Unworldly Splendour: The Medieval Cathedrals of France Were an Attempt to Re-Create the Mind of God, Writes William Skidelsky

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When I was ten, my mother packed my two siblings and me into our creaking Renault 4 and took us on a drive across France. The trip's primary purpose was didactic: we were to be inducted into the country's architectural glories, and in particular its Gothic cathedrals. This being France, however, food inevitably played a prominent role. Aided by The Michelin Guide, my mother picked out restaurants for us to stop at en route. She must have chosen well, because I'm ashamed to say that, of these two aspects of the journey-the cultural and the culinary-it is only the latter that etched itself on my memory.

Twenty years later, I remain as partial to French food as ever, but I have come to regret the lack of attention I paid to the cathedrals. It was largely in the hope of making up for this failing that I recently hatched the idea of another French road trip. This time culinary distractions would be kept to a minimum. I would stick rigidly to my purpose, which was to arrive at an appreciation of the beauty and majesty of Gothic architecture. And my chaperone would be not my mother, but my girlfriend, whose many merits include owning an open-top car.

We set off one afternoon during May's shortlived heatwave and took the car tunnel from Folkestone to Calais. Our first target was Rouen in Normandy, which we reached around noon the next day. Rouen Cathedral is very big-it rears up almost comically over the buildings that surround it-and it is, from the outside, a bit of a mess. Over the centuries, lots of extra bits have been grafted on to its 13th-century frame. These include an extravagantly lacy, 15th-century "Butter Tower" and a 19th-century cast-iron spire, which Flaubert said looked as if it had been designed by a whimsical boilermaker.

This riotous exterior, however, merely serves to make entering the cathedral more dramatic. Stepping through its portals, you feel as if you have been cast from the confusion of daily life into a realm of miraculous order. My first impression of the interior was a view down one of the side aisles, which extend past the transept (the cross section of the main body of the building) to the far end, nearly 300 metres away. It is a staggering sight, one that was replicated, on a much larger scale, when I crossed into the nave. Structural repetition of this kind occurs frequently in Gothic architecture-it is one of the style's defining features. This got me wondering: could it be that the master builders of the Middle Ages, when dreaming up their projects, had in mind an eternal cathedral, a fantasy of endless pillars and arcades, of rib-vaulted aisles stretching into infinity? I don't think such a notion is entirely fanciful. One of the purposes of these buildings was to offer to the faithful a glimpse of the divine order. In a sense, what their architects were trying to inscribe in stone was nothing less than the mind of God.

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From Rouen we headed along the coast to the small town of Coutances, in west Normandy. …