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Book: Heaven on Earth

Cathedrals is among the connections that have the most WHS associated with them. At 166 entries, it only lags behind more generic topics such as Located in a former capital (200) and former subjects of the World Monuments Watch (186). A recent book, Heaven on Earth. The Lives and Legacies of the World's Greatest Cathedrals by Emma J. Wells, describes 11 of these WHS Cathedrals plus a further 2 that are on the Tentative Lists. Does it bring any new insights?

What it is about

The book - I ordered the quite heavy (480 pages) hardcover version - provides ‘biographies’ of 16 European cathedrals, with a focus on the gothic building frenzy in the 12th and 13th centuries. Each cathedral gets about 15 pages. The text concentrates on the Who and Why behind the construction and not so much on the architecture itself. I’ve called them ‘biographies’ as their histories are described from their conception up until the present date.

The story starts with Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and ends at the Duomo of Florence. In between, the cathedrals in Santiago de Compostela, St-Denis, Chartres, Paris, Canterbury, Wells, Winchester, Reims, Amiens, Salisbury, York, Westminster, Cologne and Prague come by in chronological order.

Apparently, it needed an ambitious bishop, royal approval and lots of money to build a great cathedral. Wells describes a spectacular cathedral as a “money making machine to attract pilgrims”. We learn of riots by tax-paying citizens who had to pay for it. For it to become a success, religious relics were a must and it also helped to have a homegrown saint (this could be arranged by paying the Vatican a little extra to expedite the canonization process).

Cathedrals with notable stories

The history of some of the cathedrals is already better known than that of others; especially the Duomo in Florence has many books dedicated to it. But there are also intriguing stories associated with the other ones, such as the maverick bishop of Santiago de Compostela who wasn’t above the theft of holy relics from other places or remodelling a statue of Mary into one of St. James to adorn his church.

Notable is the prominent position given to the Cathedral of St. Denis, ‘only’ a TWHS but the most pivotal during the rise of Gothic. It is also credited with the first use of stained glass in a large church and all but four of the Kings of France were buried there. Why it has never been put forward as a WH nomination by France in the early years may lie in the "minimal remains of the 12th century original" and the debatable reconstructions that happened in later centuries and are still being discussed.

Pros and cons of the book

Heaven on Earth is easy to read; not so dumbed down that everything has to be explained, but you don’t have to be a scholar either. I found it refreshing to learn about the people's side of the construction of these famous cathedrals. The book is a coherent whole with an explanatory introduction and a glossary if you do not know your apses from your gargoyles. Also, with the chronological order, you will notice the evolution in cathedral construction and the many ‘modelled after’ references.

I found that there were one or two too many French examples and three or four too many English. An omission is the Aachen Cathedral, which would have been the best one to start with. And I would have liked a bit broader spectrum overall (Latin America? Another one in Italy?) as it now sometimes reads as a lesson in French and English medieval history.

Despite these minor flaws, I enjoyed the book and looked forward to what every new chapter would bring. Definitely, I will use it as a reference work to open again when I am about to visit another European cathedral.

Els - 21 May 2023

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Meltwaterfalls 21 May 2023

Thanks for the review, I was actually looking at a copy in our village bookshop last week. Certainly sounds interesting.

Yep, the title is a tad hyperbolic, and just looking at the list it is very evidently the work of an English writer. However as someone living close to several of them (and having visited them all) it may be worth a purchase.

Solivagant 21 May 2023

It seems to be very badly titled ("......the World's Greatest Cathedrals") claiming a scope which it doesn't attempt to meet or justify.
Her on line CV is interesting in showing the range of things which academics do nowadays to make a shilling or 2.... These include being a "specialist lecturer and guide for Andante Travels and Promenades Travel unravelling the history of architectural sites to parties across the UK".
Her full time academic role is at York University. One presumes she would be involved in any work to progress any nomination for the recently T Listed City and Cathedral. But I noted this recent headline from the newly elected Council "leader Claire Douglas said: “It’s not one of our top priority issues to get done immediately"