One of Christianity’s central themes may be traced back to Jesus’ choice of career. The carpenters of Galilee practiced a semiskilled but insecure and rarely lucrative trade, and yet Jesus was all the same, in Saint Peter’s phrase, “the right hand of Heaven:’ the son of God, the king of kings, sent to save us from our sins. That someone could combine within himself two such different identities, being at once an itinerant tradesman and the holiest of men, forms the basis upon which the Christian understanding of status is built. Every person possesses, in this framework, two wholly unrelated types of status: the earthly kind, determined by occupation, income and the opinions of others; and the spiritual sort, meted out according to the quality of the individual’s soul and his or her merit in the eyes of God after the Day of Judgment. One might therefore be powerful and revered in the earthly realm, yet barren and corrupt in the spiritual one. Or one might be like the beggar Lazarus in the Gospel of Saint Luke, who had only rags to his name while glorying in divine riches.
In The City of God (A.D. 427), Saint Augustine explained that all human actions could be interpreted from either a Christian or a Roman perspective, and that the very accomplishments that were esteemed most highly by the Romans—amassing money, building villas, winning wars and so on—counted for nothing in the Christian schema, in which a new set of concerns, including loving one’s neighbors, being humble and generous and recognizing one’s dependence on God, offered the keys to elevated status. Augustine’s figure for these two value systems was a pair of cities, the City of God and the earthly City, which he described as being, until the Day of Judgment, coexistent but separate. One might thus be a king in the Earthly City but a mere manservant in the heavenly one.
Nine centuries later, Dante would flesh out Augustine’s ideas by providing a detailed accounting of who would end up where in that ultimate twinned embodiment of the Christian hierarchy: Heaven and Hell.
Hieronymus Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights (1504)
In the Divine Comedy (1315), he enumerated no fewer than nine different circles of Hell (with seventeen distinct rings), each one reserved for a particular kind of sin; and set opposite those, ten spheres of Heaven, each the province of a specific virtue. The religious hierarchy resembled a distorted or inverted version of its secular counterpart. Dante’s Hell was home to a wide range of individuals who had enjoyed high status during their life on earth: generals, writers, poets, emperors, bishops, popes and merchants, all now stripped of their privileges and enduring extreme sufferings as punishment for having offended God’s laws. In the fourth ring of the ninth circle of Hell, Dante (touring the place with Virgil) hears the screams of those who were powerful but treacherous when alive, now being chewed in the mouths of the three-headed giant Lucifer. In the first ring of the seventh circle, the poet finds himself by a river of boiling blood in which Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun struggle to stay afloat while, from the riverbank, a group of centaurs fire arrows over their heads to force them back under the sickening froth. In the fifth circle, an array of angry, prominent leaders whose tempers once cost the lives of others languish in a swampy, fetid cesspool, choking on mud; and in the third circle, excrement rains down upon those who used to be gluttonous.
Gustave Dore - The Thieves Tortured by Serpents (1861)
The liturgical discrepancy between heavenly and earthly status promised believers a way out of an oppressive, one-dimensional vision of success. Christianity did not do away altogether with the concept of a hierarchy; its contribution was, rather, to redefine success and failure in ethical, nonmaterial terms, by insisting that poverty could coexist with goodness, and a humble occupation with a noble soul: “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth,” according to Saint Luke, a follower of that impecunious carpenter from Galilee.
But far from merely asserting the superiority of spiritual over material success, Christianity also endowed the values it revered with a seductive seriousness and beauty, accomplishing this in part through the magisterial use of painting, literature, music and architecture. It employed works of art to make a case for virtues that had never before figured prominently—if at all—in the priorities of rulers or their subjects.
For hundreds of years, the talents of the finest stonemasons, poets, musicians and painters—whose predecessors had been called upon to celebrate the triumphs of emperors and the blood-curdling victories of legions over barbarian hordes—were directed towards praising such activities as giving alms and showing respect for the poor. The glorification of worldly values never entirely disappeared in the Christian era—there remained plenty of palaces to alert the world to the charms of mercantile or landed wealth and power—but for a time, in many communities, the most impressive buildings on the horizon were those that honored the nobility of poverty rather than the might of a royal family or corporation, and the most moving pieces of music sang not of personal fulfillment but of the torment of the Son of God, who had been, in the words of Isaiah 53:3, quoted in Handel’s Messiah (1741),
despised and rejected of men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.
Through its command of aesthetic resources, of buildings, paintings and Masses, Christianity created a bulwark against the authority of earthly values and kept its spiritual concerns in the public eye and at the forefront of the public mind.
In the four centuries between approximately 1130 and 1530, in towns and cities all over Europe, more than a hundred cathedrals were erected, their spires coming to dominate the skyscraper, looming above grain stores, palaces, offices, factories and homes. Possessed of a grandeur that few other structures could rival, they offered a venue in which people from every walk of life could gather to ponder ideas that were, at least in the context of the history of architecture, highly unusual: ideas about the value of sadness and innocence, of meekness and pity. Whereas a city’s other buildings were designed to serve earthly needs—housing and feeding the body, allowing it to rest, manufacturing machines and implements to assist it—the cathedral had as its unique functions to empty the mind of egoistic projects and lead it towards God and his love. City dwellers engaged in worldly tasks could, during the course of a day, on seeing the outlines of these great massings of stone, be reminded of a vision of life that challenged the authority of ordinary ambitions. A cathedral such as Chartres, whose spires soar 107 meters into the sky (the height of a thirty-four-storey skyscraper), was understood to be the home of the dispossessed, a symbol of the rewards they would reap in the next life. However ramshackle their present physical dwellings, the cathedral was where they belonged in their heart. Its beauties reflected their inner worth, as its stained glass windows and coffered ceilings made vivid the glory of Jesus’ message to them.
Christianity did not, of course, ever succeed in abolishing the Earthly City or its values, and yet if we retain some distinction between wealth and virtue and still ask of people whether they are good rather than merely important, it is in large part due to the impression left upon Western consciousness by a religion that for centuries lent its resources and prestige to the defense of a handful of these of extraordinary ideas regarding the rightful distribution of status. It was the genius of the artists and craftsmen who worked in the service of Christianity to give enduring forms to its ideals and to make these real to us through their handling of stone, glass, sound, word and image.
In a world where secular buildings whisper to us relentlessly of the importance of earthly power, the cathedrals that punctuate the skylines of great towns and cities may continue to furnish an imaginative holding space for the priorities of the spirit.