That medieval cathedrals were places of colour, is one of those facts that one learns relatively quickly but does not necessarily understand. Or perhaps one thinks one understands it, until one has been confronted with it perceptually and realizes how little one did.
Such was the minor revelation when we dropped into the cathedral in Braunschweig on Sunday morning. We’d been to a wedding the day before, an occasion that provided a much-needed sense of perspective at this particular juncture. What happened next seemed to complement that by reminding me why I became interested in the Middle Ages all those years ago.
The whole cathedral is a treasure because it survived World War 2 practically unscathed. The paintings, including those in the photograph, are admittedly the result of several stages of restoration and reconstruction that began in the mid-nineteenth century – but the scale and atmosphere they create are nonetheless astonishing.
The sense of being immersed in images, stories, and ideas brings the architecture alive. It changes the way one perceives the space, prompting engagement and drawing one in. Think, for instance, of how the placement of the twelfth-century memorial to Henry the Lion and Mathilde of England means that the couple are ‘looking’ up to the heavenly Jerusalem painted above them …
The ins and outs of medieval Christian art history are, like those of religious writing, not always the most accessible to the non-expert. Experiences such as this are a good reminder of why they should be. There’s an element of imagination in it all, of course: in how the paintings came to be the way they are today and in the way I, at least, responded to them. This does not have to be a bad thing. Our visiting colleague Jeff Rider is, indeed, currently working on ways of thinking about such encounters with the past, and I’ll need to ponder further how his reflection on ‘use’ and ‘happiness’ relates to my own interest in the role of imagination in them. At any event: it was with a sensation of enriched being that I went out into the sweltering heat and set off through a deserted city to collect our bags from the hotel and pick up a cab to the station.
Credits and sources: Photo by Isabel! — Background information on Cathedral website — Friedrich Weber and Joachim Hempel, ‘Der ikonographische Blickwinkel – oder Heinrichs des Löwen Memorialkirche’, pp. 9–11 of Harald Wolter-von dem Knesebeck and Joachim Hempel (eds), Die Wandmalereien im Braunschweiger Dom St. Blasii (free offprint from Cathedral shop).