On cathedrals and cooperation

This month my comrades at ALE and I are working on the theme of cooperation, and I thought a useful thing to think about in that context is not my usual favs of rebellion, or even collective republics, but architecture. In particular, I want to talk about what you could argue are the most important medieval buildings – cathedrals. Cathedrals, from the Latin cathedra meaning “throne of the bishop” are and were enormous and intricate buildings that took centuries to build, and you probably know that. However, we often talk about them as finished projects rather than as a testament to how humans cooperate with each other across time. That’s what we’re gonna do today.

A great case in point of this is, of course, the cathedral of St Vitus, St Wenceslaus, and St Adalbert, by which I mean Prague cathedral. (Look, you knew it was coming.) There have been churches on site on top of the hill in the Hradčany in Prague since 930. The first one was founded when St Wenceslas (c. 911 – c. 935) founded a Romanesque rotunda dedicated to St Vitus there after being given the saint’s arm as a gift by the holy roman Emperor Henry the Fowler (c. 876-936). As Prague kept getting more Christian, by 1060 the city was in need of its own bishop and cathedral. Then Duke Spytihněv II (1031-1036) decided that if they were gonna get all fancy they might as well have a proper basilica to celebrate the occasion. As a result, a nice little Romanesque version was duly built. Through archeological excavations we think it was probably a standard three aisle affair, with two towers on the western transept and a couple of choirs. It was probably a bit like the Speyer cathedral which was constructed around the same time. Nice enough, right?

Plans showing the original St Vitus buildings – the black is St Wenceslaus’s rotunda. The red is  Spytihněv’s basilica. The blue is what exists now.

Well, not for Charles IV (1316-1378). When my man took over Prague and the crown of the Romans he wanted the city elevated so that it was a befitting capital of the Holy Roman Empire. As a part of this, he petitioned to have the bishopric raised to an archbishopric. See, prior to this the Bishop of Prague was technically subordinate to the Archbishop of Mainz and Charles couldn’t be having Germans pushing us around and all of that. He wrote the pope, asked for Prague to be an Archbishopric and got his wish. Then, like Spytihněv before him, he decided he would fancy the joint up with an even bigger very gothic cathedral. (That’s it up the top.)

In order to make the fanciest cathedral possible, Charles called in Matthew of Arras (c. 1290 – 1352), a French architect who had been working over at the papal court in Avignon. This was a deliberate decision on Charles’s part. He had grown up at the court in France, which was arguably the most powerful one in Christendom, and he wanted to imitate the same architectural styles that were prevalent there. So, Matthew moved east and he got to work in 1344. This was all very well and good, but then he died in 1352. He left behind a partially complete ambulatory (that’s the covered passageway sort of behind the altar) and series of chapels, but rather a lot of work still to do.  What to do now? Enter Peter Parler (1333-1399).

Peter came from the Parler family who were influential German masons. He grew up over in Swäbish Gemünd and had worked across the Empire at important sites such as Strasbourg, Cologne, and Nuremberg. By 1356 he had acquired enough of a reputation that he was asked to come in and take up the reigns in Matthew’s place. Here’s where the cooperation comes in, our boy Peter had his own visions and ideas about what the style would be, but he had Matthew’s plans and could see what was built already. As he moved forward, he developed his own signature style in the cathedral, but used flourishes that always referred back to Matthew’s original works. The two men never worked side by side, but they cooperated across time to create an incredible building worthy of one of Christendom’s most important cities.

Testament to their cooperative vision are busts of the two men that Peter made himself and included in the stonework.

Here’s Matthew
This is Peter.

(We think these are both c. 1370.)

While the Prague cathedral is thus a piece of conscious cooperation between architects handing the torch to each other, cooperation on grand religious buildings sometimes had to take place after gaps of hundreds of years. Take for example what is now the cathedral in St Albans, England. The cathedral started its life as an Abbey dedicated to St Alban, England’s first Christian martyr. When the Normans took over the kingdom, they wanted to big up a local saint, and the first Norman Abbot there Paul of Caen (1077-1093) commissioned a huge ass new building to be overseen by Robert the Mason. Your man there made a huge building that specifically nodded to buildings across the channel in Cluny and attempted to establish the new Norman kingdom as a part of the Francophone world. At any rate, the new abbey emerged as the largest building in England at the time in a huge cruciform shape, and was largely considered a triumph.

