A book as rich and subtle as Chartres itself. Inspired writing and photographs illumine classic Gothic cathedral
Chartres, by 'Emile M^ale. Translated by Sarah Wilson. Photographs by Pierre Devinoy. New York: Harper & Row. 189 pp. $25.95, cloth. $18.50, paperback. Why is Chartres considered the classic Gothic cathedral? Rising high above the plain of Beauce, 40 miles southwest of Paris, Chartres's harmonious proportions and beautifully articulated, balanced plan have spoken to the hearts of men and women for centuries.
How can mere words describe such a monument? It takes a thought as rich and subtle, patient and inspired as the building itself. This 'Emile M^ale possessed. Mr. M^ale's 1948 work, ``Notre Dame du Chartres,'' has communicated that beauty to European readers for decades. Now, the translation and republication of his classic affords the same opportunity for English-speaking readers.
The cathedral of Chartres (built from 1196 to 1220) is big, bold, and overbuilt. The flying buttress was used there for the first time throughout, and the builders, cautious in their experiment, provided a much heavier framework for the colossal space inside than was actually needed.
But the three tiers of flying buttresses successfully braced the high vaults against the winds 113 feet up, and made a new interior organization possible. By absorbing the downward and outward force -- or thrust -- of the vault, the flying buttress allowed the wall to be opened up between each buttress.
There, an immense stained-glass window, almost half the height of the walls, could be fitted. And below the window, a large arcade allowed for a lateral spaciousness in the lower half of the church that balanced the new height. The space was immense.
This space was made beautifully rhythmic: Strong piers, whose shafts soared up to the tips of the vaults, also supported the arcade and marched down either side of the cathedral's nave.
This was repeated three times, for the nave's length is interrupted by a crosswise space. The resulting whole is like three churches joined to form a T -- each arm having its own gloriously sculptured doorway and rose window -- with a crown of chapels at the head.
The balance of Chartres -- the T-shaped or Latin-cross organization of the floor plan, the spaciousness in both width and height -- creates a classic harmony. In the High Gothic cathedrals that followed in the 13th century -- Reims, Amiens, and Beauvais -- this sense of measure and balance was put aside for other concerns, particularly the soaring, overpowering reach into height.
Furthermore, as 'Emile M^ale puts it in ``The Gothic Image'':
It may be that other great French cathedrals were originally as complete as Chartres still is, but time has dealt more harshly with them. Yet nowhere else appears so coherent an effort to embrace the whole of the universe. . . . Its ten thousand figures in glass or in stonework form a whole unequalled in Europe.
The great scale, the simplicity of the elevation, and the serenity expressed in both the violet-blue tone created by the stained glass and in the noble mien of the statues have made Chartres a classic, multimedia work of art.
M^ale's strength is in his understanding Chartres within the fabric of medieval thought and life, and in his lyrical expression of its qualities while dealing with questions of connoisseurship, meaning, and iconography.
These qualities alone justify the translation and republication of ``Notre Dame du Chartres'' -- a classic that has not been accessible to the general public in the United States, although his ``Gothic Image,'' a study of 13th-century religious art, has been.
The republication is also justified by the quality of Pierre Devinoy's black-and-white photographs, in which, as M^ale says, ``Photography . . . becomes an art form in its own right.'' In detail after detail Devinoy has waited for the light to illuminate the stones and reveal the arcing rhythm of the flying buttresses, the ``unclouded brow'' of the Christ figure on the south porch, or the power of the linear incisions that created Jesse asleep beneath Isaiah's feet on the north p ortal. It seems appropriate that this photographic essay exists independently of the text, for M^ale argues that Chartres's sculptures are also independent artistic statements, not literal illustrations of the writings of the theologians at the School of Chartres.
Let us hope, however, that in the next printing, the editors will provide a few more aids to the general reader. A clearer correlation could be made between text and image. A brief note before M^ale's preface could indicate that this is a 1948 essay, and it is no longer a summary of ``the most recent architectural discoveries,'' as the preface says. A few general bibliographical notes would be helpful as well.
Fortunately the ineffable quality of Chartres's majestic beauty cannot be marred by such oversights. And the spiritual intuitions of M^ale are of permanent interest:
A world of certitude, order, and peace confronts the spectator who beholds here the majesty of the divine plan. It shows us humanity purified, and at the same time proposes this as a model. Never (before) was such an effort made to raise the spirit of man.
Margaret Muther D'Evelyn is a free-lance writer who specializes in architectural history.