There is a cathedral not far from my house, Lutherische Pfarrkirche St. Marien, the oldest parish church in Marburg. The back pew is the best, where one has an unrivaled view of the rising columns and the graceful curve of stone where it meets the apex above. This is a quiet, little-visited place; one must climb a multitude of steps and navigate a maze of narrow cobblestone streets in order to find it. The steeply-pitched, shingled spire marks the way, sitting slightly askew; a peaked hat in jaunty rebellion aslant the brow or perhaps teetering as if finally wearied of holding itself erect after this long passage of time. It is small, so far as cathedrals go; the stained-glass windows tall and slender but interspersed with robust exterior walls that suggest Romanesque roots. One does not have to travel far to find a cathedral in this part of the world – indeed, they seem dotted upon the landscape like daisies on a spring lawn. But for all their abundance, they remain, to me, unfailingly magnificent.
Within, ribbons of burnt orange line the column flutes, forming an elegant star where they connect far overhead in the soaring splendor of the cross-vault, and faded frescoes cover the eastern wall. I sit, quiet and still, breathing in the musty scent of centuries past. There seems a higher degree of receptivity here, within the cool smoothness of old-quarried stone where space and light expand to impossible heights, where a rich kaleidoscope of color spill from narrow windows. A place of elegant quietude amidst the tumult of the modern world; a retreat – even for a heathen such as I. Where the mind can roam and wander, until one reaches the inevitable conclusion that such commonplace thoughts, whatever they may be, are dull indeed in the face of such astounding architectural achievement. For at last there is nothing left but to simply marvel at the manner in which stone (a noun oft associated with a heavy solidity of form, a dense, immobile weight) is here transformed into slender flutes, elegant curlicues and lofty arches. It is colossal but it is also fluid, even supple, as if it is life itself riveted, pinned and wielded into place; the skeletal interior of some long-dead creature turned to stone, fixed by Medusa’s glare, its delicate curve of rib now the vault beneath which men worship.
Someone told me yesterday that he thought we had lost something in recent centuries; that the skill of true artisans - of the wood carvers who created the rococo intricacies that decorate palatial interiors, of stonemasons who fashioned the languid flow of robe and hair in a medium that seemed impervious to such fluidity – is, in short, a thing of the past. And that technology, for all of its conveniences, also plays a role in homogenizing cultural disparities. Elizabethkirche, St. Marien’s more famous architectural cousin, is perpetually thronged with curious travelers recording their impressions of Germany’s oldest Gothic cathedral through the screen of an i-phone or tablet. And I cannot help but wonder if they ever saw the original or only its miniature facsimile within the flickering medium of bits and bytes. Doubtless monarchical absolutism was an essential economic precondition for such massive building projects, but it seems it is also a matter of what we choose to invest in. Not only the architecture we leave behind (the concrete bunkers of the 60’s and 70’s still pain the collective sensibilities), but the art – whether it be in paint, wood, stone or bound within the covers of a printed book. Perhaps for writers of historical fiction, there is a visceral need to hang on to something – to try to enliven some aspect of the past, an element still discernible within fictional clothing. For a literary work cannot be historically accurate in every respect (and indeed should not strive to be so – for where then lies the power of the imagination?) but most seek to illuminate, however obliquely, some past truth that lies in shadow; a historical personage that should not be forgotten, an event that seemed too strange to be true, a particular conjunction of people and places that define a pivotal moment - these provide the requisite fodder for writers of historical fiction.
I muse upon these themes as I sit in my pew, keeping company with solemn-eyed saints who gaze down from their elevated perches. For despite the gold cloth that drapes the altar and the thick bible that sits upon the pulpit (both of which denote a working-cathedral – St. Marien earns its keep still), I am often alone in this place; the parishioners temporarily absent. Truth be told, I find myself envious of those who regularly attend to their religious devotionals beneath these awe-inspiring walls. I am not, however, preoccupied with religious matters, in my quiet seat in the back, nor do I wish for the company of a congregation in this sacred space. Instead, I am thinking of toiling artisans, of stoneworkers and architects, of lifetimes spent in the labor of construction, and the profound pleasure of modern living (however briefly) among such architectural marvels. For this is a visceral experience of medieval history that I have seldom experienced – having long resided in youthful nations where two centuries constitutes a localized antiquity. While there is an exuberant freshness to those young lands (America, a great democratic experiment that is still, perhaps, in the throes of self-invention), the crumbling castles and the grand splendor of ancient estates, the elaborately formal gardens and gilded rococo palaces, the plaster and timber houses with awkward thresholds and warped, sagging beams have a humbling history that is felt in the bones…not just for a writer of historical fiction, but for anyone enamored of the past and the long path that winds out behind. Whether our ancestors numbered among these laborers or their overlords, whether our particular past finds root in the heartland of Europe or not, it is still representative of a common and collective heritage of mankind – of what can be achieved in art and architecture and the profound effect of it still a millennium later.