Two approaches to understanding medieval architecture are prevalent today. Authors either attempt to understand medieval architecture in terms of its use and utility, or they attempt to understand medieval architecture in terms of its expression of an idea.
The first category of relating altar placement and ritual procession to the understanding of medieval architecture is not a common theme within our understanding of medieval architecture. It has been touched on by Coldstream, and Wright, but does not inform medieval history to a large extent.
The second category of relating medieval architecture to an idea is far more developed. Given the tentative nature of our understanding of the relationship between master mason and patron, it is difficult to conclude about the degree of influence of ideas. The lack of written evidence prevents the establishment of an outright causal relationship between the ideas and the architecture of the medieval period. Even when we have evidence from patrons whose ideas about architecture were clear enough, we cannot see a link between those ideas and changes within the craft of the master mason. It is much harder to establish that patrons had the technical expertise to make design and construction judgments.
Authors of medieval architectural history have varied their approach of relating medieval ideas to medieval architecture. Most suggest some sort of parallel between the ideas and architecture of the time, but Panofsky put forth a causal relationship. He saw a causal link between scholasticism, and architecture. The mental habits of scholasticism were seen to influence the wider culture, and therefore bleed over into architecture.
Other authors such as Coldstream attempt to relate the architecture to the medieval worldview, and the experience of nature as influenced by the Church. The fusion of sacred and profane is suggested by Coldstream to have influenced architecture as much as culture. Christian symbolism such as the heavenly Jerusalem is seen as implicit in the medieval effort to unite the material and spiritual, but given the change in master masons and patrons along the course of the construction period such links between architecture and ideas come into question.
Bridging the gap between architecture and the ideas that occurred during the medieval period has most recently been attempted by Radding and Clark. The focus is not a parallelism between the content of one discipline to another, such as between scholasticism and architecture, but instead a parallelism between the cognitive and thought processes between philosophy, theology, law, and architecture. The general trend sought by Radding and Clark is to identify the general method for solving problems during the medieval period, and see how those methods influenced architecture. The imposition of order upon materials, shaping variables into a whole, and accounting for potential differences of viewpoint are all seen by Radding & Clark as owing to the method of the medieval period. The unifying character of medieval culture is explained as the result of a method as well as a general desire for consensus.
What the medieval architectural historians have missed is very obvious. At no point has an author seriously considered the character of medieval religion, and looked at the architecture within the medieval religious worldview. Not only has the notion of architectural history as eschatology been ignored, but the transcendent nature of the source of medieval architecture has been ignored as well.
The character of medieval Christian religion resulted from attention to a transcendent source; i.e. God. Given that nothing exists outside of God, the medieval understanding of history must be seen as an unveiling of the truth of creation. The all encompassing character of medieval Christian God leaves no room for anything else.
Considering the specific realities of what was constructed 800 years ago in the light of God is something almost impossible for contemporary readers. The interceding years of cultural change has placed enough distance to leave the minds of today at a loss when confronted with the mysteries of the Christian religion.
Such essential mysteries such as the Trinitarian God, the Eucharist, and the Resurrection are incomprehensible to even the religious today. While we would not expect the master mason to master theology, but it follows that we can expect the master mason to understand his craft within a divinely created cosmos. The trouble with interpreting medieval architecture within the medieval Christian religion presents itself when considering the changes in intellectual climate that occurred during 800 years of history.
Religious consciousness was divorced from science, philosophy, art, politics, and subsequent religious understanding was fundamentally altered. The existence of God was questioned under the new discoveries of science, and the relevance of the church in the affairs of men declined. In the place of religious understanding grew the importance of human autonomy, and individual experience. The post-medieval intolerance of a transcendent foundation was summarized in the work of Immanuel Kant, who sought to circumscribe the limits of religion within reason alone. The reasoning subject was no longer parallel to an objective world, but constitutive of objectivity. Furthermore Kant no longer assumed the mind is adequately equipped to make assertions about the transcendent source. However, Kant re-introduced religion as morality based on the subjective intention of the agent. God was the moral exemplar, and religion for Kant was ethics.
These conclusions influence how we think of the world around us today, and prevent an adequate interpretation of medieval architecture that existed within God. Furthermore, it was held that the mind was equipped by its very nature to see God. It could be argued that a return to this pre-critical period is impossible. The habits of critical thought prevent any engagement with a religious consciousness that requires a pure act, or acting without asking "Why?" The understanding of medieval buildings within the medieval religious consciousness is possible however. The medieval religious consciousness does hold the possibility of return to the primal source with the notion of redemption.