An amazing, if physically heavy book, Gothic Cathedrals; A Guide to the History, Places, Art and Symbolism by Dr. Karen Ralls is filled from cover to cover with information and beautiful pictures of gothic cathedrals. Organized in a way that makes complete sense, this book takes you on a tour of exactly what is a gothic cathedral, what were they used for, where can you find them and what will you find inside of them. A personal note: this truly is a large, heavy book. If you get the paperback edition (I have the first, 2015 edition) the pages are very thick, which makes for beautiful photos but a heavy book to hold while reading.
Beginning with an introductory chapter plainly titled Gothic Cathedrals, Ralls takes the reader on a bit of a tour on what exactly is a gothic cathedral and also includes things such as what gothic actually means in this sense, the history of gothic cathedrals, how romanesque styles fit into their history and so forth. This is a very informational chapter and I feel all new readers should read this chapter first.
Chapter two goes into detail about what the gothic cathedrals were used for. I find this chapter to be wonderfully informational because we see that the cathedrals were not used only for religious worship. Indeed they were also used for pageants, revelry and other things. The next chapter details how the cathedrals were planned and made. Here Ralls goes into medieval guilds, masonry, talks about the building sites and even the mason's marks.
Chapters four, five and six really delve into a lot of the myths, realities, symbolism and even some superstitions about the gothic cathedrals. Chapter seven discusses the stained glass used in gothic cathedrals. Here Ralls includes information about the history of stained glass, different kinds, the symbolism of stained glass and ends the chapter with information about the medieval stained glass that is still surviving. Keeping with the theme of decoration, chapter eight discusses sculptures that can be found at gothic cathedrals such as saints, gargoyles and even mermaids. There is information on the themes of these, their symbolism and history.
In the last two chapters of the book Ralls discusses pilgrimages. In this chapter along with discussing shrines, Ralls discusses what exactly is a pilgrimage and who went on them. She also discusses the various types of pilgrimages from those whose purpose is penance to even merchants trying to sell their goods. There is information on the dangers of pilgrimage such as illness or bandits, the costs of pilgrimage and even safe deposits; places where you could keep your belongings safe. I found these last two chapters to be especially interesting as they give a very unique view into medieval life, from an uncommon point of view.
The book ends with a few appendicies; a map of primary cities with gothic cathedrals, a timeline of major gothic cathedral construction, Black Madonna shrines and pilgrimage sites and Mary Magdalene shrines and pilgrimage sites. There are also end notes, a bibliography and a thorough index.
All in all, this book is worth every penny and more. It is chock full of information as well as amazing, beautiful color photos with credits. For anyone interested in medieval life and/or cathedrals in general as well as gothic cathedrals in specific this book is a must-have. I highly recommend it.
~review by Jessica Elizabeth
Author: Dr. Karen Ralls
Ibis Press; 2015