Universe of Stone

A history of Chartres, "the most perfect cathedral ever created."

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Chartres cathedral is an icon of Western civilization. Largely spared the damage and destruction that has marred so many other churches that date from the Middle Ages, its carved stonework and stained glass have captivated visitors for centuries. One architectural historian calls it simply, “the most perfect cathedral ever created.”

But Chartres is much more than a breathtaking architectural accomplishment. To Philip Ball, a consulting editor for Nature magazine and author of a wonderful new book, Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral, this stunningly beautiful building represents a fundamental “shift in the way the Western world thought about God, the universe and humankind’s place in it.”

Despite its enormous popularity, much about Chartres remains unknown. The name of the architect who designed it is lost to history. Nor have any architectural drawings ever been found – perhaps, Ball speculates, because there were none. We don’t even know the order in which the huge cathedral was built.

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What we do know is that the cathedral school at Chartres was a preeminent center of learning in France for several centuries before the current cathedral was built. An Italian scholar named Fulbert (c. 960–1028) became head of the school and was later named bishop of the cathedral.

He emphasized the study of Aristotle, Plato, and Euclid and encouraged students to seek a rational understanding of the universe. The principles of logic were paramount.

So important were these developments that Ball refers to them as “The First Renaissance.”

This interest in a coherent and ordered universe began to take physical form in the many cathedrals and churches built during the 12th and 13th centuries. Mathematics, especially geometry, made it possible to build dramatically larger and different facilities.

In Ball’s words, the new cathedrals were no longer “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 toward heaven.”

Understanding the relationship between the new intellectual trends and their effect on ecclesiastical architecture requires Ball to delve into science and mathematics, economics, philosophy, religion, and engineering and the ways in which they were changing at the end of the Middle Ages.

He covers this complex ground in a lucid, thoughtful tour de force. The book provides wonderful insights into the role and place of the medieval cathedral. These buildings were the centerpieces of the spirituality that characterized the era and the center of secular activities as well.

When services were not being held, “the ordinary people made themselves at home.” It was a place to meet friends, eat meals, and arrange trysts. The poor might spend nights sleeping in the building. Politicians conducted business there and merchants plied their wares – indeed, at Chartres, wine merchants sold their product from inside the cathedral to avoid taxes imposed by the town.

Ball also sheds a great deal of light on the construction process itself. According to conventional wisdom, the medieval town was a harmonious community of compliant and generous souls who selflessly contributed time and money to build the great churches.

Not really. Chartres, writes Ball, was built in “a social atmosphere that was often sour and acrimonious, where tensions occasionally spilled over into violence.” For example, in 1210, during the middle of the construction, the townspeople rebelled over the tithes and taxes imposed on them to finance the structure.

When the dean of the cathedral went into hiding, his home was demolished and violence and looting broke out. The dean then excommunicated the entire town. It was not, Ball suggests, an isolated incident.

“Universe of Stone” is a fascinating book with important insights and observations on every page. While it is based mostly on secondary sources, the broad sweep of the argument will make it of interest to scholars as well as any reader with a deep interest in architecture.

A short section in each chapter provides an overview of key aspects of the cathedral. The most notable of these is the analysis of the famous stained-glass windows with their brilliant, rich colors – what Henry Adams described as “the crowning glory of Chartres.”

Ball concludes that the glass was taken from Roman and Byzantine sites, shipped to France, melted down, and reused. While there are a number of drawings in the book, Ball occasionally uses architectural terms without bothering to define or illustrate them, and the lack of a glossary that would have solved this problem is disappointing. Perhaps this can be addressed in subsequent printings.

Most readers, upon finishing this terrific book, will undoubtedly want to visit the great cathedral themselves. Those seeing it for the first time will have a more complete and richer experience than would otherwise have been the case. Repeat visitors will see it in an entirely new light.

Terry Hartle is vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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