Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral

Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral

4.0 2
by Philip Ball
A well written study of Gothic architecture, and Chartres Cathedral in particular, looking at the theological and philosophical ideas on which it was founded, and the practicalities of its construction to ultimately aim to show what it may have "meant" to a medieval viewer.


A well written study of Gothic architecture, and Chartres Cathedral in particular, looking at the theological and philosophical ideas on which it was founded, and the practicalities of its construction to ultimately aim to show what it may have "meant" to a medieval viewer.

Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal
“There is no better general introduction to the subject... [Ball’s] account is bold and plausible.”
Los Angeles Times
“Lively...Ball puts the fun back in medieval scholasticism...seems as much at ease on the medieval building site as in an abbey library.”
Christian Science Monitor
“A terrific book…A lucid, thoughtful tour de force…A fascinating book with important insights and observations on every page.”
The New Yorker
“A lively biography of Chartres Cathedral. . . . Ball’s account of its construction reveals fascinating details . . . and evokes its raison d’être.”
Publishers Weekly

Anyone who has been thrilled by the great Gothic cathedrals will revel in this study of both the spiritual and architectural qualities of those medieval wonders. For Ball (Critical Mass), a consultant for Nature magazine, the Chartres cathedral is the apotheosis of the Gothic style, and in his hands it becomes a kind of time capsule bearing the message of the High Middle Ages, when reason was emerging into a world previously governed by faith and fear. Ball is a sure-footed guide through the thickets of medieval philosophical debate about reason and religion, while also presenting the strong personalities of the time, such as the ascetic Bernard of Clairveaux and his nemesis, the fractious Peter Abelard. Then Ball focuses on the physical aspects of the cathedral: the role of the geometry in Gothic design, the fine points of rib vaults and pointed arches, and the role structural necessity played in creating the Gothic aesthetic. But for Ball the central question is the possible link between the the realms of the spiritual and physical: did the "hard-shell-studded limestone" Chartres cathedral embody the worldview of the new scholasticism taught at Chartres's prestigious school, which rejected the notion that God's ways are unknowable in favor of viewing nature as governed by orderly, intelligible laws? Ball's passion, sharp critical mind and fluid prose open a window onto the remote, alien world we call the Middle Ages. 16 pages of color illus., 100 b&w illus. (July 1)

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Kirkus Reviews
The intellectual revolution in medieval France, as embodied in the architecture of a great cathedral. Nature consulting editor Ball (The Devil's Doctor: Paracelcus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science, 2006, etc.) leaves no stone unturned as he explores the shifting social and political atmosphere of 12th-century France during the rise of one of history's greatest testaments to God and Gothic architecture: the cathedral at Chartres. Conceived in homage to the Virgin Mary, the church was constructed during a period of rapid progress in thinking and execution. Great Gothic structures were sprouting all over France, and along with them, advances in technology and technique that greatly benefited the cathedral's mysterious builders. Neo-Platonic physics, experiments with light and form, changing ideas about reason and logic and a radical shift to metaphysical inquiry all played a role at Chartres. Europe, emerging from centuries of strife and barbarism, now devoted itself to promoting the opposite. Scholars suggest that by the end of the 13th century, Chartres had become a major center of learning as well as the most accomplished example of Gothic architecture in France. Two of its defining characteristics, the illusion of weightlessness and the infusion of light, were enabled by mathematics. Flying buttresses and vaulted arches allowed for the immense height and infrastructure supporting luminous panes of colored glass. The great rose window, a masterpiece of form and function, fuses in classic high-medieval style the tangible and spiritual, the mundane and transcendental, the public and personal. The fact that this magnificent house of worship was also used as a town hall andmarketplace encapsulates the delicate transition taking place in public intellectual life, as theology made room for philosophy and science, while the cathedral's soaring nave and windows remind us that divine worship has always been at the root of this spectacular structure. A revelatory look at a seminal period in art history. Agent: Russell Galen/Scovil Chichak Galen Literary Agency

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HarperCollins Publishers
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6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Universe of Stone
A Biography of Chartres Cathedral


In 1204 some of the finest churches in Christendom were ransacked and the precious icons and relics were divided up among the plunderers. They snatched reliquaries from altars, forced open chests filled with holy treasures, stripped gold and silver metalwork from church fixtures. In their haste they spilled the sacramental wine over the marble floor, where it might mingle with the blood of any priest who stood in their way.

But these marauders were not infidels. They were Christian knights of the West, the flower of Europe's chivalry, bearing the sign of the cross that identified them as Crusaders. For this expedition, the Fourth Crusade, went not to the Holy Land and Jerusalem but to Constantinople, the capital of the eastern Holy Roman Empire, where the schismatic Greek rulers refused to recognize the authority of Pope Innocent III.

