If architecture can be frozen music, it can also surely capture something of the soul of faith. The upward soaring vaults of Burgos Cathedral, in northern Spain, recently inspired me with a new vision of God, not just because it is a beautiful building, but also because it shows how the medieval mind understood the centrality of worship to the nourishment of faith. A building which employs every possible resource and skill known to man to create an edifice on a scale which dwarfs its creators is a monument to the conviction that nothing is more important than the presence of God With Us. Like Jacob’s ladder reaching heavenwards, its majestic heights adorned with angels, the cathedral is a visible reminder that “Here is the house of God, here is the gate of heaven”.
The imagery of the Church as a gate, a threshold to heaven and salvation, is vividly emphasised at Burgos. The connection both of the church as a building and the Church as a community of faith to the person of Jesus Christ is made real and visible. So there are tympanums over the doors from the outside which depict Christ in various ways. He is the Pantocrator of the Last Judgment over the north door, seated in majesty with angels presenting to him the instruments of his Passion, with Our Lady and possibly St John the Evangelist flanking him. While in the panel below, souls are weighed and welcomed to paradise or cast into hell by hirsute demons.
Another magnificently preserved tympanum over the south door shows the Christ of Wisdom. He is seated with the Gospel in his hand, and the four animals representing the four Evangelists surround him, representing the idea that He himself is both the inspiration of the Gospel and its content. The receipt of that Gospel is not just something to move my thinking; it calls me to cross a threshold out of the “normal” environment of a world in the thrall of sin into the new temple which is the risen body of Christ, the sanctuary destroyed but raised up in three days.
Step inside the south transept and immediately to the right is the so-called Door of Paradise, or Golden Door, which is the entrance to the cathedral’s huge two-storied cloister. A gothic arch some 20ft high surmounts two great carved wooden doors which were originally gilded. There is plenty of vibrant colour still from the polychrome statues which stand either side of and above the door, and from the dozens of angels thronging the projecting architraves. Its symbolism is that man was expelled from a place of enclosure, the Garden of Paradise. Those who enter the enclosure of the cloister are recovering that first innocence as they cross a threshold away from the world.
On the right side of the arch are polychrome statues of Isaiah and King David. The latter is the ancestor of the true King of the Jews. On the other side of the door is Our Lady and the Angel of the Annunciation. In the apex of the arch is a scene depicting the Baptism of the Lord. Over the arch is the baptism of Christ: Jesus anointed with the Spirit for his salvific mission, the Second Adam who, unlike the first, will not assert equality with the Father, but rather empty himself by way of the Cross in the obedience of a loving Son. So we enter into the mystery of salvation through baptism into Christ’s body.
The door of paradise can only be opened by grace, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit and his indwelling; the Spirit who enables us to cry “Abba, Father”, making us beloved sons. Those who enter the cloister, the enclosed garden, are living out a particular ecclesial mission which derives from their identity as God’s beloved sons and deepens their baptismal consecration, as they imitate their master, poor, chaste and obedient. They are destined for paradise. The Beloved Son is the gateway to the Father because in his human nature he has passed through to the heavens. Through, with and in Him who has opened the gates of heaven through his Ascension, the Christian may pass through into the heart of the Blessed Trinity.
It is interesting that beautiful though these artworks are to the modern mind, they are actually much more than decorations. They are evangelisation in stone and carved wood – the sacred made real, as an exhibition of such work described it some years ago.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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