The Pillars of the Earth

I’ve just started watching this new series, currently appearing on pay cable (Starz) but sure to be available through other media eventually.

Although I’m not a big Ken Follett fan, I  read Pillars of the Earth some years ago. I was introduced to it, oddly enough, by a tour guide at Mont St. Michel, who happened to be a French architectural student.  The book imagined the lives of the earliest cathedral builders — folks who, using little more than geometry, trial and error, and a kind of intuitive engineering sense, built churches of incredible beauty that still excite the imagination.  Follett’s insight, that the seeds of Western European cultural ascendancy might well lie in this willingness to try what looks impossible, might well be correct. The book also offers a balanced perspective of the role of the church in medieval Europe.  Certainly there were venal bishops. But the Church also attracted thoughtful, intelligent men of high principle, who eventually created much of we consider our cultural posterity.

So far, the series seems to be following the book pretty closely, although, since it’s TV, there’s a litle more blood, guts and s*x than I remember.  Still, the story is absorbing enough to be worth watching, and it includes some fine acting (Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell and Donald Sutherland being among the more recognizable names).

My favorite scene so far — builders fixing the site of the new cathedral’s altar by the light of the rising sun. Most people know that Islamic mosques, all over the world, orient their prayer walls in the direction of Mecca. Fewer know that the medieval Europeans oriented their cathedrals similarly — to the East, towards Jerusalem.  (That’s why the entrance is always called the “West Front.” )

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