elect people Israel (for his atonement’s applied to, and his intercession made in behalf of, those alone who actually believe).

The choir screen of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. © Cambridge 2000.

The choir screen of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. © Cambridge 2000.

Stepping up to the chancel, the Lord’s people read an inscription at the entryway of the rood screen: Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. On the chancel step they crush with their feet an image of the scarlet Beast with seven heads and ten horns, along with the names of Pharaoh, Sennacherib, Antiochus, Nero Caesar, Diocletian, Papacy and Robespierre (why do the nations so furiously rage together?), in token that Christ himself, in whom Christians too are sons of God, has crushed the head of the ancient Serpent; so too have painters and sculptors shown St Michael the Archangel trampling the fallen Satan with his foot. Up ahead, in contrast, on the central panel of the sanctuary’s eastern wall (a seven-part reredos), communicants see Christ’s authority displayed in the Resurrection and the apocryphal Harrowing of Hell.

Peter with the key to heaven. © Cindy Tsao.

Peter with the key to heaven. © Cindy Tsao.

In the midst of the chancel, raised on an additional step, stands the cedar Communion Table with a fair linen cloth, enclosed within an altar rail open on the north side; what surrounds it serves to urge reverence for the sacrament and to encourage Christians to come to it with joyful thanksgiving. Underfoot around the rail, covering a honeycomb-patterned stone floor, are carpets richly decorated with Edenic foliage. The choir stalls on both sides, crowned with Rayonnant spires and pinnacles, are carved with angels, pomegranate trees and grape vines. To either side of the holy Table, leaning on piers at the wall of the sanctuary, are the mighty archangels Michael, with a sword, and Gabriel, with a trumpet (cf. St Peter, at right, in the Sainte-Chapelle); overhead, on the vaulting, cherubim and seraphim are gilded upon a rich blue heaven emblazoned with golden stars. Angels kneel at the four corners of the altar rail, faces bowed down (Ltn. cernui) to the King of kings. Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts; heaven and earth are full of thy glory.

If I tell you I’ve been looking at diagrams of Beauvais cathedral, you know there’s more to come. And so there is.


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