The Stone and Glass of Chartres Cathedral

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

In his book Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral (public library), Philip Ball looks into the philosophy, theology, and manual and artistic skills behind Chartres Cathedral.

The west facade of Chartres Cathedral - Credit: Robin Poitou CC BY-SA 3.0

At the conclusion of chapter three, "Heaven on Earth: What is a Cathedral?" Ball explains how medieval cathedrals bring together the spiritual and the material in their construction:

It is entirely characteristic of medieval theology that such prosaic concerns [of daily existence] should coexist with the idea that the church is a representation of heaven.  That may, in fact, stand as a metaphor for the very paradox these buildings present to modern times.  They are surely the most profound expressions of the Christian faith, and with it the ontological framework, of the Middle Ages.  And yet they remain resolutely material: stone and glass, wood and iron, shaped by the hands of unlettered men, who sometimes enjoyed a great deal of latitude for injecting their own preoccupations and ideas into the fabric.  They are prodigious collaborations between the tangible and the spiritual, the mundane and the transcendental, the public and the personal (68).

In chapter seven, entitled "Hammer and Stone: Medieval Masons," Ball admires the skill of the masons, how they handled such difficult material:

The stonecutters, masons, and sculptors of the Gothic age redefined what could be done with stone.  Some of the blocks at Chartres are on such an awesome scale that it makes your legs tremble just to look at them.  From others, the craftsmen have brought forth figures of breathtaking sensitivity and invention.  Even masonry components that seem purely functional, such as the blocks comprising the great arches of the vaulting, often have highly complex shapes that have been made with stunning precision.  It's true that the masonry of Chartres is not known for the high quality of its finish (it has been charitably assumed that the masons expected some of their work to be obscured by the gloom).  But there is plenty to admire nonetheless, especially among the smaller figures, and we should never forget how demanding this work was.  Carving hard, brittle limestone is an arduous and precarious business; raising it over a hundred feet high and setting it in place, often in locations that were partly exposed to the elements, is laden with hazard.  This is surely no other realm of artistic expression in which the artists, if we call them that, have been pitted against so recalcitrant and unforgiving a medium, and have risen so admirably to the challenge their materials present (174).

The porch of the middle portal of the north transept: Credit: CC-BY SA 3.0

Statues from the central tympanum - Credit: Cancre CC-BY SA 2.5

Statues depicting hell in the south portal - Credit: Nina Aldin Thune CC-BY SA 2.5 

As he considers the famous windows of Chartres Cathedral, Ball points out how the artists make abstract ideas a material reality:

But we should not let such abstractions blind us to the practicalities of glass.  Art historians have too often assumed that all it takes to make great art is great ideas.  Artists know otherwise; for whether or not the windows of Saint-Denis and Chartres are expressions of a metaphysical principle, only craftsmen knew how to make them (246).

The north rose window - Credit: Eusebuis PD

Nave Window of the History of Joseph - Credit: Eusebuis PD