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Monument to the Age of Faith

By From the October 2008 issue

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Universe of Stone: a Biography of Chartres Cathedral
By Philip Ball
(Harper, 322 pages, $27.95)
Reviewed by Joseph A. Harriss

On the night of June 10, 1194, the people of Chartres awoke to see flames and smoke billowing from the town’s celebrated Notre Dame Cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. By morning the full extent of the disaster was clear: the Romanesque church, along with much of the town itself, lay in ruins. It was even feared that the fire had consumed the cathedral’s most holy relic, the Sancta Camisa, the tunic said to have been worn by Mary when Jesus was born.

The Chartrains were bereft far beyond the usual feeling of loss for their homes, businesses, and place of worship. For, according to a medieval text, they felt that they, “unhappy wretches, in justice for their own sins, had lost the palace of the Blessed Virgin, the special glory of the city, the showpiece of the entire region, the incomparable house of prayer.”

But in this Age of Faith, when everything was filled with rich symbolic meaning, even such catastrophe was soon transformed into miracle. As the Dutch medievalist Johan Huizinga has described this much-maligned period, “There is not an object or an action, however trivial, that is not constantly correlated with Christ or salvation.” Thus the citizens of Chartres wasted no time on self-pity. They quickly concluded that Our Lady had actually permitted the fire in order to make way for an even grander sanctuary to be built in her honor.

Exhorted by the cathedral’s canons, they were determined that the new structure, whatever it would cost or however long it would take to build, would outshine every other church in Christendom. Their fervor grew when, three days later, it was discovered that the Sacred Tunic had after all been saved by two priests who had taken it down into the crypt and been protected by the Virgin from the inferno above their heads.

It normally took more than a century and many generations of workers to build most of Europe’s medieval cathedrals, resulting in a mix of architectural and decorative styles in the same building. But Notre Dame de Chartres was essentially completed by 1220, only 26 years after work began, making it an unusually pure example of High Gothic architecture. The master builder in charge—in some cathedrals the builder’s name is inscribed in stone, but we know nothing of the man who constructed Chartres—must have had a considerably bigger workforce than usual. This bears out the legend that the Chartrains volunteered en masse for the job. Harnessed to carts like dray horses, it is said, they slogged painfully for miles to transport the tons of local purple-gray limestone needed for the enormous structure. As a 12thcentury account relates, perhaps with some pious hyperbole, “You could have seen men and women moving on their knees through thick mud, chants and hymns of joy being offered to God.…Sometimes a thousand men and women or even more, are bound in the traces.”

They also strove to lift the massive stones onto walls and into vaults 100 feet high, using crude levers, winches, and cranes driven by wheel-drums 20 feet in diameter turned by the feet of men inside; one slip and the block would plummet, sending the drum spinning and injuring them. But they were rewarded as the spires of Chartres rose and could be seen, as today, far across the wheat fields of the fertile Beauce region 55 miles southwest of Paris. The royal poet William the Breton wrote around 1215, “None can be found in the whole world that would equal its structure, its size and décor.…None is shining so brightly.”

In the process, they created more than a worthy tribute to Our Lady. Their cathedral became a powerful, coherent expression of transcendent meaning, an architectural demonstration of Christian doctrine that would endure, rock-solid, against the ravages of time, the madness of the French Revolution, and the spiritually deadening effects of doubt-riddled secularism. As Napoléon once admitted, Chartres’s soaring grandeur would make even the most militant atheist feel uneasy. Today it stands as perhaps the greatest monument we have to the Age of Faith.

In his Universe of stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral, the British writer Philip Ball describes in detail the construction and meaning of Chartres. More than that, he shows how spiritual, socio-economic, and technical elements fused in late medieval Europe, resulting in a series of unparalleled structures; (during the so-called cathedrals crusade from 1050 to 1350 some 80 cathedrals in France alone, plus another 500 large churches and several thousand smaller ones in every town and village) that today, non obstante sterile skyscrapers from Dubai to Shanghai, our lack of conviction makes us impotent to reproduce. He also argues persuasively that Europe’s Gothic cathedrals (the subtitle of the original British edition, Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind, more truly describes this wide-ranging survey of Gothic architecture) defy our usual version of Western history, “in which the Middle Ages separate the wonders of Greece and Rome from the genius of the Renaissance with an era of muddle-headed buffoonery.”

