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|MYTHING THE POINT OF CHARTRES CATHEDRAL
Stories Do Not History Make
by Robert Ferré
[Author's note: This essay was inspired by the inadequate reading list for the New Chartres School as sponsored by Wisdom University. The suggested books give a strong emphasis on faux mysteries and silly theories rather than the substantial (and exciting) actual history and traditions of the cathedral. I am writing this essay in hopes that it will be shared with students at this event in Chartres, to give an alternative view.]
In 1965 I paid my first visit to Chartres Cathedral as a college student. In the ensuing 40 years (the last 17 of which I guided groups to Chartres as director of One Heart Tours), I have returned 48 more times. At first, I, too, was attracted by the so-called mysteries hypothesized in books like The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral by Louis Charpentier. There have been many such books through the years, more recently including The Templar Revelation by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, or Chartres: Sacred Geometry, Sacred Space by Gordon Strachan.
Here's my point. The Templars had nothing to do with the building of the Gothic cathedrals. There never were Druids in Chartres who worshiped a virgin that would give birth to a son. The inclusion in the iconography of signs of the zodiac, Greek philosophers, green men, and even alchemical implements, does not imply that the Chartres School involved itself in esoteric practices. The orientation of the building and the spot of sunlight that hits the brass nail in the floor are all mundane phenomena that have little to do with deep secrets.
If we take these away, what do we have left? On the reading list, not much. But in reality, we have the cathedral itself, its glory and beauty, and what it represented then and can represent now. Such considerations are far more relevant for a new Chartres school, and can be enhanced by reading a number of distinguished books not found on the official reading list, which I have cited below.
Myth has its place, and it is an important one. Literal language, as used in science (and fundamentalist religions), has tremendous limitations when it comes to expressing inner, metaphysical or spiritual matters. The inner world, which is far more vast and unlimited than the outer world, cannot be captured by nouns and verbs and prepositions. Not even adjectives nor superlatives. It must be expressed in symbolism, art, music, and other non-representational methods. Included in these are myths. It would be self-defeating to take myths literally, as history.
Did Mary Magdalene really drift in a boat from Palestine to the Camargue, live the last 30 years of her life in la Sainte Baume, ministered to by angels? Were the bones in Vezelay really her relics? In the Middle Ages, those sites were greatly venerated and became the source of many miracles. They were the vehicles for an inner experience. Walking up the ancient steps through the primeval forest to the cliff that hold's Mary's cave is a tremendously touching pilgrimage, whether or not Mary Magdalene ever actually went there to be ministered to by angels.
Now, thanks to The Da Vinci Code, there are flocks of reporters converging on Les Saintes Maries and La Sainte Baume, asking for proof that Mary Magdalene actually came to France, asking if Jesus was married, etc. The myth served a purpose, but as history, it is futile and meaningless.
So if I accept the usefulness of myths such as Mary Magdalene, why not accept similar "myths" such as Druids worshiping a statue of a virgin? Or for that matter, Templars going around building cathedrals? The problem is that these are being used to explain what Chartres Cathedral is, and its significance. They are being used as history. By accepting these as if they are history, the real history gets ignored. Hence the inadequacy of the reading list.
What do we do with crass attempts to create new myths? We are certainly dealing with that now, thanks to Dan Brown. Absolutely hokey history is being presented as if, perhaps, it might have been true, since no one can prove the contrary. So we take as proof that Jesus was married, a Gnostic gospel in which the disciples complain and ask why Jesus is kissing Mary Magdalene more than he kisses them. Now wait a minute, if Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene, would the disciples have asked that question? Would they have asked why Jesus kissed her and not them? Of course not. That's proof that they were NOT married. Such silliness may be an amusing diversion (and sell millions of books), but it does not reach the level of serious consideration, nor even myth, and definitely not history. Nor does it reach a level of true scholarship. It's just fiction. Yet this is the level of some of most of the material presented on the reading list.
