NOVA: Building the Great Cathedrals

Watch Building the Great Cathedrals on PBS. See more from NOVA.

I saw a bit of NOVA’s Building the Great Cathedrals in the apartment we rented in Prague. It was dubbed in Czech, of course, so I had some difficulty following the narration–but I could tell there were people trying to understand a structural problem at Amiens Cathedral which might some day precipitate its collapse.

I’ve had the good fortune to visit many Gothic cathedrals. These are my favorite buildings on Earth, with the exquisite stone work, the curious gargoyles, and that stunning stained glass. In one weekend back in 2002 I rented a car and drove from Rouen, where I was taking a six-week language immersion course, to Beauvais, Meaux, Amiens, Reims, and Chartres. It’s my dream some day to at my leisure visit every Romanesque and Gothic church in France. When I stayed in Rouen I spent a lot of time at or near the Cathedrals, especially Notre Dame de Rouen, which Monet obsessively painted and re-painted. I’ve visited Chartres three times. That church may be my most favorite place on Earth.

The idea that Amiens could collapse makes me queasy. So many of these magnificent buildings were heavily damaged or destroyed by bombing in WW2. Reims lost its roof and much of its 800-year-old glass to German shelling in WW1. I think these stone edifices which seem so light and jaunty are as impressive as any ancient architecture built by the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Maya, or Incas. Strangely, no one claims that they were built by aliens,…

The NOVA special is really good, but it does get a little DaVinci-Codish toward the end, gushing about numbers found in the architecture of cathedrals which might have Biblical meaning. That final segment seems tacked on in order to appeal to a current faddish curiosity about ancient knowledge “hidden” in art and architecture. I don’t doubt that there is ancient knowledge encoded in the Gothic cathedrals, but Dan Brown has no idea what it is, nor did the authors he stole his ideas from, like Baigent and Leigh.

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