10 reasons cathedrals provoke a sense of wonder
Today I visited the Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal. I love old churches, or really any places of worship, and this one was interesting because it very clearly belonged to its geography. Its windows and paintings told stories of Canadian saints and the founding of Montreal, and I found myself thinking that, centuries ago, big cathedrals must have been spell-binding to people who lived in villages and weren't accustomed to any sort of grandeur. Here's my attempt to break down what exactly makes cathedrals like this one awe-inspiring.
1. Monumental size
Cathedrals are built to 1) make you feel small and 2) to make you look up. Inside a cathedral, you're in a perpetual state of being dwarfed by something greater than you. Very much a case of form enhancing function.
2. Everything is ornate
From the intricately-painted ceiling to the carved pews and furniture to the gold filigree.
3. The instruments (e.g. the organ) are massive
The organ in today's cathedral contained more than 7,000 pipes. I would've loved to hear it played.
The idea of guarding and cherishing someone's body part is weird to me, even if they are a saint. Still, it's a funny feeling to look upon something that caused pilgrimages and the mass movement of people.
And the dim interior lighting more generally. Both create a sense of mystery, and mystery is often associated with faith and wonder.
6. Silence, barring deliberate chanting or music
Somehow it contributes to a feeling of holiness. I think this is enhanced by the large space.
7. There's something powerful about a sense of ritual
So much of churches comes down to ritual (more so in Catholic and Orthodox traditions than Protestant ones). I think the predictable idiosyncrasy of religious ceremonies contributes to a feeling of something special.
8. Iconography and imagery
I grew up around Byzantine icons, so I feel totally comfortable saying they're often downright creepy. In a weird way, this makes them fascinating. Other fascinating imagery unique to churches includes gory depictions of the crucifixion, battles, saints being martyred... (notwithstanding the face that some churches surely have happier imagery as well)
9. They evoke something ancient, or timeless
The use of ancient Greek or Latin in mass used to really contribute to this, and you can often still find writing in either language in many cathedrals. Things that are old and withstand the test of time have power.
They say that smell is the most powerful of sense. I know that smelling incense transports me to churches immediately; the link is strong.