‘Although contemporary people often think of architecture as static or perhaps stifling, buildings often “live.” Medieval Christians attempted to translate their spiritual sensibilities into some sort of structure that would communicate life – even long after the builders died. Chartres Cathedral would not exist if not for the two great institutions of the Middle Ages – the monastery and the parish church.
To medieval people, church buildings expressed their spirituality – their visions, virtues, and dreams of God. Church buildings were the geography of paradise, the actual location where God’s reign of beauty and justice could be experienced. Buildings, and the arts and liturgies therein, demonstrated the mysterious interweavings of the worlds, the playful combination of this world and the one beyond. Holiness was translated into visible structures where people might see, touch, and feel the beauty of God. Medieval builders captured this sense, creating sacred spaces that were both spiritually unpredictable and theologically structured at the same time.
Because the church building was holy geography, communities spend enormous resources of time, money, and talent constructing church buildings; the church stood as both a location of paradise and an icon of communal identity. Medieval people associated the actual building with God’s reign and were ferociously protective of their churches. In the 1130s, Peter of Bruis, a French preacher, promoted the idea that God had no use for church buildings. To him they interfered with the purity and simplicity of faith. Peter urged Christians in the town of Saint-Gilles to give up their church and burn its ornaments, including its crosses, dramatically illustrating the point by lighting a pyre. The people of Saint-Gilles, whose church was a major pilgrimage site, responded by tossing poor Peter on his own bonfire’. – Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (New York: HarperOne, 2009).