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A Biography of Chartres Cathedral

by Philip Ball

Pub Date: July 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-06-115429-4
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

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 and marketplace 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.