One of my most vivid childhood memories is going to church – specifically St Ignatius in Richmond, one of the main Polish Catholic churches in Melbourne. Even though it’s not particularly massive, as a kid I was always in awe of the building – the sombre bluestone facade that looms over you as you walk towards it, stepping through an eerie lancet-arch portal into a dark interior where the slightest sound echoes, and the air lies heavy with grave silence and that distinctive smell of incense, cold stone and row after row of old wooden benches. For me the church felt like it belonged to another dimension; a mysterious and spooky artifice to fire-and-brimstone medievalism, walled off from the reassuring reality of the outside world, with its black, spiked wrought iron, its tortured, blood-soaked statues of Jesus, and its unnervingly small, unmarked doors leading seemingly to nowhere – confession boxes, which my dad told me were cells where naughty children were locked up. I developed such a fascination/horror with the latter that I even convinced myself the strange lights above them, which would switch periodically from green to red, indicated when a portal to Hell was opened at the other end.
Of course, my childhood experience of St Ignatius is hardly unique, reflecting a long association in popular culture between Gothic architecture and the forces of evil rather than good. Fast-forwarding to my teenage years, I can instantly think of such examples as the Temple of NOD in the Command & Conquer computer game series, or Sauron’s temple in Lord of the Rings. But I’m getting a bit off track, because what I wanted to discuss here isn’t so much the Gothic connotations of evil but of Paganism (though the two are related, albeit unfairly, ever since the medieval church spent centuries corrupting Paganism’s image as “Satanism”). It should also be noted that while Gothic churches are often quite dark and gloomy, like St Ignatius, many – such as Paris’ Sainte-Chappelle or Krakow’s St Mary’s Church – are resplendent with natural light and colour, and it is these latter, more perfect expressions of the Gothic style that best exemplify my point.
So, exactly how is Gothic architecture “intrinsically Pagan”, despite being funded by the Church to explicitly market its power and Christian theology? Consider the following stylistic elements, clear indicators of the Pagan undercurrent still flowing through a supposedly converted Europe:
Rose windows. These circular, kaleidoscope-style windows – usually located at the rear of the nave, facing the altar – are a staple of Gothic churches/cathedrals the world over, including St Ignatius. While their visual content is not always floral itself, their shape and composition clearly imitates that beautiful, basic reproductive instrument of Mother Nature – the blooming flower.
Spires/steeples. One of the most characteristic and venerated objects in Pagan society is the phallus, used to symbolize male power and fertility as well as associated deities. Phallic towers were common in pre-Christian societies around the world, from stone obelisks in Egypt, believed to house the regenerative sun god Ra, to wooden totem poles in Slavic Europe, representing warrior-gods such as Perun and Triglav. During the Middle Ages, as the Romanesque style of architecture evolved into the Gothic, the Christian Church also began adorning its buildings with phallic towers to imbue them with a sense of spiritual potency, and inspire awe at the all-seeing, on-high position of the vengeful god they supposedly housed.
Gargoyles. These statues, memorably animated in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, look like they belong on the helms of Pagan Viking ships – yet they adorn many of the Gothic churches built throughout the Middle Ages. They generally depict strange, animalistic creatures very similar to the demons and sprites of Germanic, Celtic and Slavic folklore, though perhaps the most common gargoyle incarnation is the Green Man – a human face comprised of, surrounded by and/or seemingly sprouting from foliage, who in Pagan culture symbolized the cycle of regrowth each spring. Full-body gargoyles often take the form of horned, winged creatures – a belittled representation of deities relating to woodlands, animals and hunting, in whose image Christianity also fashioned its Devil.
Flying buttresses. Unlike spires or rose windows, flying buttresses aren’t common and, to the best of my knowledge, have been used only in particularly old and ambitious Gothic constructions. For those who’ve been to one (Notre Dame again serves as a famous example), they’re the big ribcage-like appendices jutting out from the building proper. While they serve an engineering purpose, helping support the colossal weight of the building’s ceiling, they also lend the building’s exterior an almost organic appearance, like the fossil of some gigantic animal, the likeness reinforced in some cases by comprising of light stone the colour of sun-bleached bones. While I wouldn’t argue this is an innately ‘Pagan’ touch, it certainly reinforces the structure’s impression as something very much of the earthly rather than heavenly realm.
Altar. Inside a Gothic church/cathedral, the central element is invariably the altar – a large, often legless block of stone from which the priest conducts his religious service. Again, the resemblance to a Pagan sacrificial block is striking, and it doesn’t end with the altar’s physical structure but its function as well: at the altar is where the priest, dressed in plain white robes not unlike a druid’s, consumes “flesh and blood” in celebration of his deity, which the congregation is then invited to partake in.
It’s tempting to talk about localized cases of Gothic Christianity’s Pagan foundations – such as the fact Paris’ Chartres Cathedral, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was built on a much-revered Pagan site dedicated to the Earth Goddess – but it’d be getting away from the point, which is purely to examine the Paganistic qualities of the Gothic architectural style. It’s certainly fair to say though that in the walls and windows of some of Europe’s most renowned religious buildings dwells evidence of a still-beating Pagan heart underneath the opulent Christian facade. Even one of the most treasured monuments of devoutly Catholic Poland, Wawel Cathedral, has faint hints of it in its rose window, leafy gargoyles and, uniquely, three giant bones chained to a wall next to the main entrance, supposedly belonging to a fire-breathing dragon that had been slain there.
A quick final thought to wrap up is that it’s perhaps no coincidence that in today’s society, “Gothic” refers to a style of fashion, art and music that is inextricably linked to Paganism (“Satanism”) and its practices (“the occult”)… but analyzing that branch of Gothic is another subject for another time.