This was not the only crusade underway at that time. There was another afoot in Europe itself, and it was concerned not with sacking churches but with building them. Just as the knights of France, England and Germany were despoiling the gilded splendour of the Hagia Sophia, builders in their homelands were inventing a new architectural style that would rival the glories of Byzantium. Over some three hundred years, the Europeans engaged on a 'cathedrals crusade', building churches on a scale never again equalled either in size or in quantity. In France alone, eighty cathedrals, five hundred large churches and several thousand small churches were constructed between 1050 and 1350. At the end of this period there was, on average, a church forevery two hundred inhabitants of France and England. And these were not squat and gloomy edifices in the style we now know as Romanesque, but towering monuments of stone and glass, filled with light and seeming to ascend weightlessly towards heaven. They were the Gothic cathedrals. Now considered the finest works of medieval art, these churches are even more than that. They represent a shift in the way the western world thought about God, the universe and humankind's place within it.

The Gothic Myth

Our contemporary view of that transformation is obscured by a lot of rubble. Much of it was deposited in the nineteenth century, whose historians, artists and architects, in the course of rescuing the Gothic style from ill repute, laid down a mythology about what it represents. When we think of a cathedral today, it is a Gothic building that comes to mind, not the heavy Romanesque precursors. And for many of us this vision is embodied in a specific edifice, standing in what has been rightly called 'splendid isolation' on the Île-de-la-Cité: Notre-Dame de Paris, immortalized by Victor Hugo in his eponymous novel of 1831. Hugo's book wasn't simply a work of fictionit was a meditation on architecture in general, and on the architecture of the Gothic age in particular, and it defined a vision of these things in the same way that Dickens described a version of London that has now become inseparable from that city's stones. For Hugo, the Gothic cathedral was a social construction, a temple made for and by the people rather than decreed by an ecclesiastical elite. That image chimed very much with the tenor of post-Revolutionary France, and it gave rise to a myth of the cathedral that is still pervasive today. 'The greatest works of architecture', said Hugo,

are not so much individual as social creations; they are better seen as the giving birth of peoples in labour than as the gushing stream of genius. Such works should be regarded as the deposit left by a nation, as the accumulations of the centuries, as the residue of successive evaporations of human society, briefly, as a kind of geological formation.

It's not just Hugo's exquisite prose that makes the idea seductive. We can feel a little less overwhelmed by the stupendous scale and structure of the cathedrals of Notre-Dame de Paris, Strasbourg and Chartres, if we can indeed regard these buildings as something geological, created by the immensity of time and the energy of countless generations, rather than as objects that were conceived in the minds of a handful of men and constructed by labourers stone by stone. And we need not feel oppressed by their colossal size if, like Hugo, we believe that in the Gothic era 'the book of architecture no longer belonged to the priesthood, to religion or to Rome, but to the imagination, to poetry and to the people'.

Hugo was not the first to voice these views, but no one had previously found words so compelling, and he made them so familiar that a whole generation of French intellectuals, historians and artists fell under their spell. For Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the great nineteenthcentury restorer of French Gothic buildings, Hugo's reading of the Gothic cathedrals meant that they became national monuments and 'a symbol of French unity'. If this belief helped Viollet-le-Duc return some of France's great churches to a state approaching their former glory, we have reason to be grateful for it. But that does not make it any less a facet of the romantic myth of the cathedral.

It is hardly surprising that historians of 150 years ago needed to have some story to weave around the Gothic cathedrals. These monuments seem to sit in defiance of the traditional narrative we have spun about 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. We are even now apt to forget that it was the Renaissance historians themselves who constructed this framework. Today, however, there is no shortage of alternative stories to replace that created by Hugo and his contemporariesand each tells us something about our own times, regardless of how much light they shed on the High Middle Ages. And so the cathedrals become cryptograms of ancient, sacred knowledge; or they are symbols of church oppression; or they are testaments to the skills of the medieval engineers. Many of these stories have some truth in them; none gives us the full picture. That, after all, is what all great works of art are like: they are never unlocked by a secret code, but they may be enriched by repeated viewing, first from this angle, then from that. Knowing 'how' and 'why' they were created does not allow us to understand them fully, but it may inspire us to love them more ardently.

Universe of Stone
A Biography of Chartres Cathedral
. Copyright © by Philip Ball. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Philip Ball's book Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; his Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another won the UK's Aventis Prize. He is a consulting editor for Nature magazine, and he lives in London.

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Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have been a Chartrephile for years. In order to find all of the information in this book I have had to track down dozens of other books, some of them very obscure. Philip Ball has assembled all of that research in one neat package. If you can only have one book on the story of Chartres, this is the one. It is not a picture book, so do not expect dramatic photographs on every page. Buy a coffee table book for that. But if you are interested in history, this is a great choice.
Foxworthy More than 1 year ago
Fascinating. For those like me who still have vivid memories of past visits to Chartres and, even more especially, those planning to visit this marvel of its age, UNIVERSE OF STONE is a gem. I was more interested in the architecture than the philosophy behind the building of Chartres, but there is plenty of both for all. Abundant maps and illustrations, some in color, include the original painted color scheme of the interior walls, and a diagram of the hidden passageways in a typical Gothic church. We've all become familiar with "the secrets of the Pyramids;" well, Chartres has its secrets too. A very handsome, thoroughly researched book.