Then in 1250 there was an earthquake which significantly damaged the eastern side of the abbey. Huge cracks appeared in the walls and whole bits had to be torn down to avoid collapse. Even worse, in 1323 there was a collapse on the south side of the nave that dragged most of the roof down. Rather than give up and start over, the monks wanted to preserve the links to their past comrades and brought in a mason named Henry Wy to shore it up. Henry took a look at what Robert had done before and matched that early Norman style where repairs could be made, while also including fourteenth-century flourishes that nodded to the fact that there was, in fact, a collaboration happening.

Some original eleventh-century nave.
The fourteenth century nave on the other side.

The result is one of my favourite medieval buildings, because it tells a real story about the people using and making the building. You can see how people want to work with each other to honour their past and their community, but also still have a desire to express their own architectural interests and stories. (To see what I am talking about, you can take a virtual tour of the cathedral here. It is pretty dope.)

But here is the thing about buildings like this, cooperation on them is never done, it is an on-going process. Just this year in St Albans, a service was held to mark the unveiling of the repaired shrine of St Amphibalus. In the St Alban legend, St Amphibalus was the priest who converted Alban, and both saints had shrines in the abbey in the medieval period. Then along came noted dickhead Henry VIII (1471-1547) who dissolved the monasteries. The shrines of both St Alban and St Amphibalus were destroyed during this period and the rubble was used to build a wall on the grounds.

This sucked very much. BUT in stepped modern people to do something about this! In 1993 St Alban’s shrine was restored, and now we can thank the absolute legends at the Skillington Workshop in Lincolnshire who combined original pieces from the shrine with their own new work to create something new and gorgeous, and included, once again nods to our own time with this little dude wearing a mask referencing the pandemic:

I love him. He is perfect.

This is an important story about solidarity and cooperation. The creation of the building in the first place and the destruction of its shrines were down to shows of power from ruling monarchs. The Normans wanted to subdue the local population and show they were in control by bringing in their own architectural vernaculars, but three centuries later it had become as local as anything else and the masons working on repairs saw this as a part of their own history. The wanted to work with this history and saw themselves as in dialogue and cooperation with that. Later, when Henry VIII acted an absolute fool he fucked things up pretty badly, but five hundred years later, along come the plucky Skillington masons, undoing what some rich homicidal dickhead wanted. Their work to recreate something beautiful, and include their own experiences as a part of that, is testament to how smaller people can cooperate and overcome the wishes of the powerful. Sure, sometimes that takes centuries, but it is possible nevertheless.

We tend to think of the past and the people in it as a done deal. They are back there and we are here and never the twain shall meet and all that. However, we are living in a society that was created by that which came before us. Sometimes we change things about that (our attitudes towards beauty, the way we look at marriage, allowing people to move down the road if they feel like it, stuff like that). Still we are all working using tools that people left us from the past to make our own society every day.

As a part of this we are constantly able to cooperate with the people in the past to undo former injustices, right wrongs, and change our line of flight to better suit humanity as a whole. Obviously, buildings are just a small part of this but our built environment is important and something that we are all still using.

Even if we are not working with people in the past to undo a travesty, we are still adjusting the projects that make our world what it is. Back over in Prague cathedral, for example, in 1931 a new addition was made, a stained-glass window by celebrated Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939). It’s as modern as it is possible for a thing to be, given that it is art nouveau. Yet it speaks to what the makers of Prague cathedral had in mind when Matthew and Peter were out there tapping away at the building’s foundation stones. It shows episodes from the lives of Czech saints Wenceslas and his grandmother Ludmilla as well as the saints Cyril and Methodius:

The Mucha window.

It is meant to commemorate what is special about Slavic traditions, something that, I would argue, Charles IV would have absolutely fucking loved, and which I, a Slav, lose my little mind for. Yet it does it by using new skills and artistic traditions that tell a modern story about identity and the collective past.

It just goes to show that we are all cooperating with each other and pushing forward all the time, chipping away to make the world a little brighter and our society reflect our aspirations and what we need from it. The past is never done, we are still working with it and as a part of it all the time, cooperating to make the next chapter for humanity as a whole.

I just think that’s neat.

For more collective stories from the past, see:
On defeats, small people, and the UK election
On looking in the past for a better future
On the power of pushing back against the marginalisation of sex workers

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

One thought on “On cathedrals and cooperation”

  1. For Peter Parler’s hometown, the current spelling is Schwäbisch Gmünd, a typo?
    A lot of those medieval cathedrals got their impressive spires newly built or reconstructed in the 19th century, e. g. Cologne Dome, Speyer Dome, Ulm Münster.


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