The halo effect of medieval cathedrals

The west porch of Metz Cathedral revealing its interiors ©

The Cathedral of St Stephen in Metz has one of the highest naves among churches built in the medieval period. Construction started in the 14th century and ended in the early 16th. It has stood there undamaged through revolutions and geopolitical upheavals.

One of the most common reactions people have when they see a Gothic cathedral rising above the neighbouring rooftops is to wonder how such a tech-challenged age as the medieval period managed to build something so sophisticated that is still standing hundreds of years later. After all, we see apartment blocks, bridges and other structures built at the height of modern engineering collapsing less than a hundred years later.

What we fail to observe is the unobservable. For every medieval church still standing, dozens collapsed soon after construction or many times since then.

We only see what we can see, and disregard what we can’t, assuming that because we can’t see it, it never was. That’s the so-called halo effect.

Most medieval architecture was precariously built, despite the astonishing examples still with us today. Sometimes it was pure luck, other times a relentless game of trial and error.

To get to a nave height of 41 meters, Metz Cathedral needed countless other churches to collapse. And indeed they did. What didn’t crumble was the engineers’ and builders’ commitment to go ever farther, to perfect ever more deeply, to innovate. We just don’t see the construction sites, only the results, and we take them for granted. But we really shouldn’t.

We often get blinded by halos. We take the visible to be all there is, forgetting perhaps that behind every success there is a multitude of necessary errors, the pangs of birth of every achievement. And as the creators didn’t give up, we the onlookers shouldn’t give up on recognising the pain and effort lying, hiding in plain sight. It just takes a different way of looking.

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