Sunday, May 18, 2008

Chartres cathedral and the conception of God in the Middle Ages

What were the builders of Chartres Cathedral thinking and what were they trying to convey? Here is a review of an interesting book, Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind by Philip Ball (by the way, the US edition is titled: Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral. if you want a more exciting title, get the imported version).
Chartres cathedral is a marvel but also a mystery. Nobody knows who designed it or what they were trying to express. Begun in 1200 and finished in 1226, it was the crowning example of the gothic style and marked, Philip Ball suggests in this lucid and resplendent book, a shift in the way the western world thought about God, the universe and man's place in it. Romanesque churches with their vast walls and narrow windows had been dark and inward-looking, and signified, he argues, monastic seclusion. Chartres changed all that. Its walls were diaphanous membranes of glass set in cobwebs of stone. On the outside, flying buttresses propped them up to prevent them collapsing under the soaring vaults of the roof. It was “transparent logic”, a celebration of the light of reason, banishing the old gloom, and progressing from an age when God was feared to one where his works could be understood.

That, at any rate, is the theory. Ball makes no pretence to have thought it up himself. It had been aired in the 19th century, and was elaborated in the 20th by the great German art historian Erwin Panofsky. What makes it plausible is that the school of Chartres, in the decades before work on the cathedral began, had become one of the great centres of European learning, a principal conduit for Arabic science and mathematics, and a pioneer in the rediscovery of Plato, Aristotle and Euclid. It was progressive and humanist, encouraging a rational understanding of the physical world, advancing geometry, and promoting the belief that the universe was a system of eternal order based on numerical proportions.

Ok, this does sound very cool. But the reviewer has some doubts regarding this theory:

Is this what Chartres cathedral was trying to say, and if so how were these ideas imparted to the people who actually built it? Ball finds Panofsky's vision inspiring, but sees difficulties fitting it to the facts. Nine successive teams of contractors seem to have worked on the building, so continuity of design must have been imposed by someone, but there is no evidence it was anyone connected with the school of Chartres. The idea of an architect in the modern sense had not yet developed, and decisions may have been taken piecemeal by clerics or patrons or by the master builders, whoever they were. No plans survive, and quite likely none were made, as there was no tradition of architectural drawing. The builders may have carried the design in their heads like mental arithmetic.

There is evidence that bishops were spurred on in their building projects by pride and envy, and it seems possible that the brilliantly ostentatious architecture of Chartres was conceived to satisfy these passions rather than to convey universal rationality. Ball's idea that the building of Chartres began “the age of reason” is the shakiest part of his case. As he points out, the cathedral's most precious relic was the tunic that the Virgin Mary wore when giving birth to Jesus. A later acquisition was the head of Mary's mother, Anne. These rarities attracted pilgrims and wealth, but it is hard to see them as congruent with rational thought in any other respect.
But there is a Muslim connection also:
His section on how to build your own medieval cathedral, backed up by stylish diagrams, is a model of explanatory writing. It makes clear, even to the least mathematical, how the vast tonnage of masonry in a barrel vault can actually strengthen the building under it, and why a pointed gothic arch is less likely to fall down than a round one. Pointed arches were common in Islamic architecture from the 8th century, and they may have been brought to the West by Muslim workers. The superior masonry skills of Muslims have been detected in the 12th-century stonework of Winchester Cathedral. This is typical of the fascinating data that Ball unearths.
And on faith and reason:

The impulse, after finishing Ball's book, to catch the next Eurostar, and head out to Chartres from Paris, is strong. He says that if you sit in the cathedral late in the day, when the tourists have gone, you can believe that the place embodies the last moment when a reconciliation of faith and reason seemed possible. It seems likelier that it embodies a time when no reconciliation of faith and reason seemed needed, because it was assumed that reason, like faith, would lead the mind to God.

While the reviewer is somewhat right in pointing out that no reconciliation was needed between faith and reason, the philosophies of Aristotle and Averroes still loomed large and had to be brought within the Christian thought (i.e. a reconciliation of reason and faith) - and this was done by people like Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham in the later decades of the 13th and early 14th centuries.

Read the full review here. (tip from 3quarksdaily)


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