In an age of skyscrapers and digital highways, it is rather cathartic to pass through the seventeenth-century oak doors of the Christ Church Gate and walk into Canterbury Cathedral’s cobbled precincts. Looking up, I see blackbirds flocking overhead, feathers fluttering on the perpendicular tracery of the octagonal towers bearing the Tudor Court of Arms and the Welsh Dragon. My eyes are captivated by the motifs in memory of Arthur, Henry VII’s first-born and heir apparent, who died in Ludlow just short of his sixteenth birthday, fatefully allowing his younger brother to rule in his stead. My nostrils scent the peppermint clearness of fresh spring air in what for a moment seems like an oasis of reflective calm. And I relish the solitude from what a lot of people, including myself, are coming to increasingly feel is an over-mechanized and overwired world.
And having paid brief homage to the bronze figure of Christ and the angelic host perched about his shoulders on the gatehouse, I press on to witness the vista which opens up on the southwest side of the fourteen-hundred-year-old edifice – its Caen quarried stone bathed in bright sunshine, and its eighty-foot-high vaulted ceiling, designed by the fourteenth-century master mason Henry Yevele, beautifully illuminated by the pellucid light pouring in through the twelve hundred meters of stained glass that stare down on the Pilgrims’ steps. The stones are worn down by the millions of visitors who have climbed them, heading towards the site of the former shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, who was martyred by four of Henry II’s knights, in the northwest transept in December 1170.
Canterbury, like Abbot Suger’s Basilica of Saint-Denis in France and those in Milan, Cologne and Saint Stephen in Vienna, typifies the Gothic architectural style, which in the medieval period was a reflection of the clergy’s desire to project God’s glory into their communities through grand and beautiful buildings.
I read in the glossy guidebook that the remains of Canterbury’s original cathedral are gone, having been built as a consequence of Pope Gregory the Great’s commissioning of Saint Augustine to bring Christianity to the English, and Lanfranc’s Norman makeover after William’s Conquest in 1066. Instead, what we see today is the result of nine centuries of loving restoration and continuing extension. It is the product of visionary twelfth-century architects like William of Sens and his successor, William the Englishman, men who have left their chiseled signs in unique etchings, and tool-craeft, creating stone-faced gargoyles and winged angels from bald basalt with the skill of their own hands. They were so unlike the contemporary disciples of minimalist architects like Alvaro Sizar, who stare into LED screens and use design software to create bland, square boxes while sitting in their air-conditioned studios in metrosexual metropolises all around the globe.
They are far removed indeed, by deed and intent, from their fashionable modern equivalents, for these medieval men of whom I speak were on a mission, climbing the scaffolding and walking the parapets of buildings that they would probably never live long enough to see completed. They were in a race with rivals to consecrate cathedrals in Durham, Bath, Gloucester, Wells, Ely, York, Lincoln, and St. Albans in England. There were also Chartres, Reims, Beauvais, and Tours in France; Barcelona, Toledo, Valencia, and Seville in Spain; Bishop Joachim’s Cathedral of St. Sophia in Novgorod, Saint Basil’s in Moscow, and Suzdal and the Golden Ring in Russia; Kiev’s Perchersk Lavra complex in Ukraine; and the Romanesque style of Pisa, Parma, and Sienna in Italy. One should also not forget the Patriarchal cathedral basilica of Saint Mark, the Chiesa d’Oro (Church of Gold) at the eastern end of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, first dedicated in 1084.
The art and iconography of the latter, being of direct linear descent from the pagan and Byzantine influences – no matter how many times Christians try to ignore it – followed in the wake of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion. They feature pictorial representations that escaped the censorship of the Popes and were subject to the absorption of the monolithic new creed, the evidence for which we see so clearly delineated in the very early Christian decorations of the Basilica of Saint Vitale and the Mausoleum of Di Galla Placidia in Ravenna. There are sepulchers that were originally built in the fifth century, following the decline of the power of Rome and preceding the reassertion of the faith through the rise of the Holy Roman Empire and monarchs like Charlemagne in Western Europe.
These are houses of worship that say something about who we are, many of which were constructed on earlier religious sites, like the temples to Mithras, Antoninas, and Faustina in Rome; the Aphrodisias shrines in Greece; Mercurii Monte, dedicated to the Celtic god Lugus and the Neolithic tumuli at Carnac, which is now topped by a Catholic church, in France; the temple of Claudius in Colchester, England – and so many more. These followed a deliberate policy dictated by Pope Gregory I to Mellitus, the first Archbishop of London, who is himself buried here, beneath my feet, in Canterbury:
So when almighty God has led you to the most reverend man our brother Bishop Augustine, tell him what I have long gone over in my mind concerning the matter of the English: that is, that the shrines of idols amongst that people should be destroyed as little as possible, but that the idols themselves that are inside them should be destroyed. Let blessed water be made and sprinkled in these shrines, let altars be constructed and relics placed there: since if the shrines are well built it is necessary that they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God, so that as long as that people do not see their very shrines being destroyed they may put out error from their hearts and in knowledge and adoration of the true God they may gather at their accustomed places more readily.
