It dominates the town of Bayeux still, as it has for almost 1,000 years. It has survived wars and conflicts and remains a testament to the Christian faith of the Norman people who started building it long before France was a nation.
The Bayeux Cathedral towers over the town; you can see it from everywhere. It must be at least 10 stories high – built long before there were power tools or modern equipment. Construction is not my field, but I am sure it took more than just hard work to create this edifice. The master builders may not have had electricity or indoor plumbing, but they were motivated to create a lasting edifice, a reflection of their devotion to God.
There is so much to take in. The artwork is breathtaking, the various altars, the stained glass, the chapels, the tombs of those buried there, you could spend a whole day drinking it in. The size though dwarfs everything else – you get the sense that the creators were trying to convey the power and majesty of God in creating an immense building. The construction of the Cathedral was itself an act of worship.
I shudder to think how much such a building would cost in today’s dollars. My estimate is about $15 million, and that is based solely on the size, for a bare bones structure. That is probably woefully low. Add in the intricate carving, assuming craftsmen could be found able to do the work, and that number would easily triple.
I suspect that many of those who worked on building the cathedral thought that such work was a way of buying themselves a ticket to heaven. Theologically that would be highly questionable at best, but they weren’t literate and they only knew that they were told (unlike others today who should know better). I suspect those hundreds or perhaps thousands of workers would have done it anyway – those were simpler times when faith was much more black and white.
William the Conqueror provided the impetus behind the original construction (it was a long process; the place took almost 800 years to finish completely). It seemed wherever we went in Normandy, William had been there before us. Fans of British writer Ken Follett are familiar with his masterpiece novel of cathedral construction, The Pillars of The Earth, which details how a cathedral was built. I did think of that book when we first walked through the front doors.
I was reminded more though of another book when I was sitting in the Cathedral and looking around, a work of non-fiction by social anthropologist Margaret Visser. In The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church, Visser takes a small church in Rome and explains everything you would ever want to know about it, going into great detail about what everything in the church means, both the construction and the ornamentation. It is a fascinating study, well worth the read, that gives a better understanding about old churches and why they are built the way they are, something which tends to be foreign to many of us in this post-Christian age.
I have a preference for functional in church design today, which may be due to a Protestant upbringing. I want a building that can be used for concerts and children’s activities and sports, and whatever else it might be called on for, as well as worship services. But that doesn’t mean I can’t admire the beauty of the Bayeux Cathedral.