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Universe of Stone:

A Biography of Chartres Cathedral

by Philip Ball (Harper 2008)

If you are to get the full enjoyment of Chartres, you must, for the time, believe in Mary as Bernard and Adam did, and feel her presence as the architects did, in every stone they placed, and every touch they chiseled. You must try first to rid yourself of the traditional idea that the gothic is an intentional expresssion of religious gloom. The necessity for light was the motive of the gothic architects. They needed light and always more light, until they sacrificed safety and common sense in trying to get it. They converted their walls into windows, raised their vaults, diminished their piers, until their churches could no longer stand. You will see the limit at Beauvais; at Chartres we have not yet got so far, but even here in places where the Virgin wanted it as above the high altar the architect has taken all the lgiht their was to take.

Dixit Henry Adams, in Chapter VI of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. I am in no position to argue, for I have not yet had the minimal enjoyment of Chartres that, I expect, comes from standing in and around the cathedral. I fared better, therefore, with Philip Ball's Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral. For if Adams's book is an impassioned response to architecture that cries out from his pages to be witnessed in person, Ball's is an introduction to the distant world that the cathedral embodies. In the early Twenty-First Century, we are probably more inclined to maximize our enjoyment of Chartres by brushing up on the edifice's social, intellectual and physical foundation than by imagining its religious inspiration.

Ball begins his third chapter with the question: What is a cathedral? Well-catechized Catholics (as well as protestants of episcopal persuasion) will answer all to quickly that a cathedral is a bishop's seat, the site of his throne (cathedra) and the locus of his authority over his diocese. Ball flies beyond such technicalities.

When Christians enter a church today, they come into a place of worship and reverence, sacred to God. But crossing that threshold in the Middle Ages took you into many places at once: a town hall, a social club, even a marketplace, and yet also a temple, a place of authority, and indeed nothing less than a kind of heaven itself.

When they were new, and for centuries afterward, the gothic cathedrals enclosed the largest spaces in Europe. Indeed, cathedrals monopolized the idea as well as the reality of the very large interior space until the Nineteenth Century. No other purpose for such spaces was conceived until modern times. The centrality of such buildings is difficult to imagine today, but Universe of Stone helps us to imagine the world in which Chartres cathedral was itself imagined. The story begins with Abbot Suger, of the Abbey of St-Denis, outside of Paris. Already in Suger's day, St-Denis was the spiritual home of the French monarchy. Kings might be crowned at Reims, but they were buried at St-Denis, right up to the Revolution. The abbot was ipso facto an important counselor to the King, and Suger appears to have made the most of his opportunity, both to encourage Louis VI and Louis VII to acquire the strength of true kings and to increase the prestige of his abbey. Suger was not himself an architect, but he employed at least one very gifted builder, and the choir of St-Denis is the first structure to look, at least to later eyes, gothic rather than romanesque. As would be true of later styles (especially the baroque), gothic was a lens of royal and ecclesiastical magnificence.

All the gothic cathedrals that we know replaced earlier buildings that either burned to the ground or required such serious renovation that they were simply rebuilt. In other words, it is useful to see the cathedrals as improvements, as "bigger and better" than their predecessors. Technologically, as Universe of Stone makes very clear, the cathedrals represented prodigious advances in all the arts, from stone dressing to window glazing, upon which builders drew.

Among the gothic cathedrals, Chartres stands out as special in many ways. There is the historic accident of urban development in the Beauce or lack of it as a result of which the cathedrals dominates the town much as it must have done nearly a thousand years ago. At the time the cathedral was built, Chartres was the most important school in France. This leads Philip Ball to muse on the input that men learned in geometry and other classical knowledge might have had upon the artisans who actually designed as well as built the church; wisely, the author resists the urge to draw conclusions.

The use of geometry in the structure of Chartres Cathedral therefore permits of several interwoven interpretations, and how much significance one attributes to each of them must remain for the time being a matter of personal preference.

Then there are the assymetric towers, completed at widely different times (the North Tower is a Sixteenth-Century confection), and the lower three-fifths of the West Front generally, which is a survivor, topped by a truly gothic rose window. There are the famous windows, with their bleu de Chartres cobalt windows (which, because they resisted chemical encrustation, came to dominate the visible palette until a cleaning in 1970: so "we must remember that, when Henry Adams and others enter into raptures about the bleu de Chartres, they were not necessarily seeing it as we do today, nor as it was intended.") Finally, though, Chartres just feels special:

It feels like heresy to say so, but there is something not quite Christian about Chartres Cathedral. Or perhaps one should say that it is somehow super-Christian, a place that conects the central spiritual tradition of the western world to a more ancient, strange and mysterious narrative. People have always seemed to sense this; it is not only in modern times that Chartres has become a nexus of theories about mystical symbolism, hidden codes and vanished wisdom. You will understand why this is so when you go there. There are few buildings in the world that exude such a sense of meaning, intention, signification that tell you so clearly and so forcefully that these stones were put in place according to a philosophy of awesome proportions, appropriate to the lithic immensity of the church itself. This is partly a happy accident: unlike most medieval churches, Chartres is no palimpsest but nearly a pristine document, miraculously preserved from a distant world, bearing a message that is barely diluted by other times and tastes and fashions. But the power of Chartres does not stem simply from its fortunate state of preservation, for even in its own time Chartres made a statement of unprecedented clarity and force.

Universe of Stone is a comprehensive guide to the world that produced Chartres, from the "little Renaissance" of the Twelfth Century to the problem that rib vaulting so elegantly solves. Mr Ball has drawn on an extensive body of medieval studies, and he is sufficiently fluent in areas of controversy not to get bogged down in them. His book makes an outstanding introduction not only to a great church but to the great age in which it was built. (August 2008)

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