Joseph McCabe (1867-1955) was one of the most prolific authors of all time. He was brought up as a Roman Catholic, worked on Latin documents, and made himself very well-informed about Christianity, but turned against it. But he was extremely naive about Jews; bear this in mind.

Click for Detailed notes on McCabe - scroll down for selections from A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (1948).

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Cathedrals, The Mediaeval.

J. McCabe, Rationalists Encyclopaedia

Catholic apologists take advantage of our appreciation of these superb memorials of one of the world's great art - periods to draw from them quite illegitimate arguments in favour of their Church. They claim that the Roman Church alone could inspire such art, and that the noble buildings bear witness to the deep religious feeling and docility of the people of the Middle Ages. The general public is not sufficiently instructed to reflect that no great artistic efflorescence ever occurred in a period of undisturbed faith or of puritanism, and the literary men who endorse the Catholic argument never read authoritative modern historians on the real character of the Middle Ages or dream of consulting architectural experts. These experts, as is shown in the article Art and Religion, resent the superficial inferences of the apologist and point out that the only religious significance of mediaeval art is that the Church was then the wealthiest patron of artists. A few points on the cathedrals in particular are to be noted.
      1. The argument of the apologist leaves wholly unexplained the fact that the Catholic Church itself lost all its supposed architectural inspiration in just the same proportion as the rest of the world when the Middle Ages ended. Spain had its Renaissance later than other countries, but it ended within a century, and the entire Catholic world passed into a condition of inglorious artistic sterility. The reduction of its wealth was not the cause, for the building of the great cathedrals did not demand great wealth; and on the other hand the Roman Church in the United States or in Germany has more wealth than the whole of Europe had in the thirteenth century, yet remains artistically insipid. The one notable emulation of mediaeval art in modern times was the rebuilding of Rheims Cathedral, and this was achieved in the most sceptical country in Europe. On artistic grounds alone it would be possible to raise such buildings in any country to-day if it were desired.
      2. The cathedral-development was a natural outcome of the economic recovery of Europe and the concentration of the new wealth in the hands of the clergy and monks, as all modern historians of art point out. It began in the eleventh century with the erection of Romanesque churches in the part of Germany which had been awakened by contact with North Italy, where Lombard art lingered, and Constantinople (through marriage with a Greek princess). Some experts (see Leader Scott, The Cathedral Builders, 1899) hold that the art of the ancient Roman sculptors and builders, which was finely employed by the Ostrogoths in the sixth century and by the Lombards - both peoples were anti-Papal - in the seventh and eighth still sheltered under the protection' of the Italian Alps, and that the builders as well as the style (Romanesque) came from there. Whatever the beginning, the rich bishops and abbots of Germany soon vied with each other in employing the new art; and in no part of Europe were prelates more dissolute. The Gothic style was developed from the Romanesque in north-central France, chiefly in and round Paris, at a time when the bishoprics and abbeys were generally corrupt. It was developed very slowly during two centuries, and by technical advances which the modern authorities trace on purely secular, and in the main utilitarian, lines.
      3. If the beauty of the buildings reflects deep piety, this can be only the piety of the architects yet few of the names of these are known, and where a name is preserved it is apt to be that of a man who was anything but pious or puritanical. The architect of the beautiful Speyer Cathedral, for instance, was the Bishop of Osnabruck, a sensual and worldly man who was religious only in title and revenues, and lived in one of the most depraved periods (eleventh century) of German civilization; as the Protestant historian Prof. Hauck shows in his Kirchengeschichte Deutschlands (5 vols., 1912). A few of the later Gothic cathedrals, or part of them - some took centuries to build - were erected in a time of religious revival, but in far more cases the reluctant people complained bitterly of the sacrifices which the clergy imposed upon them, or the civic authorities candidly boasted (as did those of Florence in 1294) that they just wanted to outshine other cities. Recent authorities insist that this mediaeval art was "civic art" or "the art of the new communes."
      4. But the decisive reply is found in the genuine moral and social history of the Middle Ages. The Cathedral Age coincides with the legendary Age of Chivalry [see also Middle Ages], and was one of the most openly licentious in history. The cathedrals themselves were not only used on certain days during the whole period for blasphemous and indecent parodies of the Mass [see Feast of Fools, of the Ass, etc.], but were very profanely abused every day for frivolity, assignations, soliciting - in Germany the prostitutes were called Cathedral Girls - and huckstering. The indecent gargoyles on the facades of many cathedrals reflect the temper of the age as faithfully as do the statues of the saints. There were many pious folk, but the general level of morals, particularly in regard to sex, was at least as low as in any period of history. On the artistic side see E. Faure, History of Art (Engl. trans., 4 vols., 1921), Moore's Gothic Architecture (1899), and Leader Scott's Cathedral Builders (1899). A score of articles in this Encyclopaedia describe the corruption of the age, as every expert on each country of Europe - Traill's Social England (1902, Vol. II), Luchaire's historical works for France, Fisher's Mediaeval Empire for Germany, etc. - describes it.


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