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Crafting a Cathedral

The Gothic cathedral is wonderful to behold. What is it about these ancient buildings that demands our attention and awe? At the outset it is their sheer, majestic beauty. As we learn more about them, the radical nature of their architectural genius— expressed in the pointed arch, the flying buttress, and the ribbed vault – it becomes clear that these original creative forms were conceived for the sake of lifting the tremendous weight of stone to the heavens, breathing air and light into the sanctuary of God’s house. The Gothic cathedral is a sacramental offering on the palm of supreme craft, lengthened across the canvas of centuries. Our initial wonder is amplified by an intellectual awe.

Although this intellectual appreciation begins in an admiration for great engineering feats, it cannot remain at this level. The cathedral is a powerful unity. The symbolic is powerfully woven into the very fabric of the cathedrals. The most obvious structural elements of this symbolism are the cruciform shape of the sanctuary, bringing all of the faithful into the form of the cross, and the sheer height of the buildings, culminating in the pointed arches, as if the space would direct itself unto heaven. There is the celebration of light breaking through the metal-stained glass windows. Mathematics, engineering, liturgy, philosophy, geometry, music, scripture, and Greco-Romanic thought are wound together in a climactic intersection.

Tympanum of the central bay of the Royal Portal of the cathedral of Chartres, France. Christ is surrounded by saints, personifications of the Seven Liberal Arts, Pythagoras, Euclid, and Aristotle. (Photo by Guillaume Piolle /, CC BY 3.0)

Scripture and architecture merge, weaving the fabric of the cathedrals. Notre Dame’s two levels are of the same mathematical ratios as those of the Temple of Solomon.  The Cathedral of Amiens’ central dais, at the intersection of the cruciform, is 50 royal feet by 50 royal feet – matching the dimensions of the Ark (50 cubits by 50 cubits). Cathédrale Saint-Pierre of Beauvais, beautiful and fragile, was pushed beyond its conceivable limits to match St. John’s description in Revelation of the heavenly city: 144 cubits in height (or royal feet, in the case of Beauvais). These hidden realities built into the dimensions of the cathedral whisper eternal truths throughout the very dimensions of the place, all orbiting the celebration of the Mass. Indeed, the cathedral itself is a scriptural meditation.

In a fragmented world, where Truth itself is disallowed from giving all of human pursuits one purpose, the cathedrals are a fitting reminder of the intimate relation between what are commonly thought of as separate disciplines. It is just such a unified intersection that we wish to realize within the St. Jerome Institute student. Only at such an academy would it be possible to recognize our deeper responsibility to each of our students: that they themselves, temples of the Holy Spirit, be filled with the highest and most noble things. This foundation in the oneness of truth allows for the expansion that comes when young souls, rough-hewn stone, receive the breath of God and realize the great cathedrals they all, in their deepest hearts, long to be.

The exterior of Beauvais Cathedral in Picardy, France. (Photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

This transformation may certainly occur in their Theology seminar senior year – but this will only be the culmination of work that began years earlier in their Mathematics seminar, the Philosophy of Nature and Humanities seminars, Latin, Music, a regular encounter with the sacraments, and the sense of belonging to a community, all woven together in the unified call of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. We wish to fill our students both with the language of poetry and the language of mathematics so that they may come into their own as living symbols of Christ, filled with an infinite number of sacred recollections in the dimension of their minds and hearts.

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