This observation was imparted to me by an esteemed art historian, while sitting on a bench in Venice outside a cathedral. (No, I cannot remember which cathedral, other than it was chock full of Titians. But that’s not important.)
His point was that the denizens of medieval Europe were never so inclined to pony up their ducats than in the aftermath of the natural cataclysms that regularly plowed through their lives. The bubonic plague, for instance.
Some of Europe’s great cathedrals rose from the ashes of disaster, many of which were largely publicly funded. What drove this civic generosity? A sense of compassion for those displaced and devastated by the scourge of deadly disease?
In the hands of the truly great fundraisers of their time, the priests, bishops and popes of a powerful religious oligarchy, certain basic human behaviors were easily manipulated to spur public philanthropy.
No doubt much of this generosity could be stimulated by a sense of gratitude for having survived. Today we would credit that behavior to the psychic principle of reciprocity. “You spared me, Lord, I owe you one.”
It might have been an angry response to Satan, who, the bishops might have contended, foisted this disaster on mankind. (Talk about it being easier to raise money against a villain rather than for a hero. That’s some villain.)
Or perhaps it was guilt. “We as a society were sinful, and paid the price.” Time to convince the Lord we deserve a second chance.
But to a larger degree, giving was probably motivated by fear that it might all happen again. A nervous public sought some heavenly insurance against future apocalyptic catastrophe, and a cathedral in town square might just do the trick.
Fear, anger, greed, guilt, salvation. A sense of reciprocity. Any of this sound familiar?
They were corrupt and venal. They were certainly not paragons of spiritual purity. But those medieval clerics must have been great fundraisers.
Because Notre Dame, Chartres, the Duomo, and the rest of the great medieval cathedrals… definitely not built on the cheap.