Louis Charpentier posits that the Templars dug up a secret, went to Mexico and got a lot of gold, and then went to Europe and built the Gothic cathedrals. "Excuse me, we have a lot of gold here, and a secret that we dug up. Would it be OK if we build a cathedral here?" Hello, are there any historians in the house? Would anyone like to consider the Age of Faith, the turn of the first millennium, the incredible building campaign of Romanesque churches, the political and social conditions, the 12th century renaissance, etc., etc.? Not only are there viable reasons why the cathedrals were built, there is a verifiable stone trail of experimentation for over a century – before some of the Templars were even born.
Things weren't any better in the Middle Ages, where outrageous claims were made to display relics that would draw pilgrims to a site. These involved both the discovery of many saintly relics (my favorite being vials of the Virgin Mary's milk, Jesus' foreskin, or three different churches that had heads they claimed were John the Baptist), heroic tasks (a la the Song of Roland), or events (the three Marys drifting to France or the oxen showing up to pull the stone from the quarries up to the plateau where the cathedral of Laon was being built). Is it OK to believe a fiction if it is meaningful and productive? Well, Christianity might serve as a good example. Some of the myths -- such as virgin birth on the winter solstice, a meal of wine and bread, and death on the spring equinox – already existed in other traditions. (Consider Mithras, for example, for whom all of these are true.) Perhaps they were included in Christianity to gain a sense of status and credibility in those times. The same was true for fables made up about Chartres Cathedral..
Which is more true, that which may have happened in history, or that which people choose to believe? In some cases it is the latter. I have been struggling with this point in recent years as I have pursued my studies of sacred geometry. Twice I have studied with Keith Critchlow, one of the founders of RILCO (Research into Lost Knowledge Organization, which publishes Charpentier's book). He wrote a popularly quoted article in 1972 on the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth (which he calls a maze). In it he proposed numerous things – which he still includes in his lectures on Chartres – that have become almost mythological. One is that the geometry of the labyrinth is based on an invisible 13-pointed star. Another purports that if the western wall were hinged downward, the rose window would exactly align with the labyrinth. I have read these descriptions in a dozen labyrinth books and articles.
What do I do with the fact that they aren't true? For the 13-pointed star to be true, the path of the labyrinth must equal half of a petal circle. But it doesn't. When I asked Dr. Critchlow about this, he answered, "Well, it's true that it doesn't quite measure out, but the symbolism is magnificent." He proposes that the thirteen points represent Jesus and the 12 disciples. However, the cathedral is dedicated to Mary, not Jesus, and the geometry of the labyrinth relates to the virgin and her number (7). If measured out, the rose window also misses its mark by five or six feet. Do Dr. Critchlow's hypotheses rise to the status of myth because they have been repeated so often? Not really, because they were presented as historical facts, to describe the structure of Chartres Cathedral. As history, they fail the test.
To add to the status of the cathedral, numerous attempts have been made to associate it with far more ancient traditions. Hence, in 1381 (150 years after the construction of Chartres Cathedral, 1194-1220) La Vielle Chronique de Chartres appeared, filled with tales of miracles that supposedly happened at Chartres, even though many of them were previously attributed to other places.
Then, in 1420, Gerson, the Chancellor of the University of Paris, wrote that Chartres Cathedral was built on an ancient Druid sanctuary, interpreting Julius Ceasar's statement in Gallic Wars about the Carnutes to be a reference to Chartres. Subsequently, in the 17th century, Sebastien Rouillard (a Chartres historian) first wrote that these Druids worshiped the statue of a the Virginis pariturae, a virgin who would give birth to a child. (He was a historian who made up his own history.) Even later, in the 18th century, a canon of Chartres made a hole in the border of a window in the south transept so that a ray of sunlight hits a nail in the floor on a certain date. Most people think the date is meant to be the summer solstice, but it could also be St. John's day.
