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In France, home of the founders of the Knights Templar, all the major churches built after 1150 were Gothic, and the style quickly spread throughout Europe and the British Isles. It became the West’s quintessential religious architecture, and remains so today.

The reason for its enduring popularity is twofold: The architecture creates a vast interior space that is beautiful, but more importantly, the combination of physical beauty and symbolic elements speaks to the soul. For medieval people the church was more than a building; it was quite literally the dwelling place of God. It incorporated the spirit of God because every aspect of the structure carried a spiritual meaning. And in the Middle Ages, there was no difference between the symbolic and the real; people recognized the sacred reality that lies within physical reality. The divine presence lives in nature, in space and in light, and the cathedrals brought these elements together in such a magnificent way that even today modern man, so cut off from his own divine nature, can still feel them.

Unfortunately, while we can feel the building’s spiritual power, in many cases we no longer understand it. The cathedrals are often referred to as “sermons in stone,” because their sculptures and window-pictures were used to illustrate Bible stories for illiterate peasants who could not read the Bible themselves. But now it is we who are the illiterates, for we have lost the knowledge of symbols that was known and understood by everyone when the churches were built. So we visit the cathedrals as tourists and wander around in a daze, gawking without understanding what it is we are looking it, having the feeling that there’s something hidden beneath the surface, but not knowing what it is …

—Janet Brennan, “The Cathedral Code,” FATE Magazine, December 2006