In my Art History and Appreciation courses that I have taken at Grove City College, one of my favorite things to study has always been Gothic architecture; particularly cathedrals. I have always found it fascinating how light and airy the architects were able to make stone structures seem. I have also been intrigued by the theological ideas that went into the construction of these churches. Not only in the cross shaped floor plans, but by also striving to make pilgrims to the churches first look towards the altar and then up to God.

The theory of how to do this is relatively simple. Architects designed the buildings with long, thin naves and high and vaulted ceilings. The way in which this worked is that someone entering the church should be immediately struck by the length of the nave and follow it to the end, called the apse, where the altar stood. Once there the sudden stop of the back of the apse would next make the viewer look up and gawke at the tremendously large ceiling suspended over their heads. Of course, a philosophy so simple could work on its own but is far more effective when enhanced with features. So, Gothic cathedrals are always riddled with lofty columns, mighty piers, pointed arches, ribbed ceilings and, of course, towering stained glass windows. All of these touches obviously enhance the upward looking trend due to their arrow like composition and staggering height and length. However, less obvious to the untrained eye, they also are placed strategically to create rhythms that draw the eyes forward to the altar as well.

Knowing the theory is one thing, but experiencing it first hand is a whole thing all together. Though I clearly have a grasp of the philosophy, no classroom can really prepare you for encountering the real deal. I was literally flabbergasted as I stepped into the cathedral. I was aware of my moth hanging open, but I was fully incapable of shutting it!

First of all, the scale of Notre Dame was stupefying. The building looms over you in a vast expanse, though it does not smother you due to its loftiness and fragile qualities. I was also immediately hit by the desired effect of the designers, my eyes were immediately snapped forward and then upwards as I stood looking down the nave. Once I reveled in this aspect of the cathedral fully, I began making the rounds. I can honestly say that I have stopped and gazed intently into every side chapel of the Notre Dame Cathedral. I found them all interesting, and some almost gaudy as their décor rivaled that of a Barnum & Bailey’s tent. I also took time to observe the multiple carved panels and paintings that adorn the stone walls of the church.

And of course there is the stained glass windows which periodically speckle the grey walls of the monumental structure. I found these to be just as awesome as the church itself, with the rose windows being the best. Rose window is definitely an apt description too, as they look as though they would wither, crumble, and disintegrate like a rose peddle if one were to reach out and touch them despite their enormity. Created with vibrant colors and engaging patterns or shapes, stained glass must be one of the cooler things I have ever seen. When the light hits them just right they become enchanting to look at. Then, to think that these windows have been around for thousands of years, its almost too much to take in.

After I observed every inch of the beautiful building I took time to sit in the pews and whisper a quick thank you up to God. I’m sure the ancient architects who designed Notre Dame for this purpose, to bring its visitors before God in awe, smiled as they eavesdropped on my prayers in Heaven.