And these holy places were – and still are – filled with works like the mosaics at Daphni, in the district of Chaidari, a suburb to the northwest of Athens that once stood on the sacred way to Eleusis; the eighth-century sculpture of the Archangel Michael in the Notre Dame de Mortain church in France; silver-threaded miniature illuminations like God in Majesty in the Aberdeen Bestiary; the gold-lettered Tyniec Sacramentary in Warsaw; and the fourteenth-century Apocalypse Tapestry from the Book of Revelations, and Michelangelo’s Genesis frescos in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
The Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei of the mass resounds off the ribbed vaults, pointed arches, and buttresses of structures like those of the Frauenkirche in Munich, one of the most iconic symbols of Western Civilization, and the ethereal music of Johannes Ockeghem, Pierre de la Rue, Morales, Palestrina, and Monteverdi’s Vespers fills the atriums of cathedrals and churches as far apart in time and space as the third-century Etchmiadzin cathedral in Armenia and the Svalbard church in Norway. They lie in a continuum coloring our sense of place and what we stand for, regardless of whether or not we are followers of Martin Luther or sympathetic to the Counter-Reformation of Pope Sixtus lV and his arch-lieutenant, Tomas de Torquemada.
And this is exactly the reason why the mindless acts of barbaric vandalism conducted by Muslim fanatics, such as the attack on the dome of the cathedral in Cologne on New Year’s Eve; the smashing to pieces of Madonna statuettes and murals depicting biblical scenes being torn to shreds in Auerbach, Saxony; the assault on priests in the Church of Maria Immaculata in Vienna’s Floridsdorf district; the waves of desecration that have spread across the Basilicas of Santa Prassede, San Martino ai Monti, San Giovanni de Florenti, and San Vitale in Italy; and the ritual slaughter of eighty-five-year-old Father Jacques Hamel by two ISIS terrorists in St. Etienne-Du-Rouvray in Normandy are not only attacks on a rival faith, but also on the very identity of the West and the age-old mindset of Christendom that these people so heartily despise. Indeed, it is just as Saint Pope John Paul ll predicted, as quoted in La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana: “They will invade Europe . . . Europe will be like a cellar, old relics, shadowy, cobwebs . . .”
And let us make no mistake, these footsoldiers of Allah are no more aware of the artistic merits of the Christian artifacts they destroy than their comrades were when they shot up the Bamiyan Buddahs in 2001, hung an archaeologist from a Roman column in the UNESCO heritage site of Palmyra, destroyed Sufi graves in Somalia, ran amok in Timbuktu, bombed the thousand-year-old al-Askari Shi’a mosque in Samarra; vandalized the age-old Assyrian churches of Tikrit; took Yazidi girls as sex slaves; kidnapped Nigerian girls; burned Coptic Christians to death in their churches; groomed and pimped out thousands upon thousands of white English, Dutch, and Belgian girls along with their clandestine drug networks; and turned vehicles into weapons in our Christmas markets all over Europe.
Nor do they have any real appreciation or understanding of the significance of the wondrous pieces of art their own faith and culture has given the world, like the arabesque decorations in the Alhambra in Spain, the sixteenth-century Ardabil carpet, the fluted columns of the Great Mosque of Damascus, the glass and ceramic pottery produced in Raqqa, the cloisonné techniques that enabled the fine metalwork that adorns the thirteenth-century Mamluk basin, the Pisa Griffin, and scientific instruments such as astrolabes.
And so, as I walk on in my own personal pilgrimage, I contemplate on the much-vaunted notion of the “clash of civilizations” and ask why is it that mosques are being built with Wahhabi money all over Europe while Christian edifices are falling to rack and ruin, and Orthodox churches are being bulldozed in Northern Cyprus and firebombed in parts of Africa and the Middle East. And why is it so important to have Roger Scruton removed from the Chairmanship of the UK’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, where he “advocates for beauty in the built environment,” or why Prince Harry and his bride’s choice to have a Black American gospel choir at their wedding service in the St. George Chapel is lauded by the media; and why Father Edward Staniek, a Polish Catholic priest from Krakow who said there can be no dialogue with Muslims is demonized as a racist, reactionary firebrand? Which brings me back to Becket and my own reason to visit this holy place, and I wonder who will be the first to mutter those fateful words, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”
Because unlike so many others, I am not here to nod in supplication to a long-dead bishop who was later beatified as a saint, but instead to bend my knee before the Purbeck marble and latten-overgilt bronze effigy of Edward of Woodstock, The Black Prince, victor of Crecy and Poitiers, whose military prowess is memorialized in the armorial jupon above his tomb, with his shield, scabbard, surcoat, helmet, and doeskin-lined gauntlets hung over the tester. His epitaph reads:
Such as thou art, sometime was I.
Such as I am, such shalt thou be.
I thought little on th’our of Death
So long as I enjoyed breath.
On earth I had great riches
Land, houses, great treasure, horses, money and gold.
But now a wretched captive am I,
Deep in the ground, lo here I lie.
My beauty great, is all quite gone,
My flesh is wasted to the bone
For it is to humble warriors such has he, whose motto was Ich Dien – “I Serve” – and not the prattling priests in their pulpits preaching political correctness about racism, xenophobia, and the benefits of migration who e should look in these troubled times. The dark is rising, and Beelzebub’s forces are marching to the beat of tarabuka drums. If our voices are to be heard over the sound of the mizmars and the familiar verses of “I Vow to Thee my Country,” are, like chapel bells, to continue to ring out clearly over the fields and hedgerows of this fair land forever and a day, then it is time, I say, to set a fiery cross atop the White Cliffs of Dover to keep the invaders at bay.