Alone Among Its Peers
Every major gothic cathedral offers an important
uniqueness, or development, or artifact of knowledge. Chartres has so many
that it cannot help but stand out.
To begin with its beginning, the present cathedral
was constructed during a time-span of 26 years. Without pertinent references,
it is impossible to comprehend the significance of such a work effort.
The periods of cathedral building run anywhere from 50-80 years, to 400
years. Cologne is still building; they say the world will end the day it
is completed. Without going into historical details regarding how the labor
was done and the tools that were available, we can appreciate these facts:
1. At the head of the project were people who
had knowledge and knew how to get things done on every level, and they
knew what they wished to do.
2. There must have been complete organization
and co- operation in every department.
3. They could command whatever resources were
necessary; whether it was material, brain-power, craft or labor. Actually
it was the shrine itself (The Palace of the Virgin) that commanded it,
and the whole of France responded. (For a translation of this moving story
see Henry Adam's Mont St. Michel and Chartres, and John James's
- The Masons who built a Legend.)
In the early 1100s, the activity, teachings and
thought of both Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux had profoundly directed
the current toward understanding the ultimate reality. Every major institute
of learning had to face and assimilate what it could of their theological
works. Abbot Suger's unique presence and aspirations influenced all gothic
cathedral works for the first 90 years. At the time Chartres commenced
the present cathedral (after the catastrophic fire of 1194 which left only
the Royal Portals and the towers of the west facade intact) it had long
been famous for the esoteric school in residence. At least a major part
of the impulse and inspiration that formulated the work force at the head
of Chartres came from what had been assimilated and established there.
For example, Thierry of Chartres' work (neo-platonic) was well-known and
valued. It was undoubtedly his influence that put the seven Greek philosophers
on the portals, among the angels. Through Thierry's writings and that of
his successors, we know that the knowledge which supplied them with the
means to plan and erect a cathedral also supplied them with the reason
to do so.
Pythagorean-Platonic-Euclidean geometry was a
practical demonstration of the philosophy that the universe's plan is to
bring all of itself to perfect completion. In building out a physical model
of this plan, they knew what they were aiming for: that the space, to which
all peoples of all levels of knowledge and understanding came, with their
hopes and efforts toward salvation, would actively help in this direction;
that the space would loosen the bonds of constriction and ignorance; that
the space in its anagogical function would assist whatever transformation
was possible for each individual and the group as a whole.
This knowledge and its practical application provided
the form for the cathedral and the reasoning behind it, as well as the
foundation for the arts of glass, sculpture, the harmonic scales, and architecture.
This is not to imply that the knowledge was responsible for the specific
techniques (i.e., glass formulas and selection of stone), but that the
finished forms appear as they do because of the principles they are trying
Because this universal plan recognizes the vital
contribution of every piece, it is understandable why cathedral schools
that placed great importance on this schema developed their arts to high
degrees of excellence.
Darkness And Light
There has been so much written on and about Chartres
cathedral that it almost seems as if that is one of the basic responses
it evokes from human beings. The wish to know and comprehend its "mystery"
has been the plague of many who have entered its unforgettable portals.
And no matter how many pictures and descriptions one has seen and familiarized
oneself with before actually entering the space, there really is no way
to foresee what happens when one walks into Chartres for the first time.
So let's begin with our "first time". It was a
dark and overcast day in June when we arrived. The time was nearly 3:30
P.M. and we knew we couldn't take good photographs under such hanging skies.
Passing by the statues on the west portal, we entered the dark lobby. From
this darkness the door opened into an even vaster darkness. Now we'd seen
dark cathedrals before. Rheims, with its murky gloom, was by far the darkest
we'd been in. But this, this wasn't even darkness. It was the blue-black
of space! How does one find the way of describing a forever-never-before
experience? Chartres wasn't dark! It was Blue-black! What else can be said?!
There was nothing to compare it with. Not in terms
of cathedrals. And from some recess came the recognition that this is the
summit, the peak of all such work. No thinking, just some spontaneous impulse
bubbling forth. Why this response? Simply because of what it does.
And what does Chartres do?
For this observer/operator it did something that
can't be truly appreciated until one does it... After having made a small
circulation around the floor, and upon vision's first contact with the
west rose, something very funny and extraordinary happened. "I woke up!"
as the saying goes. As this account is being written, this non-temporal
event is still fresh within the moment.
We had seen hundreds of roses by now. And we knew
how light ought to act in an enclosed space. But this wasn't "real" in
the ordinary sense. How could the light be so bright and yet all the surrounding
space be so dark? However this occurred, the immediate recognition of a
depth beyond all deeps yet encountered in a cathedral, suddenly imaged
into synchronous simulation of the coldness of interstellar space. This
simulation accessed into the supercooled circuitry beyond the hot-to-trot
bingo-brain mode of survival, penetrating directly into the "Realness"
of the NOW of pre-birth module, "What Am I Doing Here?" The NOW being this,
as the pre-birth module. How does a certain combination of geometry and
light provide access into a transtemporal dimension?
In such a space, all phenomenal values become
irrelevant. Ideas related to "payment" no longer apply. It is a gift without
giver or receiver. So perhaps the only appropriate response is to wake
Even HERE And Even NOW, STAY
AWAKE AND PAY ATTENTION