Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral

Grand, sometimes extravagant claims have been made for Chartres Cathedral over the past nine centuries. In 1214-16, some ten years before work on the building was even finished, the royal poet and chronicler William the Breton was already trumpeting its glories, claiming that “none can be found in the whole world that would equal its structure, its size and d?cor.” More modern visitors have been almost as lavish in their praise. Its soaring aisles and spectacular glass windows have been hailed as the ultimate expression of the 12th-century European Renaissance, as the embodiment of the High Gothic style, and as the physical incarnation of the teachings of the celebrated School of Chartres. Complex and often tortuous theories have been posited to explain its supposed geometric precision, and its apparent adherence to the punishing strictures of the Golden Mean. Writers claim to have detected the lost secrets of the Druids and the Knights Templar sealed within its walls; some have even found the mythical codes of the Freemasons surreptitiously chiseled, Dan Brown–like, into its stonework.

Why has Chartres exerted such an extraordinary pull on the imagination? And why has it attracted such a welter of ambitious and sometimes madcap theories?

Partly, Philip Ball explains in this clear and level-headed study, because of the sheer beauty of the building (the French sculptor Rodin proclaimed himself “completely dazzled” by it). Partly, too, because of the building?s seemingly miraculous state of preservation — it is, according to Bell, a “nearly pristine document.”

The chief reason for Chartres?s iconic status, though, undoubtedly has to do with the revolutionary nature of its overall design. Its thin, almost diaphanous walls, large, pointed windows, vast, rib-vaulted ceiling, and extravagant flying buttresses, when taken together, offer such a departure from the thick-stoned, narrow-windowed, round-arched and inward-looking Romanesque model of previous centuries that they seem to betoken nothing less than a total revolution in both style and sensibility. “There are few buildings in the world,” Ball states, “that exude such a sense of meaning, intention, signification — that tell 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.” Explaining what that awesome philosophy was, and what those meanings, intentions and significations are, is the chief purpose of this highly accomplished work.

A consultant editor for the British science journal Nature and the winner of the 2006 Aventis Prize for Science Books, Philip Ball has already shown, in The Devil?s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science, that he is comfortable negotiating the space between science, history, and cultural theory. In Universe of Stone, he aims to embed Chartres Cathedral (and the sudden efflorescence of Gothic architecture that accompanied it) firmly within the medieval culture of the time, arguing that such a building could only have been built on the back of the new-found philosophical confidence of the 12th-century Renaissance — a confidence that flowed directly from the rediscovery of the classical texts of Euclid, Aristotle, Archimedes, and Ptolemy. Where earlier generations had sought merely to accept God?s mysterious purpose, 12th-century Western thinkers could suddenly envisage the universe as a logical system of eternal order. Chartres, its geometry, its clarity, its light and the “vertical ecstasy” of its design are, Ball argues, breathtaking physical incarnations of this newfound belief.

Ball is not the first writer to expound this theory, and he is happy to admit the debt he owes to the work of the German art historian Erwin Panofsky. He is particularly quick to defer to Panofsky when it comes to recognizing the importance of the famous Chartres School, whose discipline of rationalist, neo-Platonic, proto-scientific inquiry he sees encoded in every corner of the cathedral?s structure.

He does, though, express some doubts about the reductiveness of Panofsky?s vision, pointing out, for instance, that many of the builders who worked on the cathedral would have been at best semi-literate. How, then, to explain the direct transfer of knowledge from school to builders that is implicit in Panofsky?s critique? (It?s one of Chartres?s many mysteries that no individual “architect” has ever been credited with the design; indeed, as Ball points out, the concept of “architect” is not one that medieval minds would necessarily have recognized.)

Such a determinedly practical and grounded point of view serves Bell well when it comes to demolishing some of the more free-floating theories that cluster around Chartres. The Brown-like Masonic codes are swiftly dealt with, and Ball dispels the idea that they were ciphers hiding long-forgotten mystical knowledge; rather, they were either stonecutters? signatures to help their employers tally payment or a type of “medieval barcode” added at the quarry to identify each stone?s intended destination. Similarly, the notion that the proportions of the cathedral conform to some “sacred geometry” encapsulated in the Golden Mean seems less attractive when you consider that “there are in fact rather few numbers between 1 and 2 for which a close correspondence with some ?meaningful? ratio cannot be found.”

Ball is just as good at puncturing romantic medieval notions about Gothic cathedrals? construction (there were frequent strikes, and tensions, too, between clerics and townspeople) and at highlighting the cynical way in which miracles and relics were used to attract well-heeled religious visitors. He shows us how medieval builders would have built an arch, and reveals the superior strength of pointed windows (one of several innovations imported from the Arab world) over rounded ones.

In all of this, Ball is an eminently sensible and grounded authority. Gothic architecture, he admits in his introduction, remains a battlefield of competing theories, one that has “spurred some bloody conflicts.” “There are few points of view that have not suffered the withering dismissals of eminent and formidable critics,” he warns. This engrossing book is an enviably clear-sighted guide to both the critical complexities and the physical glories that await the curious reader.