The Basilique Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d’Albi is a terrifying place, even before you get to the Doom painting. Situated in the otherwise charmingly quaint medieval town of Albi, about fifty miles east of Toulouse, the cathedral is something of an aesthetic slap in the face—an eight-cylinder engine dropped in the middle of a Playmobil set. This is partly due to its size. Despite being more than five hundred years old, Albi Cathedral remains to this day quite possibly the largest brick building in the world, nearly 260 feet tall and 115 feet wide and holding the largest Gothic nave in the whole of France. It’s an intimidating presence.
Its history doesn’t help either. Built between 1282 and 1480, it stands as a grim monument to the butchery that was the Albigensian Crusade, the merciless persecution of the Cathar heresy (named for the large number of Cathars who resided in Albi) by Pope Innocent III in the twelfth century. The war left bloody scars across southern France—most notably in the siege of Béziers, where nearly twenty thousand people were killed—and all but extinguished Catharism in France. Albi Cathedral itself was built partly at the instigation of Bernard de Castanet, inquisitor of the Languedoc, as a testimony to the church’s dominance. This explains its brutal, warlike design. Stephen O’Shea, in The Perfect Heresy, describes it as the architectural equivalent of a “bellow,” echoing down over seven hundred years, still quite audible today.
And then, of course, there’s the Doom painting. Situated below the organ, the fresco, once at least two hundred meters square, reveals all too clearly what was on the minds of those who built this great monument to institutional power. It depicts the Last Judgment, the coming of Christ in glory to judge the living and the dead—and judge he does. True, there is salvation and joy, but it’s distant and inaccessible, way up in the heights of the cathedral. What’s really on show here, of course, is what the poor viewer can see at ground level. Hell is depicted in all its fiery glory: miserable sinners are tormented by ghoulish contraptions, while demons pull and tear. It’s almost funny in its dreadful cartoon style, but it’s also completely terrifying.
When we think of hell now, it tends to be in a rather abstract or historical sense. Hell as a physical place is largely relegated to the realm of fundamentalist sects—a threat printed on a sign by the Westboro Baptist Church. It is ripe for parody (one is reminded of Cold Comfort Farm’s Amos Starkadder declaring to the Church of the Quivering Brethren, “There is no butter in Hell!”) but of limited theological weight in the present age. At any rate, there’s little mention of hell in most Catholic churches today. Last year it was widely reported that Pope Francis had expressed doubt about the very existence of hell (Vatican officials quickly denied this). Many Christians seem willing to accept an abstract conception of hell—of being without God, of rejecting love and happiness. But as the Albigensian Doom painting clearly shows, this wasn’t always the way most Christians thought of hell. It’s fair to say that for most of the church’s history, most believers understood hell to be not just a condition but a place threatening all too physical pains.
The exact details remained pretty sketchy. The nature, location, and contents of hell all varied significantly across different periods and religions. Most people would place hell somewhere below their feet, but this wasn’t always a given. In 1729, Tobias Swinden, in his memorably titled An enquiry into the nature and place of hell, placed it in the middle of the sun, since this was the hottest and most remote place that could be imagined. Hell, it seems, is full of surprises.