Stone, paper & screens

New technologies change how we see, and seek, God.

There is a labyrinth in the cathedral of Chartres in France. The centre of the labyrinth is reached by walking (or going on your knees) on a deceptively long path. Look up, and you will see a mirror copy in the great West Rose of stained glass above. The centre of the West Rose is the Christ of the Apocalypse. Enter the church, and you are required to experience through your own body and sweat the revelation of Christ, in all its beauty.

In Protestant churches, lecterns replaced labyrinths – as if to say that God is not hard to reach. Instead of waiting for a mysterious, mediated God to break through on his children, post-Reformation Protestants confidently approached God and shone the light of their own revelation on God’s revelation. They threw away almost all of the sacramental life and bitterly debated and divided over what to keep, such as baptism and the Eucharist. It’s no surprise that, in the heat of those early Reformation years, Catholics burnt Protestant books, while Protestants destroyed the sacred art, altars, tombs and architecture of the Catholics.

This Protestant antipathy towards sacred art was dependent on a new invention – the printing press. “When manuscripts gave way to the printed page,” Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan said, “society changed from a light through society to a light on society.” This shift affected not only art and architecture but our theology.

Instead of letting God’s light find us, we Protestants shine the light on God. There is little place left for mystery or a God wrapped in thunderclouds. Let’s look briefly at this shift as it occurs in the architecture and art of historical churches, and then consider what implications this link between technology and theology has for us today.

Catechisms of stone

McLuhan spoke of medieval man’s perception that “we bathed in the divine light, rather than looked at it.” To receive the divine light, Catholics built catechisms of stone: their cathedrals.

Cathedrals of the Romanesque period were simplistic, stocky and dark, filled with sensory imagery and the glint of metal crucifixes: flashes of insight in the shadows of mystery. The man who initiated the Gothic era was neither architect nor artist but a churchman and theologian. Abbot Suger filled his airy, open cathedral with light to draw worshippers into the vision of divine reality.

As architects began to copy Suger, the Gothic era was born. Chartres, one of the most famous of Gothic cathedrals, was built by a friend of Suger and then rebuilt in 1220. The cathedral’s three portals are all accompanied with symbolic sculptures that rely on the traveling sun to illuminate them. “It can be said, paradoxically, that these architects wanted, as far as possible, to use pure light as their only building material,” wrote Paul Frankl in Gothic Architecture of the High Gothic period (1194 – 1300). “In Thy light shall we see light” was the prayer, the song, the sculpture and the cathedral of Medieval Christianity.

The light of human understanding

The Gothic period corresponded with power shifting from the hands of monasteries and feudal lords to the towns, releasing more funds into ever-more impressive cathedrals. They pushed the extravagance of the visual so far that culture reacted with the Renaissance and the Reformation, two movements made possible by a new technology: the printing press.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought eastern scholars with their manuscripts of Greek scholarship to Italy. Other influences were at play; art historians believe that a book by Ibn al Haithan on Arab optics (Perspectiva) introduced mathematical realism into Renaissance art. All manuscripts, wherever they came from, were turned from priceless manuscripts into affordable resources by the printing press. The Renaissance broke with the definitions and divine authority of the church and reassessed everything in the light of human understanding. Artists could access books of anatomy, and they went from seeking to put human elements into the divine to putting divine elements into humans.

The Counter-Reformation of the Catholic church began to produce different art, but within the same forms. Protestants largely banned the use of the sacramental visible in worship (sculptures, art, icons, illuminations, altarpieces, robes, windows) to focus only on the printed word.

The stained glass ceiling in Chartres cathedral, France. Raw Pixel.
The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Chartres Cathedral. Flikr.

Scripture preeminent

Before inventing the printing press Gutenberg, a Catholic, was a metalworker who created pilgrim mirrors. These small objects were believed to catch light that had touched relics, allowing pilgrims to carry a little of that saint’s essence home with them. For a while the printing press was more of the same; Gutenberg printed indulgences and manuscripts, slips of paper that carried the sacred Word of God, or the mediation of the Pope, home.

