A guide to a majestic cathedral
ABOUT halfway through “Universe of Stone,” historian Philip Ball’s lively, open-ended study of the building of Chartres Cathedral (1194-1220), he confesses that the record books of the cathedral do not survive from this period. This is quite an admission. It means we don’t know who built Chartres Cathedral -- who oversaw the project, who designed it, the cost of materials and labor, what setbacks or quirks of ingenuity may have marked its construction. What we see, when we walk into the purple-gray wonder of Chartres, is a medieval mystery.
But we can, with an able guide, reconstruct the intellectual climate that gave birth to this magnificent, much-romanticized building in a small town south of Paris. This is Ball’s project in “Universe of Stone.” “There are few buildings in the world that exude such a sense of meaning, intention, signification,” he argues, and “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.”
Delighting in unexpected connections and pithy quotes, the author traces the classical origins of that philosophy and its transformation in the 12th century into a spirit of inquiry that began to overturn the fearfulness of the early Middle Ages. Barbarian invasions, cycles of famine and repressive church doctrine had all but snuffed out Western interest in the natural world after the fall of Rome. Reacting to brutal living conditions and the depressing collapse of an empire, early Christian thinkers were drawn to Neoplatonism and its assertion that the world around us was an illusion: “a mere shadow of an immaterial realm of true reality, where all things are intelligible and perfect.” Art existed not to depict this debased reality but to “reveal the deep design of God’s creation.”
The transition to a more rational, inquiring frame of mind was a rocky one. Ball describes the rise and calamitous fall of Peter Abelard (of the celebrity couple, Heloise and Abelard), whose arrogance might have dug his grave even if his theories were not judged heretical. Abelard reintroduced Aristotelian ethics and snappy debate to a religious community dominated by mysticism and an insistence on cowering faith. Here, Ball puts the fun back in medieval scholasticism. If he cannot draw a direct connection between the teachings at Chartres and other French cathedral schools and the soaring lines of Gothic churches, he does masterfully convey the ferment of ideas from which the Gothic style arose.
Philosophy alone won’t hold up a building, though. Gothic cathedrals may be “physical expressions of a particular theology,” but they are also carefully cut and piled stones. How far we’ve come from the Middle Ages can be illustrated by the fact that the first thing the medieval foreman and masons had to agree on was a unit of measure. The Roman foot (11 5/8 inches)? The French Royal foot (12 3/4 inches)? The “foot-and-hand” (14 inches)? Ball seems as much at ease on the medieval building site as in an abbey library, elaborating on the slow drying time of chalk mortar and the history of rib vaulting. This balance between the practical and intellectual culminates in a brilliant section about stained glass in Gothic churches, metaphysical theories of divine light and scientific speculations on the nature of light.
Inevitably, it isn’t just the Gothic period the author must contend with but the intervening centuries of scholarship and interpretation -- as distorting, at times, as the clumsy restoration of a nave wall or the removal and destruction of “dark” medieval glass from many Gothic churches. In scholarly disputes, Ball tends to adopt a middle course. One exception is the theory of sacred geometry as applied to Chartres, which he swats away like a fly. His willingness to remain uncertain is a hallmark of the book. “We have to come to Chartres prepared to admit that there are many things we do not and may never know,” he tells us.
If we venture forward despite this -- clutching our uncertainty -- we may be rewarded with a glimpse of the “vision of order” dreamed by the 12th century French clergy and see their glorious edifice through new eyes.