As Ball sees it, the French architects and artisans of this supposedly benighted age managed to produce nothing less than a stone-and-glass counterpart to the whole of Christian doctrine as formulated by theologians like Thomas Aquinas, then teaching at the Sorbonne. They accomplished this partly by emphasizing simple numerical relationships like the Golden Mean in laying out the basic design of the cathedrals: a church modeled on rigorous geometrical order in length, width, and height reflected the glory of God’s orderly universe. In this he agrees with the great French historian Émile Mâle, who held that in the cathedrals “the doctrine of the Middle Ages found its perfect artistic form, the fullest conscious expression of Christian thought.”

Mathematical calculations like the Golden Mean are one thing; actually building a huge, complicated structure successfully is another. Chartres’s builders made several technical innovations, starting with a web of intersecting stone ribs to support the vault. They replaced the round Romanesque barrel vault with the characteristic Gothic pointed arches that directed thrust lines more directly downward, limiting the outward force that pushes walls apart. With these techniques, plus outside flying buttresses for additional support, they could build diaphanous walls of vertiginous height that could be opened up with large windows without fear of weakening the structure. (The medieval quest for ever higher walls with ever bigger windows sometimes led master builders to overreach themselves: Beauvais cathedral collapsed twice, the one at Troyes three times.) Ball notes that the architectural innovations at Chartres would serve as the template for the great French cathedrals that came after, such as Reims and Amiens.

Once the basic structure was in place, Chartres was completed with sculptures and stained glass that served mainly to illustrate the Bible and morals to the age’s illiterate worshippers. Carved into its stone are some 1,800 images and scenes, including Old Testament prophets and kings, New Testament disciples and saints, the Nativity, Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection—a virtual library of sculptured books. But medieval piety is again evident in a peculiar quirk: many of the carvings are in fact out of view, hidden in dark nooks and crannies where the artists knew they would never be seen again by human eyes. God was the only audience they needed. As Ball writes, “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.”

Chartres’s crowning glory, its stained glass, casts the nave into a mystical reddish-blue gloom, flooding it with what the poet Paul Claudel called “darkness made visible.” Of its original 185 windows, an amazing 152 have survived nearly 800 years of war—they were removed to safety during WWII—political vandalism, and acid rain. (Not all the recent windows are entirely French: one in the south transept was financed by the American Institute of Architects.)

Never since surpassed in quality, they were colored with metal oxides while molten, using copper for ruby, antimony for yellow, iron for green. The inimitable bleu de Chartres was created with a cobalt compound unknown in northern Europe; it was apparently imported specially from the Mediterranean area. The immense rose windows of the west front, with Jesus sitting in judgment, and the north transept, with Mary cradling the Christ Child, radiate starbursts of color as the light changes throughout the day.

Chartres may well have been a model of God’s universe and the new Jerusalem, but it also existed on a very human level, serving social as well as religious functions. Besides being a temple, it was also a town hall, social club, marketplace, and dormitory. The long nave (built to accommodate 10,000 to 15,000 people) slopes toward the entrance so the floor could be sluiced with water to clean up after the hordes of pilgrims who slept there. Thus the stone and glass imagery reflected many secular subjects. Sculptured motifs in the south door show the liberal arts—Euclid’s figure denoted geometry, Aristotle dialectics, Boethius arithmetic, Ptolemy astronomy—while those in the north portal show signs of the zodiac and months of the year symbolized by figures planting, cultivating, and harvesting, with February showing a sturdy peasant warming his feet by a fire. Craftsmen from carpenters to wheelwrights and stonemasons contributed windows depicting them in bright colors at work. Even moneychangers were allowed to set up shop in this temple, the canons carefully stipulating that their dues go to the chapter as a whole and not only to the dean. Many merchants hawked their wares when there was no religious service. Wine dealers, for instance, could sell their products tax-free in the nave. When they broke open a new barrel, one of their cries went, “New wine, just freshly broached, smooth and tasty, pure full-bodied, leaps to the head like a squirrel up a tree.”

Vignettes like this of medieval life as it was add to the pleasure of this instructive, pleasantly discursive work. So do the illustrations, from architectural line drawings explaining the fine points of the ribbed vault, pointed arch, and rose window, to color  photos of many of the magnificent windows. The reader comes away from it with a new appreciation for this period in Western history: the astonishing skill of its craftsmen and the faith-based richness of their lives, certainly less comfortable physically than ours, but filled with spiritual meaning.

Joseph A. Harriss, an American writer in Paris, has described the construction and historical significance of another French monument in The Tallest Tower: Eiffel and the Belle Époque (Regnery).

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.