Saturday, April 30, 2011

Raise high the roofbeams

"We've removed the ceiling above our dreams. There are no more impossible dreams."
~ Jesse Jackson

Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral, Pisa, Italy

In his April 30th column for, science writer Jonah Lehrer writes that "architecture and design can influence our moods, thoughts and health." As he explains, scientists are discovering that our outlook and our performance on different tasks change in response to aspects of our surroundings "from the quality of a view to the height of a ceiling."

The article put me on a memory path I've traveled down scores of times over the years. It begins when, as a child of three or four, my parents took me to a Roman Catholic mass in a Gothic-style church where the choir sang Gregorian chant.

As light streamed through the stained glass windows and the chanting voices arced and dipped I suddenly had the feeling that my mind was floating through the top of my head to a place way up high in the vaulted ceiling. I wasn't frightened by it. I felt both calm and energized.

Although I gave up religion in my early teens, over the years, when I've needed to think through a difficult problem or even just recharge, I have often found my way to a high-ceilinged church. Even without the chanting choir, the light and those high, beautiful ceilings work a certain magic. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral." I find that inspiration contagious.

Norwich Cathedral, Norfolk, U.K.

The next time you find yourself near a Gothic-style church, stop in and see how it feels.


  1. Beautiful. So agree with this. Was describing my idea for better low-cost housing to a friend the other day: Make the spaces very small—more like European spaces—but better built, and with higher ceilings than is usual. I think height gives optimism and hope. I've been a lapsed Catholic since my late teens, but I stop into cathedrals or churches to sit and think under the vaulted ceilings. I miss the ways the architecture and the ritual—the chants, the smells, the music—in those soaring spaces altered me and calmed me.

  2. Your housing idea, which is terrific, now has scientific backing. And I miss the rituals, too - the architecture, the chants, the swinging of the incense burners, the candles and flowers and cloth. On two occasions I've attended religious ceremonies - a wedding and a baptism in one of those low-ceilinged places that looks like a ranch house. Can anything be less spiritual?

  3. This is lovely. I was feeling awe-struck by the high shots of Westminster Abbey during the wedding. I could happily spend a holiday just visiting churches.

  4. That's a fabulous vacation idea. I can imagine going from cathedral to cathedral with my notebook and pen and getting a lot of productive thinking and writing done. In fact, I could do it right here in NYC — lots of lovely churches with high ceilings to visit. Thank you for helping me plan my next days off!

  5. As a resident of Norwich, I'm pleased you've chosen to illustrate your piece with a photo of our cathedral, which is indeed an inspiring building. Each of the roof bosses (the protrusion where the stone ribs meet) is beautifully carved with scenes from the Bible and even pagan subjects.

  6. Hi, Tony. I looked at a lot of photos of cathedral interiors on Wikimedia Commons, and Norwich is definitely one of the more spectacular examples. If I lived in your area, I'd visit it often.