It’s funny to think that it wasn’t until the 1550s that services in cathedrals were held in English. Many cathedrals have Saxon foundations, so they’ll have used Latin for longer than English. So what on earth did the people attending services make of it all, given that many of them would have had no understanding of what was being said?
The great thing about cathedrals is that they were designed to do the translation for you. Most of them have decorated fronts at the west door, to introduce the key players before you go in; then inside, through the stained glass and the paintings, the carvings and the embroidery, these protagonists are put to work, acting out the stories of the Bible, so that a lack of letters or Latin would never be an obstacle to understanding.
The Poor Man’s Bible Window in Canterbury shows key stories from the bible to do exactly what it says on the tin; the Jesse window in Wells shows the whole genealogy of Christ; and in this tradition Chichester’s modern Chagall window illustrates Psalm 150 in a blaze of red light. The details on corbels and bosses; the faces on chantry tombs blowing souls to heaven; the cheeky Lincoln imp, or the brasses on the floor – all of these tell us how our ancestors viewed life and belief, and about what they held precious.
O God, who has so created the earth that we might see “A World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower”, thank you for these stories in stone. Help us to look out more as we travel around, so that we too might glimpse these messages from our past, and learn their wisdom.