A Biography of Chartes

Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Invention of the Gothic

by Philip Ball
2009 Harper Perennial, 336 pages

A Gothic cathedral is more than the sum of its individual stones, and Philip Ball’s Universe of Stone, Chartres Cathedral and the Invention of Gothic elucidates with clarity and depth the history of this captivating monument and its place in the evolution of Gothic architecture. Writing with compelling vitality, Ball covers a wide range of subjects associated with Chartres, from the relics of the Virgin enshrined at the site, to the personalities of its various bishops and teachers, to the known and postulated construction methods of medieval masons. In addition to these historical topics, Ball addresses the methods and interpretations of scholars who have worked on Chartres and on broader questions regarding Gothic architecture and the medieval world. These interpretive questions incorporate multiple disciplines, and Ball’s readable analysis of these debates offers a fairly even-handed discussion that yet includes his own thoughts on these matters.

Chartres Cathedral coalesced a number of Gothic architectural elements into a cohesive and beautiful template, the influence of which is discernable in many later Gothic buildings. From the ratio of window height to elevation, the external support of flying buttresses, and the linear patterns of ribbed vaults and applied columns, this building is the quintessence of the developing French Gothic style. As Ball amply demonstrates, though, Gothic cathedrals’ embodiment of theological, philosophical, and mathematical tenets contributes to our fascination with them, as much as do their awe-inspiring forms. Ball does an excellent job of introducing a number of these topics and demonstrating their relevance to a stone and mortar building. Beginning with an outline of the history of Chartres and its bishops in relationship with the surrounding nobility, Ball then traces the dialogue between faith and reason from Augustine through twelfth-century Neoplatonic “Chartrian” thinkers like William of Conches, who strove to reconcile more scientific explanations of Creation and the workings of the universe with the biblical story in Genesis. After examining Pythagorean conceptions of number and geometric harmonies in conjunction with the measurements of Chartres and other buildings, Ball then delves into the complexities of medieval methods of masonry, construction, and engineering. As he works his way through these topics, Ball refers to influential scholars such as Erwin Panofsky and Peter Kidson, but unfortunately without incorporating footnotes or endnotes, which leaves the concluding bibliography rather disconnected from the chapters.

With the wealth of historical, descriptive, and interpretive material in this book, there is more than enough to keep captivated both new-comers to the Middle Ages and well-informed readers. There are two subjects, though, that merit more of his—and our—attention. Although Ball does mention sculpture and the iconography of several stained glass windows, their pivotal role is muted in light of the increasing importance of these elements in the evolution of Gothic architecture. Part of what makes Chartres extraordinary is the style and iconography visible in the re-used portal sculptures of the west facade in comparison with the more elaborate north and south facades. The identification and meaning of the three scenes carved in the west facade tympana have sparked as much debate as the labyrinth pavement set into the cathedral nave. A second subject that would contribute to this study is the relationship between the form of the building and the liturgical rituals which enlivened its spaces. From a daily chanting of the Psalms to annual Easter vigils and processions, this building was constructed first and foremost as a liturgical space. Chartres’ liturgical nature deserves better exploration in its “biography.”

This book is ostensibly about Chartres Cathedral. Its helpful glossary, diagrams, and a selection of color and black and white photographs contribute to Ball’s powerful word-imagery. Even more, though, this book is a wonderful foray through the diverse thoughts, beliefs, and creations of medieval Europe. By the final chapter of Ball’s impressive work, whether recalling Pseudo-Dionysian light imagery or the bread bakers portrayed in the windows, you muse for a moment then be compelled to comb through his bibliography to find additional readings on this fascinating building and era.