The rebuilding of Canterbury Cathedral following the fire of 1174 is a project we can still experience today. Over a million people from across the globe are welcomed through the doors at Canterbury every year. But this is just one story.
The creation of the Gothic style in twelfth-century France proclaimed the dawning of a new era which swept across Europe during the later middle ages. An enterprise of ‘cathedral makers’, sustained by kings, chapters, abbots and nobles of European high society, mobilised an expansive programme of building in a quest to literally build Heaven on Earth. Throughout Christendom, these magnificent skyscrapers of glass and stone began to dominate the landscape of many cities, towns and even the smallest of villages.
The stories behind these majestic architectural marvels – the great cathedrals – are some of the most epic sagas in history, teeming with an extraordinary cast of characters. While many books have chronicled their builders, style and construction, this is the first to bring together, under one roof, all aspects of their living histories, chipping away at previously unexamined details to reveal a fresh interpretation of these feats of imagination, engineering and mystery that we think we know so well. From towering infernos to comical mistakes, corrections and bodge-jobs which sit proudly alongside blatant acts of vandalism, hidden messages, self-portraits and tongue-in-cheek depictions – the fabric is both a roster and relic of the stories and characters responsible for their creation.
Heaven On Earth – an illuminating narrative of the conception and legacies of twenty of the world’s greatest cathedrals – is interwoven with an exploration of the lives, legends and scandals of the people who built them – both up on the pinnacles and down in the crypts. Much more than a series of individual biographies of the buildings, it is a human story set against the backdrop of the most astonishing achievements of Western culture, bringing to life those who have too often been reduced to abstractions of ‘mason’ or ‘bishop’ to provide the reader with a sense of walking through this glorious Age of Faith. The central focus of the book is, however, the zenith of cathedral building, spanning the millennium 500 to 1500 AD, sweeping from Byzantine grandeur to the more modern interpretations found in Milan and Moscow, when the architect – as we understand the profession today – began to emerge. An epilogue will then explore the evolution of the role and influence of the cathedral across art, culture, and society from Coventry to California, and the changing styles in our midst.
Transporting the reader from the chaotic atmosphere of the masons’ yard to the cloisters of power, each chapter is a journey of exploration through a different cathedral. It takes in their cultural landscapes, the physical settings, as well as the personal stories, relationships and tragedies that marked each architectural revolution, from the largest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, York Minster of England, where countless disasters (deliberate, accidental and foolish) wreaked havoc on its fabric, to the Hagia Sophia of modern-day Turkey in the south, an iconic landmark in which are entwined the legacies of medieval Christianity, the Ottoman Empire, resurgent Islam and secular societies. Together, the stories reveal how these physical embodiments of Heaven helped shape modern Europe and changed the world – each a story more riveting than the next. Welcome to the real Pillars of the Earth.
To be published by Head of Zeus on 7 July 2022.