OK, so here it is. In my post for Pillars of the Earth I mentioned that an illustrated source would add to the impact of Ken Follett’s prose. With photographer f-stop Fitzgerald’s beautiful work, such a source is available.
We’ve become jaded to the visual elements of the cathedral in our day. At best, most of us who go to them will take a tour with a guide who repeats the same text 20 times a day; at worst, we will look at, but not see what the average 12th century person would see. What we see is a big building filled with bits of this and pictures of that. What even the illiterate masses would see was their own Bible, with clear lessons about sin and salvation, the examples of saints, martyrs, and evangelists, and the everlasting punishments awaiting the damned. But the technological innovations of the Gothic cathedral would be the psychological setup for congregants to strive for a heaven shown in soaring ceilings, intricate carvings incorporated into the structure, and light pouring through unimaginably large and stained glass windows.
Working with text from Pillars of the Earth (which sadly doesn’t align with the photos), Fitzgerald gives us unique and intimate views of elements that might prove overwhelming or inaccessible to a modern visitor. The profligate details in medieval churches overwhelm the modern viewer, and are inaccessible both from a physical standpoint and from an iconographic standpoint. Some of his portraits are black-and-white images that appear to be reproduced as negatives against silver backgrounds. Others are full-color illustrations drenched with the hues of sunrise and sunset, taking advantage of the east-west alignment required of an cathedral. And still others are black-and-white closeups of carved figures, including the grotesque gargoyles and monsters that reminded viewers of the imps of hell awaiting sinners.
Fitzgerald doesn’t limit his subject to ancient cathedrals or images—he incorporates a few pieces that have the same feel but an unmistakably modern sensibility. They show that the fascination and need to build these immense and awe-inspiring buildings was not limited to pre-Reformation communities. The introduction by sculptor Simon Verity is a reminder that artists are still working in stone to capture visceral religious emotions.
Williamsburg Regional Library has decided to catalog and shelve this kind of book with the original source so that readers will hopefully find them when looking for the original fiction. (Other authors we’ve done this with include Patrick O’Brian and J.R.R. Tolkien.) Hopefully books like Pillars of the Almighty will drive readers’ imagination and understanding of the story.
Search for Pillars of the Almighty in the WRL Catalog.