- The Catherian Cathedral: Gothic Cathedral Iconography in Willa Cather’s Fiction by Christine E. Kephart
Christine E. Kephart’s book traces Willa Cather’s interest in and employment of cathedral iconography from her early fascination with rock forms (especially those that suggest a spiritual function), as shown in “The Enchanted Bluff,” to her clear distinctions between Romanesque and Gothic cathedral architecture and also to connections between traditional cathedrals and rockscapes and between the landscape of the American Southwest and that of Southern France.
Kephart discusses seven Cather novels, beginning with a short chapter on Alexander’s Bridge and concluding with two well-developed chapters on Shadows on the Rock, which she considers Cather’s greatest achievement in the use of cathedral iconography. Her analysis of Alexander’s Bridge introduces in Bartley Alexander’s doomed cantilever bridge the zigzag image associated with the medieval grotesque, as well as the triangle, also connected to cathedral architecture. Although the grotesque is often associated with transformation, the bridge itself remains static, and the ambivalent Bartley “continues largely untransformed.”
Cathedral imagery is found in The Song of the Lark and an actual cathedral in One of Ours. Kephart relates the V-shape of Panther Canyon to the navis, the shape of a ship’s hull that is the origin of the cathedral nave, and points out that in One of Ours Claude Wheeler sails on an actual ship, the inspiration of the nave. Moreover, his experience at St. Ouen church includes essential elements of the Gothic: the upward design suggesting the heavenly cosmos; rose windows and light serving as a metaphor for God; and the complex geometrical basis of the cathedral shown in triangles, circles, and squares.
To Kephart the metaphorical and actual cathedrals in The Song of the Lark and One of Ours look forward to the progression of the image in The Professor’s House and Death Comes for the Archbishop. The Professor’s House is connected to cathedral imagery by its use of light, as in stained glass windows, and of [End Page 91] the grotesque, through gargoyle-like Mother Eve, and the Blue Mesa is suggestive of the Gothic cathedral in contrast to the Romanesque effect of the walls of Panther Canyon. Kephart also perceptively identifies the Professor as in transformation—and thus experiencing an essential function of the cathedral. To Kepler, Cather becomes a cathedral builder in Death Comes for the Archbishop. In The Prologue Kepler locates geometrical cathedral imagery in the “triangle of cardinals” and identifies Gothic light with the “motion and energy” in the sun, candlelight, and dinnerware, and she finds sanctuaries throughout the novel in Acoma, Shiprock, and Bishop Latour’s cathedral.
In her culminating argument, Kephart calls Shadows on the Rock Cather’s own cathedral, built “from words and images,” embodying “spiritual and artistic striving,” and serving as “a metaphor for the writing process.” She devotes two chapters to the novel—one analyzing light and the other focusing on cathedral structure and appearance. The two sources of light in the novel, Kephart explains, are stained glass and luminosity. Cather employs stained glass imagery to represent God’s love, and she associates Cécile— the center of the novel—not only with the Virgin Mary but also with rose windows. Luminosity is found, for example, in the celestial bodies Cather describes; in the hearth fire, candlelight, and Cécile’s shining cup in the Auclair home; in Count Frontenac’s crystal bowl of fruit; and even in the twinkling eyes of the poor old man Blinker who brings the wood.
Kephart argues that just as the different parts of a cathedral make a whole, so do the various elements of Shadows on the Rock—the rock, the river, the forest, and so forth. Cathedral imagery is also found in elements of the town, with the main road going from the sea to the top of the rock being analogous to the progression up the nave to the altar; in the structure of the high altar...