Querido begins his book on the School of Chartres with the tale of the Druid virgin who would give birth. Similarly, Charpentier begins his book, The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, with the great mystery of the spot of light hitting the nail. It's not really a big mystery. The cathedral itself is a far greater mystery. Is there anyone at the New School to speak for it?
There is no shortage of good books that could have been included on the reading list. We could start with John James, the greatest expert on the construction of the Gothic cathedrals. He has learned through decades of meticulous study how to communicate with the ancient masons, through their templates and geometries, the size of the stones used and the quality of their work. He contacted Wisdom University to offer his services, but was rebuffed. Presumably they have their own faculty with no place for outsiders. Yet to read James' books on discovering the masons is like an exciting mystery novel.
James currently is conducting a study of 1,500 extant Gothic structures in the Paris Basin (where Gothic was born), leading to a nine-volume summation of his life's work. I just received The Ark of God: Volume III. The text is concise, with thousands of photos. I offer this as a comparison to, say, Gordon Strahan's book, Chartres Cathedral: Sacred Geometry, Sacred Space. Strahan quotes from James in several places, so he is aware of some of his work, although he didn't seem to read very extensively.
Strahan concludes in his book that the pointed arch and the rib, both foundations for the development of the Gothic, must have come into Europe through the Templars. It's the basis of his whole paradigm. (At least he doesn't talk about digging up the Holy Grail.) The Templars, founded in 1118 and approved in 1125, went to the Holy Land to protect pilgrimage routes. But there were only nine of them. So they really must have been up to something else. Supposedly the Sufis, the mystical arm of Islam, welcomed them immediately and taught them all their secrets. Why? For some reason, these mystics involved themselves with architecture. (Strahan doesn't explain what their incentive might have been to embrace the Templars.) The Templars stayed in Jerusalem for nine years, I believe, so the earliest they could have brought back this information, especially regarding the pointed arch and ribs, would be, say, 1127..It took years, often decades, to organize a building project. Certainly the new information would not have appeared earlier than the mid-1130's. Yet by just 1140, Abbot Suger was working on his extraordinary Gothic choir, the first of its kind, using the precedents he found all around him.
Unfortunately for the Templars-built-the-Gothic-Cathedrals theory, as I write this I am looking at The Arc of God: Vol. III, the first few pages of Chapter Four. A photo of the nave of Villers-Saint-Paul shows very accomplished pointed arches, built in around 1095 -- before some of the future Templars were even born. Two pages later, on page 15, is a photo of the tower base at Acy-en-Multien with well-defined rib vaults, also built around 1095. Both of these were 23 years before the founding of the Templar order. Never heard of those churches? The elements to Gothic were developed in small, out of the way buildings, not in the middle of Paris. At Longpont, one can see the work of the mason who was to lay out Chartres Cathedral 10 years later. In Braine one can see a complete triforium of the Chartres style. In one tiny church, whose name escapes me, some unknown mason had the idea of filling in the space between the rounded edge of the window and the straight edge of the frame with another little window. From that, it was only a matter of scale that led to tracery and vast walls of nothing but glass.Gothic wasborn in small steps such as these. Here is a chart from John James outlining the appearance of these architectural features.
1085 . . . rib Vaults
1090 . . . thin-wall design
1120 . . . big windows
1135 . . . thin shafts
1145 . . . tas-de-charge
1150 . . . flying buttresses
1155 . . . full-width windows
1168 . . . first foliate capital
1170s. . . transition to foliate carving
1175 . . . linked triforium
1180 . . . glazed triforium
1195 . . . plate tracery
1200 . . . walls all glass, tall clerestory
1205 . . . bar tracery windows
Chartres Cathedral represents many incredible things. Just building it was an amazing accomplishment, applying the developing technologies in a scale previously unheard of. It became the model for all subsequent cathedrals, and caused some prior ones to be rebuilt (such as Notre Dame in Paris). Why did they build so high? What did it represent? What were the social forces that drove it? Why did the masons remain anonymous? Very little of this will be explored in the books currently on the reading list. So I have a few that I would like to suggest.
