[EDITOR’S NOTE: Our series on The Art of Church Architecture continues as Kate Banks reflects on ‘The Luminous Darkness of Westminster Cathedral’. For more information, see our Series Launch.]
Rumours have been circulating in some London Catholic circles that the roof of Westminster Cathedral might finally be on the road to a completion project – a sudden influx of funds, or perhaps a generous legacy. Whether or not there is any truth to this, it has had the effect of turning my eyes upwards on recent Sundays to contemplate the great, domed darkness and imagine what artwork could possibly fit in this familiar shadow.
I have come to love this black expanse, which captures an aspect of faith so few Christian buildings have the boldness to represent: darkness. I do not mean the darkness of sorrow or absence or abandonment so much as that which a 7th century Syrian monk, Pseudo-Dionysius, called the ‘brilliant darkness of a hidden silence’. It is the darkness I was quietly astonished by as a young atheist looking into the icon of the Transfiguration: behind the brilliance of Christ’s garments, concentric circles darken to a middle point of absolute blackness. This scene of sudden clarity and recognition – theo-phany, the radiance of God – is accompanied by the revelation of impenetrable mystery. “He made the darkness his hiding place, his pavilion dark waters and dense clouds” (Psalm 18)
Dionysius describes this as a brightness beyond brightness: “unapproachable light”, or a superabundance of light: “darkness so far above light”. In the history of theology, this darkness has come to be known as ‘the cloud of unknowing’, associated with the tradition of ‘apophaticism’ or ‘negative theology’, a crude summary of which might be the complete transcendence of God beyond any image, concept, perception, or language. A GCSE pupil recently asked me where God is supposed to be during the creation narrative in Genesis 1, so I teasingly asked him to close his eyes and imagine complete transcendence or, failing that, infinite space. The closest he could get was to recognise the impossibility of the task. This is the recognition that is explored by Dionysius in his work The Divine Names: that, ultimately, all language is inadequate to speak of God. Meister Eckhart said that, in some sense, he was an atheist; because whatever he thought of when he thought of the word ‘God’, there is not one of those.
Aquinas, who drew heavily on the work of Dionysius, writes the following after giving his famous ‘proofs’:
When the existence of a thing has been ascertained there remains the further question of the manner of its existence, in order that we may know its essence. Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not.
This is a difficulty for Christians. It is rather like a famous philosophical paradox: if you know something to begin with, you need not inquire into it; but if you don’t know something, how can you begin to inquire into it? All knowledge depends on prior knowledge but if all language falls languidly back down to earth when we try to apply it to God, how can we begin to pursue a relationship, inquire into the divine and transcendent? To say God is unknowable: is that not simply a theist’s way of avoiding explanation, of deferring to mystery and therefore not having to even try to know God? For Dionysius, however, knowledge of the unknowable God is not about gaining information, but about transforming our experience of knowing. To know involves not just filing away facts in the cabinet of our mind but active participation, a gradual growing into a new way of seeing, an unveiling of the strange dimensions of truth not just mentally but entirely, bodily, in space and time. Namely, for Dionysius, this is participation in the sacraments. Our knowledge of God is caught up in the life of the Church and most forcefully in the liturgy.
In the liturgy, the way we use words and signs, and our expectations for how we make meaning out of creation, are constantly overthrown. Shifting from spoken prayer, to gesture, to chant, to the colours of the liturgical season, to censing the altar, the liturgy is rich with the restlessness of attempts to signify the mystery of God, all of which trumpet the ancient recognition that ‘plain language’ will always fall short of the mark. In fact, it was under the influence of this Dionysian account of unfolding mystery in which we sacramentally participate that, in the Middle Ages, stones grew into Gothic Cathedrals which drew their congregations through twists of light and shadow, through enclaves, under soaring arches, and enfolded the light of the gospel in a multitude of shapes. These cathedrals are like giant memory palaces, each one a microcosm of the soul’s journey.
In the end, though, (and Dionysius places this truth at the very heart of his writings) it is only because the Word interrupted our God-speech that the liturgy is not just a very eccentric rung on a ladder of signs trying to reach towards God.
The transcendent has put aside its own hiddenness and has revealed itself to us by becoming a human being. But he is hidden even after this revelation.
Christ rushes to meet us in our stammering, interrupts our language, surprises our patterns of logic. In Dionysius’s account of the Church, participation in the sacraments does not just alter what we know but transforms our way of knowing. By attending to the sacraments of the Church, we move towards God in a gradual but all-encompassing way, in which our mind, body and soul are conformed to Christ. It is like, Dionysius says, pulling on a thick rope and seeing a great object heaving towards you and slowly becoming aware that, in fact, it is you who is moving towards the object. It is like someone pulling at the hawsers of a boat attached to a great rock.
And you, O most divine and sacred sacrament: Lift up the symbolic garments of enigmas which surround you. Show yourself clearly to our gaze.
So, where more fitting and significant in the context of Dionysius’ sacrament-centred unveiling of the mystery of God than the Cathedral to encounter this luminous darkness that is so integral to the liturgy? During Lent, last year, I went to hear the Stabat Mater sung by the Cathedral choir and took the opportunity to tilt my head back and consider the dark vaults. I noticed the variations of shadow tucked into the arches of the gallery where it is so dark that you can’t make out the brickwork, and the lighter darkness of the domes to which the eyes adjust, and fancied this for a comparison with the radiating darkness of the icon of the transfiguration, and with the degrees of revelation and darkness described by Dionysius.
These cathedrals are like giant memory palaces, each one a microcosm of the soul’s journey.
I also saw the scrapes and dirt, and the sense of something incomplete, which friends tell me they see first when they look at the half-finished artistry of the cathedral walls. Perhaps I can concede that completeness also has its aesthetic merits. To make a whole out of something has a significance of its own, and it could be a great thing to see the cathedral roof lit up, fretted with the fruits of the imagination. After all, Aquinas names ‘radiance’ or ‘clarity’ as one of the three conditions of beauty.
Nevertheless, while there remains a part of this luminous building bathed in shadow, my thoughts will turn back to that dark circle of the icon of the transfiguration. The other two of Aquinas’s conditions are ‘integrity’ and ‘proportion’. That iconographer knew darkness to be integral to the theophany, and their icon would not have been whole, complete, integrated without it. Who knows, perhaps a compromise may be found in that ancient tradition of decorating a church roof with the deep blue of a night pricked with stars?
When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. (Psalm 8)
Pseudo-Dionysus, Mystical Theology 997B, in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, translated by Colm Luibheid (London: SPCK, 1987), 135.
 Divine Names, 708D in Pseudo-Dionysius, 80.
 Mystical Theology,1052A, in Pseudo-Dionysius, 138.
 A work of this title written c.1370 is a devotional classic of English theology.
 See, for example, The Divine Names, 981B: “even the angels would have to admit such a failure and could scarcely speak the praises they do”, (Luibheid, 130).
 See, Meister Eckhart, Sermon 22, The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, translated and edited by Maurice O’C. Walshe (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009), 153.
 See Erwin Panofsky, Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St Denis and Its Art Treasures, (Princeton University Press, 1964).
 Letter III, 1069B, in Pseudo-Dionysius, trans. Colm Luibheid (London: SPCK, 1987), 264.
 The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, in Pseudo-Dionysius, trans. Colm Luibheid (London: SPCK, 1987), 212.
Banner image credit: Gary Ullah from UK – Westminster cathedral, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54728674