It was Luther who wrestled the printed medium away from indulgences and out from under the authority of Pope and Rome, and used it to declare the convictions of his own conscience, of his own interpretation of Scripture. Luther wrote prolifically beyond any printed material yet authored by one man.

The first official statement of doctrine of the Reformation was by Zwingli and the people of Zurich. It resulted in a ban on all images in 1524 and a ban on the Mass the following year. “Faith is from the invisible God,” Zwingli stated, “and is something completely apart from all that is sensible.” “Anything that is body, anything that is of the sense cannot be an object of faith.” Calvin agreed; “paying undue attention to physical, visible objects obscure[s] the worship of God ‘in spirit and truth,’” he said.

Thus the new Protestant church buildings were arranged, not around light, not even around the communion alter, but around the Bible. The very first Reformation church was inaugurated by Luther on August 5, 1544. It was a special, word-only church designed by Nickel Gromann for Elector John Frederick of Saxony. Historian Andrew Pettegree described it as a simple, rectangular building surrounded by a two-storey stone gallery. “The focal point on entering the chapel from the courtyard is the elevated pulpit, placed centrally on the facing long northeast wall.” The pulpit continued to outshine, and then replace, the altar as Scripture replaced sacraments as the primary way to receive divine grace.

It’s hard to overstate what a shift this was. Twenty-two years later, in the Netherlands, Pettegree records, “the curious were attracted to visit the new buildings erected by the Reformed communities, as much to marvel at an entirely novel type of church building as to hear the sermons preached.”

Cathedrals in our palms

It’s undeniable that in relying entirely on a new medium – the printed word – the church’s experience and concept of approaching God changed. The change was not inherently good or bad, but it was significant. We gained something; we lost something.

It’s been said by media ecologists that the West is no longer a print culture but entering a new age of orality through digital media. What will our theology lose or gain as our mediums of speaking about and imagining God shift from paper to screen?

With digital technology we are regaining an oral, sensory world at a far greater speed than ever before, but it is even farther removed from our physical experience than the printed word was. I wonder sometimes whether we hold the contemporary version of a cathedral in the palm of our hands – personalized rituals and bright windows into the unknown, all gathered into a smartphone that we access constantly. Instead of waiting, communally, in a set-apart location to receive the mysterious, abundant presence of God, the whole world of knowledge seems to bend backwards to deliver itself into our hands.

The monks had an advantage: they came from a long and unbroken history of seeking the divine through the material world, even through written words. Philo the Jew (first century AD) commends those who understand “that the words of the literal text are symbols of a hidden nature, revealed through its underlying meaning,” a sentiment that the church father Origen later echoed. But that spiritual heritage has been broken; our theology is a bastion of print culture in an increasingly digital age.

McLuhan’s is most often quoted for saying “the medium is the message.” Our devices are not crafted by theologians seeking to move us to divine reality, as cathedrals were. I wonder: will our devices abstract faith beyond any return to a sacramental life, or will they shape in us a greater awareness of an ever present, always available God? These are serious questions for the church. It’s time we look back and glean wisdom from the old catechisms of glass and stone to question this new, digital age.


  • Maaike VanderMeer

    Maaike first appeared in CC's pages as a teenage writer from Ontario. Fast forward almost a decade later (and relocate to a land-based fish farm in southern British Columbia), and Maaike stepped in as CC's assistant editor for a year in 2021. Now she serves as Art and Development Manager. She is intrigued by the symbiotic relationship between hope-oriented journalism and the arts, and the place it has in CC's pages. Her degree is in Intercultural Service and World Arts and she creates original watercolours and graphics for CC (proving that work can be fun). You can follow more of Maaike's visual experiments on Instagram @maai_abrokentulip

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