Understanding Medieval Cathedrals

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

In the introduction to his book Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral (public library), Philip Ball explains that previous writers and historians have attempted to offer an explanation of Chartres and other medieval cathedrals through a variety of narratives, each with its particular focus.  However, Ball reminds us, we need all of these narratives to help tell the story of the cathedrals, and even then the picture may be incomplete:

And so the cathedrals become cryptograms of ancient, sacred knowledge; or they are symbols of church oppression; or they are testaments to the skills of medieval engineers.  Many of these stories have some truth to them; none gives us the full picture.  That, after all, is what all great works of art are like: they are never unlocked by a secret code, but they may be enriched by repeated viewing, first from this angle, then from that.  Knowing 'how' and 'why' they were created does not allow us to understand them fully, but it may inspire us to love them more ardently (3).

The north rose window of Chartres Cathedral - Credit: MMensler CC-BY SA 3.0