On the Economics of a Cathedral

There are few finer sights than a Gothic cathedral. They fill a European Catholic with a great sense of achievement, sufficient, even after all this time, to form a significant part of our confidence as Christians today.

Endless tomes have been compiled about them—in particular their art, their stylistic heritage, the life lived within them. The Catholic artistic mind, considering Catholic art, cannot flee from the influence of these towering achievements. In meditating on the methods of evangelization and re-evangelization, the Gothic cathedral represents the most exalted point of reference. The Catholic imagination wonders how a head of steam is generated among a people, sufficient to thrust the vast tonnages of these buildings hundreds of feet from the soil. How did a people come to love the sacraments so much that they chose to serve them so wholly?

Ely Cathedral Exterior. Photo: James Gillick

In your mind, position yourself at the foot of the façade of a great Gothic cathedral. Look up and look around you. Consider the scale, the elaborate detail, the endless revisions. My brother, Theodore, a sculptor, coined the expression “curve equals cost”: a thing made with a curve is far more costly to make than a straight one. In all periods of history, flat, square design (like European design from the 1920s to the 1980s) denotes poverty. But consider your cathedral. See how she sweeps, her arches raising and raising their heads again to let their Lord enter. See the vaulting in the roof; the tracery in stone within the windows; the fluting of the pillars; the intricately woodcarved pulpit, font cover, and choir; the curls and twists of iron, brass, and bronze. These buildings were comprehensively more spectacular than anything being built around them.

“Sheesh!” says the craftsman. “This building cost a fortune!”

“Sheesh!” says the Socialist. “What an unjustifiable sump of the People’s cash!”

“Sheesh!” says the Protestant. “All this from the sale of indulgences and relics!”

Are cathedrals, abbeys, and monasteries of that great age of Catholicism to be scorned as remnants of a domineering, selfish, profiteering clergy? What was their funding source? Who were their fundraisers? What was the Church trading in at the time? Why are they so huge?

The idea of the cathedral did not arise valiantly out of crushing adversity, nor were they the overflow of material surpluses, nor were they simply an outlandish desire by the clergy to ram their catechetics home. They were the product of a very brilliant, practical Christian idea.

The cathedral is an enterprise that is, to every intent and purpose, a social security system of immense beauty designed to sustain a local people for upwards of a quarter of a millennium. They were built incrementally. To build a cathedral, first you have to build a road to a quarry. To feed the road-builders, you have to drain the fen or clear the forest and cultivate the land. Iron and copper need to be smelted, clothes made, lime excavated, food cooked, carts built, pots thrown: an entire economy is stimulated and springs into being.

The Church’s greatest achievement at that time was to fall in love with the filthy, unrespectable poor and to “get into bed with them,” as Londoners say. Placing into their lives a promise from God—the Eucharist—the clergy created a commonwealth revolving around the cathedral as a unifying project enshrining the ceremony that brought that mystery about. It is no coincidence that adoration of the Blessed Sacrament appeared as a phenomenon at that time.

The common economics of any historical period are summarized as the trade in goods that satisfy the basic physical needs of the individual (i.e., more ease and more pleasure). Such systems tend toward reducing costs by any means to increase profits, resulting in ugliness. In contrast, the Church’s social policy has always rightly ordered an economy around an idea greater than the needs of the individual and even the sum of the individuals—namely, praise worthy of God Himself. The economic model of the “great building” is a self-perpetuating project because everyone benefits (materially as much as anything else). Yet it is administered by volunteers; the chief beneficiary, God, does not evoke envy; and the building and its chattels are owned by the community.

