Yes, I know envy is a cardinal sin. But I’m sure you’ll be absolved this once – just tell God I sent you.
Myself, I’ve never envied anyone in my life. But if I were you and someone showed me the same picture of the church where he celebrated the midnight mass yesterday, I’d be envious for sure.
Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire is an 11th century basilica housing a Benedictine abbey and indeed the relics of St Benedict. Every Christmas eve the monks put on their plain white vestments and sing psalms in Gregorian chant.
People come from as far afield as Paris, a two hours’ drive away. Our own drive was some 45 minutes shorter, but even if it weren’t it would have been worth it.
In theory, the celebration of mass, especially on Christmas eve, shouldn’t depend on the physical beauty of the site. After all, early Christians made do with candle-lit catacombs, where snitches like Pliny grassed them up to Trajan. And the ‘Galileans’ still managed to capture the grandeur of the moment.
But in practice, a beautiful church with its pomp and circumstance somehow makes the occasion even more elevating. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have so many beautiful churches.
And Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire is one of the most beautiful in France, which is another way of saying in the world. A trained eye would date it at a glance. For it was in the 11th century that church architecture made its first tentative steps from Romanesque, mainly associated with the Cluniac order, to Gothic, pioneered by the Cistercians.
Saint-Benoît was clearly built from the altar out, and you can see perfectly round Romanesque arches in the back of the basilica. Yet as you move towards the nave, the slightly pointing Gothic arch begins to emerge.
Another century or two and the Romanesque arch will disappear, while the Gothic one will come to a much sharper, more structurally sound, point. That will enable builders to make their churches loftier and with more, larger windows.
That’s why St Bernard, the founder of the Cistercian order, fell in love with Gothic. He wanted more light coming in, for to him light could only come from God. Yet both the Cluniac and Cistercian orders preached unadorned interiors, with plain stone walls, clean lines and symmetrical layouts.
The subsequent development of architecture proved the old maxim: if something can be done, sooner or later it will be done. The structural Gothic advances liberated architects, builders and stonemasons to express themselves, and they didn’t always use that freedom wisely.
Churches were becoming more and more ornate, glorious stained glass became a dominant feature of great cathedrals like Chartres and Bourges, new tiers were added to the naves, and the whole structures began to fly off to the sky.
So far so good (or in this case so sublime), which cautionary phrase should always offset any joy one feels about any kind of progress. For step by step Gothic gave way to Renaissance and Renaissance to the variously vulgar Baroque.
Gone was the laconic, streamlined, ineffable beauty of Romanesque and early Gothic churches. Coming in instead were disfiguring variations on the theme of a wedding cake complete with tasteless figurines, stone squiggles and ostentatious polychrome ornaments.
Baroque vulgarity was even forced into many great Romanesque and Gothic churches, turning them into stylistic competitors with Turkish seraglios.
I remember looking forward to visiting the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome, which used to be the principal cathedral of Western Christianity before the hideous St Peter’s was built.
However, when I finally found myself inside, I couldn’t stay there for more than five minutes. The interior, remodelled in the early days of Baroque, is a towering monument to gilded excess, bad taste and general ugliness.
Now, if all beauty comes from God, is one allowed to ask whom ugliness comes from? I didn’t stay long enough to ask that question. Instead Penelope and I fled across the river to rest our eyes on the aesthetic glory that is the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.
But that was in the distant past. Last night we rejoiced in one of the best settings for the midnight mass anywhere in the world. One can almost forgive the French everything.
P.S. Every town and village around us is fighting the night off with a profusion of brightly lit Christmas decorations, trees, life-size Nativity scenes, doorways and windows framed in garlands of 500-watt bulbs. Wonderful to see, but aren’t we supposed to have an energy crisis? Someone must have forgotten to tell that to the good people of Burgundy and Loiret.