James, John. Chartres: The Masons Who Built a Legend. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985. ISBN: 0-7102-0549-x. Fascinating story about James's identification of the different masons who built the cathedral.
James, John. The Contractors of Chartres. London, Croom Helm Limited, 1981. ISBN: 0-7099-1405-9. Extremely detailed two-volume study of Chartres Cathedral. My "bible." In-depth study of the geometry of the cathedral. Out of print, a few copies available from the author (around $125). See http://www.johnjames.com.au
James, John. The Template-Makers of the Paris Basin: Toichological Techniques for Identifying the Pioneers of the Gothic Movement, West Grinstead Publishing, Australia, 1989. ISBN 0 7316 4520 0. Describes the techniques that the author has developed to identify and date the elements of Gothic structures.
Mâle, Emile. The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century. Several publishers, 1913, 1958, and 1972. ISBN: 06-430032-3. One of many books about the iconography of Chartres.
Markale, Jean. Cathedral of the Black Madonna: The Druids and the Mysteries of Chartres. Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont. ISBN: 1-59477-020-4. This is a personal account in which he acknowledges that the myths aren't historical, but expresses his response to them, much in the way myths are supposed to work. He also brings in real history as well.
Prache, Anne. Chartres Cathedral: Image of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Paris, CNRS Editions, 1993. ISBN: 2-271-05051-0. The best overall readable book on Chartres Cathedral. Describes the myths and the facts. May be found in select bookstores in France (museums, and also perhaps in Chartres). Perhaps one of the best non-esoteric accounts.
Williams, Jane Welch. Bread, Wine & Money: The Windows of the Trades at Chartres Cathedral. University of Chicago, 1993. ISBN: 0-226-89913-6. Challenges some popular ideas about Chartres. Very well researched, contains a lot of historical information about Chartres and its culture, especially the conflict between secular and religious powers. She challenges the idea that the trades donated the windows in the cathedral, as most guides say.
Wright, Craig. The Maze and the Warrior: Symbols in Architecture, Theology, and Music. Boston, Harvard College, 2001. ISBN: 0-674-00503-1. About labyrinths. Strong on liturgy and music. He makes some grievous mistakes when describing the labyrinth and Chartres Cathedral, but he has done some interesting research.
Conclusion: Myths have value, and history has value. Confusing one for the other leads to meaningless content. Trying to create a new myth or re-write history is a dicey game. Put in the hands of commercial interests (i.e., authors trying to market their books), the reliability factor goes way down. If people find it rewarding to speculate, then the reading list of the New Chartres School should be adequate. But for a deeper view, a view that includes actual history, reading the stone, and setting a social context that allows informed decision, then the books listed above would be helpful.
After Chartres Cathedral was built, war and plague decimated the population, the Renaissance turned art into secular adoration of the artist, the world became scientific and commercial, and our souls, bodies and minds were split assunder. In other words, the foundation was laid for our modern world. The very value of Chartres is that it is the old school, that it represents something that we have lost. We can't appreciate this if we are distracted by unfounded speculations. Look at what happened 900 years ago. For a century, in hundreds of settings, new architectural experimentations took place. As an analogy, I see these as the development of various instruments. At Chartres, as a result of a unique and fortuitous set of synchronicities, for the first time the entire symphony played. After Chartres, there were many variations on the theme, but only because the orchestra was firmly in place.
Degrading the cathedral to a pet project of a few Templars leaves us with nothing of value, nothing real, nothing to build on. We may as well hypothesize that the Templars invented the Internet..
I regret that I cannot attend the New Chartres School. I realize this essay comes too late for participants to ready many of these books. Perhaps it can be done on your own, after the fact, inspired by the cathedral itself. Ultimately, the cathedral doesn't need me to defend it. I just hope it can be appreciated for what it is, and not for the fake mysteries, however much they present themselves as myths. Go to Chartres, by all means, even for the wrong reasons.