The clergy took it upon themselves at that time to heal, to educate, to cultivate, to bear witness to contracts marital and commercial, to arbitrate in disputes, to stand between the unjust employer and the employee, to control the action of the banks in their profiteering, and to offer sanctuary to those without defence. They kept peace on the highway, administered justice both privately and publicly, honoured the dead, and freed the ransomed slave. These acts were not chiefly for the benefit of the rich (who had their own teachers, men at arms, and doctors), but for the unwise poor—the really dumb, foul-mouthed, addicted poor. It must be with great joy that a priest realises that he has the power to force open the gates of heaven; that joy is precisely at the core of the greatest popular movement in Western history. I am sure that there remains a great host of happy souls in heaven from that time that, by rights, should not be there save for the fact that they were materially ransomed by the Church and booted into heaven past a chortling Saint Peter. The nature of the relationship between the Church and the world in the age of the Gothic cathedral was one in which the clergy sat as the healing, distributive centre of a tangible, just economy ordered to spiritual ends—a new Jerusalem. The cathedral is a practical demonstration of the healing touch of Christ beside Galilee: He feeds then He saves.

All great cultural flowerings have this type of economic idea in common: that the whole of society orientates toward a mystery—faces off-planet, so to speak. Athenian society was ordered in such a way. The Parthenon Frieze (the Elgin Marbles) depicts the event in which the entirety of their society went in procession every four years to offer the sacred peplos to the statue of Athena Polias within the Acropolis. What happens when society looks “off -planet” is that the many disciplines necessary to sustain a community, usually disconnected, are drawn into proximity: a team of horses held and led by a single hand. The cultural flowering comes because of that proximity: when art, farming, industry, science, priesthood, and the family cross-pollinate.

Yet, looking at my cathedral façade, I know that the clergy of the time displayed another great piece of wisdom. They understood that whoever employs and calls the shots to the artistic, creative minds in society has the means at their disposal to fascinate the rest. They knew that a people controlled by force of arms and fear become resentful, that centralized control requires the forfeiture of well-earned property, and that complete freedom—trade and private—results in conflict. But you can enthral a people with art because it is rare and extraordinary. They understood that there is a leverage exerted by artistic beauty that makes the outrageous claims of the Mass believable to the unwise. Excellence inspires devotion.

The Octagon, Ely Cathedral. Photo: James Gillick

And good art is expensive. Artists are a wayward and mercenary bunch—sensual, somatic. They gravitate to the highest bidder. But whoever does bid highest for their services and delimits their output controls the whole aesthetic: the look, feel, and motivation of society. We know, for example, that there exists an intimate bond between pop culture in all its forms (including architecture) and the products of the massive industries that pay so handsomely for them. It is also clear to me that the Church, for no reason, dropped the baton in the race to own the heart of culture a long time ago.

I work as an artist—a painter. I am a very successful, ambitious, rough, and driven man. I come from a skilful, huge Catholic family of 150 artists and craftsmen. Between us all we could probably begin to build and decorate every aspect of a Gothic cathedral, but we do not. Every now and again one of us accepts a job to “reorder” some small place of worship. We pull a team together and crash through the job because it pays less than a tenth of the price of secular work. We work for bankers, traders, and industrialists because they know that our quality work reinforces who they are—makes them believable. We are owned—lock, stock, and barrel—by worldly men because without their support we would not be able to feed and educate our large Catholic families.

When I stand in another cheap, bare Catholic church and trudge through another generic hymn reading the words “Copyright the songwriter” at the foot of the page, I am saddened to know that it means that the Church did not click a single penny onto the table for his craft, so he wrote a text appropriate to as many denominations as possible to make ends meet. He, when writing, and I, while singing, were both thinking about Mr. Bieber in his mansion and his clever patrons. I do not like being beaten.

Reims Cathedral Facade. Photo: James Gillick

All is not lost. The Gothic cathedral was born in a period of great stability following huge population migrations and successful (but rather chaotic) evangelical efforts in strange lands. We are in an expansive age now. The last fifty-six years (since the papacy of John XXIII) has seen the Church grow from 550 million to 1.1 billion. It is not a bad thing at all that our funds and resources are stretched, or that Rome does not know whether to concentrate on the North, South, East, or West. It is now a very big Church to guide, and much of Rome’s efforts are valiantly dispensed on encouraging homogeny. This is another age of migration, conversion, and re-conversion. But there will certainly come a time—and projects occasionally appear even now—when it will be well to remember that great Gothic Commonwealth. What a monumental legacy they left us.

Painting of Saint Gregory by James Gillick

James Gillick is one of the UK’s foremost figurative artists. You may find him at www.gillick-artist.com.