Book review: Cathedral by Jon Cannon

England’s magnificent medieval cathedrals are acknowledged as one of the wonders of the world, but who built them and why?

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 31st May 2011, 7:00 am

The aptly named Jon Cannon explores these extraordinary creations from a new and fascinating angle in his beautifully illustrated historical guide.

Here he views them not just as awe-inspiring buildings but as constantly changing structures created by a rich brew of ancient rituals, beliefs, personalities and politics – a sort of living window onto the past.

Far from being just great architectural monuments, these buildings were brought alive by the messages encoded in their sculpture and the miraculous events believed to occur in them.

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Cathedrals were centres of great power, mainly because church teaching dominated what people believed about the world and their place in it; they provided what we today would call education and social services.

The Church itself was one of England’s most important land owners and bishops were important players in national and international politics.

But cathedrals were not merely an expression of power; as religious buildings, they meant something much more. Through the rituals performed there each day, God was believed to be confirming His contract with humanity.

The architecture and decoration were also of paramount importance as they conjured up a complex series of images that embodied an entire world-view.

Worship was seen as the single most important activity that any human could undertake and within the bulky walls of the cathedrals, a privileged and exclusive community would pray and worship for up to eight hours every day.

In a world where no other buildings measured up to a cathedral and where there were no theatres, cinemas or art galleries, there was no other experience which could match the impact of entering its hallowed precincts.

These remarkable monuments were an assault on all the senses, designed to give people a direct experience of the mystical and spiritual, and by doing so make their faith as tangible as the stone walls.

Today, cathedrals are major tourist attractions as well as places of worship. Salisbury Cathedral alone welcomes about 300,000 visitors a year and the view of it over the water meadows along the Avon has come to typify England at its best.

Accompanied by specially commissioned photographs and diagrams and including thematic chapters on key aspects and separate essays on every medieval cathedral in England, this magnificent volume is a must for history and architecture fans as well as a fitting tribute to the creative genius of our ancestors.

(Constable, paperback, £18.99)