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The Architect of Spears

The other day, in the town of Lincoln, I suffered an optical illusion
which accidentally revealed to me the strange greatness of the Gothic
architecture. Its secret is not, I think, satisfactorily explained in
most of the discussions on the subject. It is said that the Gothic
eclipses the classical by a certain richness and complexity, at once
lively and mysterious. This is true; but Oriental decoration is equally
rich and complex, yet it awakens a widely different sentiment. No man
ever got out of a Turkey carpet the emotions that he got from a cathedral
tower. Over all the exquisite ornament of Arabia and India there is the
presence of something stiff and heartless, of something tortured and
silent. Dwarfed trees and crooked serpents, heavy flowers and hunchbacked
birds accentuate by the very splendour and contrast of their colour the
servility and monotony of their shapes. It is like the vision of a
sneering sage, who sees the whole universe as a pattern. Certainly no one
ever felt like this about Gothic, even if he happens to dislike it. Or,
again, some will say that it is the liberty of the Middle Ages in the use
of the comic or even the coarse that makes the Gothic more interesting
than the Greek. There is more truth in this; indeed, there is real truth
in it. Few of the old Christian cathedrals would have passed the Censor
of Plays. We talk of the inimitable grandeur of the old cathedrals; but
indeed it is rather their gaiety that we do not dare to imitate. We
should be rather surprised if a chorister suddenly began singing "Bill
Bailey" in church. Yet that would be only doing in music what the
mediaevals did in sculpture. They put into a Miserere seat the very
scenes that we put into a music hall song: comic domestic scenes similar to
the spilling of the beer and the hanging out of the washing. But though
the gaiety of Gothic is one of its features, it also is not the secret of
its unique effect. We see a domestic topsy-turvydom in many Japanese
sketches. But delightful as these are, with their fairy tree-tops, paper
houses, and toddling, infantile inhabitants, the pleasure they give is of
a kind quite different from the joy and energy of the gargoyles. Some
have even been so shallow and illiterate as to maintain that our pleasure
in medieval building is a mere pleasure in what is barbaric, in what is
rough, shapeless, or crumbling like the rocks. This can be dismissed
after the same fashion; South Sea idols, with painted eyes and radiating
bristles, are a delight to the eye; but they do not affect it in at all
the same way as Westminster Abbey. Some again (going to another and
almost equally foolish extreme) ignore the coarse and comic in
mediaevalism; and praise the pointed arch only for its utter purity and
simplicity, as of a saint with his hands joined in prayer. Here, again,
the uniqueness is missed. There are Renaissance things (such as the
ethereal silvery drawings of Raphael), there are even pagan things (such
as the Praying Boy) which express as fresh and austere a piety. None of
these explanations explain. And I never saw what was the real point about
Gothic till I came into the town of Lincoln, and saw it behind a row of

I did not know they were furniture-vans; at the first glance and in the
smoky distance I thought they were a row of cottages. A low stone wall
cut off the wheels, and the vans were somewhat of the same colour as the
yellowish clay or stone of the buildings around them. I had come across
that interminable Eastern plain which is like the open sea, and all the
more so because the one small hill and tower of Lincoln stands up in it
like a light-house. I had climbed the sharp, crooked streets up to this
ecclesiastical citadel; just in front of me was a flourishing and richly
coloured kitchen garden; beyond that was the low stone wall; beyond that
the row of vans that looked like houses; and beyond and above that,
straight and swift and dark, light as a flight of birds, and terrible as
the Tower of Babel, Lincoln Cathedral seemed to rise out of human sight.

As I looked at it I asked myself the questions that I have asked here;
what was the soul in all those stones? They were varied, but it was not
variety; they were solemn, but it was not solemnity; they were farcical,
but it was not farce. What is it in them that thrills and soothes a man
of our blood and history, that is not there in an Egyptian pyramid or an
Indian temple or a Chinese pagoda? All of a sudden the vans I had
mistaken for cottages began to move away to the left. In the start this
gave to my eye and mind I really fancied that the Cathedral was moving
towards the right. The two huge towers seemed to start striding across
the plain like the two legs of some giant whose body was covered with the
clouds. Then I saw what it was.

The truth about Gothic is, first, that it is alive, and second, that it is
on the march. It is the Church Militant; it is the only fighting
architecture. All its spires are spears at rest; and all its stones are
stones asleep in a catapult. In that instant of illusion, I could hear the
arches clash like swords as they crossed each other. The mighty and
numberless columns seemed to go swinging by like the huge feet of imperial
elephants. The graven foliage wreathed and blew like banners going into
battle; the silence was deafening with ail the mingled noises of a
military march; the great bell shook down, as the organ shook up its
thunder. The thirsty-throated gargoyles shouted like trumpets from all
the roofs and pinnacles as they passed; and from the lectern in the core
of the cathedral the eagle of the awful evangelist clashed his wings of

And amid all the noises I seemed to hear the voice of a man shouting in
the midst like one ordering regiments hither and thither in the fight; the
voice of the great half-military master-builder; the architect of spears.
I could almost fancy he wore armour while he made that church; and I knew
indeed that, under a scriptural figure, he had borne in either hand the
trowel and the sword.

I could imagine for the moment that the whole of that house of life had
marched out of the sacred East, alive and interlocked, like an army.
Some Eastern nomad had found it solid and silent in the red circle of the
desert. He had slept by it as by a world-forgotten pyramid; and been woke
at midnight by the wings of stone and brass, the tramping of the tall
pillars, the trumpets of the waterspouts. On such a night every snake or
sea-beast must have turned and twisted in every crypt or corner of the
architecture. And the fiercely coloured saints marching eternally in the
flamboyant windows would have carried their glorioles like torches across
dark lands and distant seas; till the whole mountain of music and darkness
and lights descended roaring on the lonely Lincoln hill. So for some
hundred and sixty seconds I saw the battle-beauty of the Gothic; then the
last furniture-van shifted itself away; and I saw only a church tower in a
quiet English town, round which the English birds were floating.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton