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Four Key Ideas of Gothic Architecture Exemplified in Notre-Dame de Chartres:
Light, Proportion, Typology, Journey
Light and luminosity - reality veiled and truth revealed
Proportion - geometry and music; the concordance of parts; unity
Typology - the "new alliance" between the Old Testament and the New Testament
Journey – on the level of the pilgrimage and the Crusade, the path to salvation
Two key aspects of Gothic architecture are light and proportion. Both of these ideas can be traced
back to Plato. Medieval theologians (bishops, clergy/scholars, etc.: a general term would be "schoolmen") were
highly influenced by neo-platonism.
Neo-platonic philosophers (for example., Denis the Pseudo-Areopagite, who was particularly
influential), as the name would imply, were highly influenced by certain aspects of Plato's thinking. The strain
of Plato's thought evident in his Allegory of the Cave is highly relevant to neo-platonism.
Plato believed that nothing in our material world is perfect or ideal. He thought that the ideal originals
(the "forms") of all the actual, but imperfect, things in our own world exist in some other (inaccessible) world.
The Allegory of the Cave expresses Plato's idea that we cannot trust the direct evidence of our own senses. We
cannot see the ideal forms with our physical eyes. To compare the actual and flawed things in our own world to
the ideal forms of each of those things is like comparing the shadows of things on the wall of a cave to the
actual objects that are casting those shadows. In both cases, our perceptions are incomplete, and we do not
attain "truth."
Such a model of the relationship between reality and perception gives rise to a number of metaphors and
images, some of which are related to that of shadows being cast in an uncertain and flickering manner on a wall.
What the medieval theologians and cathedral-builders picked up on were metaphors of "veiled" reality, and of a
luminous reality beyond our own. The effect aimed at by Gothic architecture is one of luminosity that hints at
something even more beautiful and ineffable. A visitor to Chartres, it is hoped, will get the sense of being in a
sacred place, a place made sacred by the filtering of light through the stained glass windows. The walls of the
cathedral are supposed to be perceived as translucent screens, not as solid surfaces. The pure white (or, OK,
somewhat yellowish!) light of the sun filters through the stained-glass stories and stained-glass characters from
the Old and New Testaments. This may well be a metaphor for the idea that we humans must aim to reach the
pure light of truth, which, if seen directly, would bedazzle and blind us, through the mediation of sacred stories
and saints.
Plato (characteristic of Classical Greece) had high regard for mathematics, and perhaps especially for
geometry. Mathematics, of course, is directly related to the concept of proportion.
Mathematical truths do not depend upon our sensations and perceptions of the material world. Their
internal structure and logic seem to guarantee that they can be depended upon: an axiom will be as true
tomorrow and the next day as it is today. Sensations, on the other hand, are fleeting. The neo-platonists, and
the cathedral builders, picked up on this aspect of Plato's thought. Medieval theologians and builders looked for
patterns in numbers and in geometric forms, and they were especially drawn to forms and proportions such as
the square and the golden ratio (phi: 1.618 . . . ). Builders used such forms to organize and structure their
constructions. They also used ratios that are closely associated with music, ratios such as those defining a
unison (1:1), an octave (2:1), a perfect fifth (3:2), a perfect fourth (4:3), and a major third (5:4). These are all
intervals that sound particularly harmonious to our ears, and it struck the ancient Greeks (e.g., Pythagoras) as
somewhat magical and significant that these beautiful intervals are produced by dividing a vibrating string into
simple whole-integer ratios.
At least some of the key minds behind Gothic cathedrals made it clear in their writings that they
conceived of these edifices as musical in nature: the cathedral was supposed to be a model of the Heavenly
Jerusalem, and heaven is a place where they imagined very harmonious music to be playing.
The medieval architects took the idea of sacred geometry far enough that they made connections such as
the following: A square may represent Jesus, because it is a shape one can think of as being "one" times itself.
Jesus is God multiplied by himself, therefore, Jesus = square ("one" x "one"). Some of this geometrical
symbolism was present in Romanesque art and architecture, but Gothic architecture was special in making the
symbolism more clear and obvious, just as Gothic architecture makes its own structure very evident to the
observer (e.g., in its use of ribbed vaults, piers, and slender colonettes, that combine to show us the lines of
thrust and force that are at work in holding the vaults of the building up). For example, the architect(s?) of
Chartres used subtle alterations of the piers and colonettes to draw our attention to a unit that forms a square.
That is, each bay of each side aisle is a rectangle, not a square. (This is because the builders used quadripartite - four-part -- vaults, rather than sexpartite vaults. This was to enable them to keep the nave piers more equal in
diameter, and that purpose was itself related to the idea of proportionality and concordance of parts: the
architect wanted a pleasing uniformity of parts (piers) as one moves through the nave.) But each two bays, with
two quadripartite vaults, do constitute a square area. In order to draw our notice to this significant fact, the
builders "framed" each two-bay unit with two identical columns, while the alternate ("every other") columns
were slightly different. Here (see below) is a photograph from the nave of Chartres showing the alternation
between a round column with polygonal attached colonettes and, on the other hand, a polygonal column with
round attached colonettes. The point is that the span between any two identical columns (aka piers) is a twobay length that is the side of a square, with the other side of the square being the width of the side aisle.
Alternation of circular and polygonal piers (columns), with contrasting (circular with polygonal, or polygonal with circular) colonettes
in the nave of Notre Dame of Chartres
There are many other examples of purposeful use of geometric ratios and forms in Chartres (as well as in other
Gothic cathedrals). The builders regularly used the dimensions of one element of the cathedral to determine the
dimensions of another element: for example, the thickness of the piers is equal to the width of the window
openings in the nave. This procedure helped to ensure a sense of unity and of the "concordance of parts."
Typology refers to a very important concept in medieval Christian theology. (Note that this idea persisted for
centuries: it played an important role in Puritan thought, for example.) According to typological thinking, the
Old Testament is an imperfect but very important foreshadowing of the events of the New Testament. The
medieval schoolmen (the "Scholastics") identified many correspondences between Old and New Testament
figures and events. For example, the near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham prefigures the actual
sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The regurgitation of Jonah by the whale, in whose stomach he had been
entombed, prefigures the resurrection of Jesus. These are two of many such correspondences that were made,
and which were illustrated in both sculptural and stained glass motifs in Chartres. Typological thought is
closely related to concepts mentioned earlier under the heading of "light" and in the discussion of "veiled"
reality. Thus, the Old Testament is analogous to an imperfect veil, through which is eventually revealed the
"true" gospel of the New Testament. In fact, medieval sculptors sometimes depicted the synagogue (Judaism Old Testament) and the "ecclesia" (the Christian Church) as contrasting female personifications. The
synagogue, in such pairings (and Chartres has an example) is a blindfolded woman (sometimes with head tilted
down), while the church is often shown holding a chalice (symbol of the eucharist) and looking confidently
forward. Even as such symbols and personifications to place Judaism in a very negative light, other aspects of
the iconography linking Judaism and Christianity are more positive, and make the relationship more complex.
Thus, the Tree of Jesse iconography, seen frequently in stained glass such as that in Chartres, explicitly traces
the genealogy of Jesus back through such illustrious Old Testament kings as Solomon and David -- all the way
back to Jesse. In this way, the attempt is made to show that Jesus is the legitimate heir to and flowering of this
ancient family tree, and that Christianity is the fulfillment of prophesies contained in the Old Testament itself.
The concept of journey is central to the medieval Christian mindset, and to the building and functioning
of a cathedral. Dante’s Divine Comedy is an ultimate expression of the impulse to take, and to describe, a
spiritual journey to salvation. The labyrinth of Chartres may have been intended in part as an aid to meditation,
but it also symbolized a true path to redemption and eternal life, and simultaneously reminded believers of the
ever-present danger of falling off, or failing to discern, that true path. (Remember, Dante is lost in the woods,
way off that true path, when he first introduces himself, as a desperate pilgrim-to-be, in the first canto of
Inferno.) The material world is full of temptations and snares that pull us away from our contemplation of final
things, and of ultimate truth and good: so says medieval theology. By its very nature, material existence is
false: it is distant from the immaterial truth, and it is with difficulty, as if on an arduous journey, that we find the
clues and the hints in material life that can lead us to spiritual reality.
Relics played a crucial part in medieval life, religion, history, and myth-making. This fact is perhaps
especially interesting if we consider relics as a special kind of material thing: religious relics, such as the tunic
of the Virgin Mary (thought by some to have been worn by her when she gave birth to Jesus) were perhaps
conceived as the only “true” material things: token of the fact that divinity, at least for a moment, walked on
earth among regular mortals. That is, relics served as an intermediary (analogous to light?) between our reality
and the divine.
Relics were often the impetus for pilgrimages. One might include the various religious Crusades of the
medieval period as a special type of pilgrimage. These armed pilgrimages were waged in the name of liberating
the Holy Land (i.e., Palestine: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and other sites where significant events from the Old and
New Testaments occurred) from “heathens” (i.e., Muslims). To a significant degree, this was justified on the
grounds of safeguarding religious relics, as well as religious sites. Large numbers of relics were brought to
various sites, often cathedrals, across Europe. Chartres had the distinction of housing, as noted above, the
“camisa” of Mary. This was considered one of the most important and powerful relics of all, and Christians
from all over Europe came to Chartres on pilgrimages. Such “tourism” was in fact a powerful economic force,
and helped Chartres, like other cathedral towns, to thrive.
As is often the case with phenomena of medieval religion and culture, we can find reverberations of
these linked ideas, pilgrimage and relics, on many levels and in many forms. An important example at Chartres
Cathedral is the stained glass imagery depicting scenes from the life of Roland. The Song of Roland is
considered one of the most important literary texts of medieval France, and it tells the story (sings the song) of
one of Charlemagne’s most valiant warriors, the virtuous and heroic Roland. On an expedition to Spain, Roland
is betrayed by Ganelon, a powerful counselor to Charlemagne. Ganelon, a bit put out by Roland’s outspoken
disagreement with him and by the fact that Roland stands so well in Charlemagne’s esteem, conspires with the
enemy, the Saracens (as Muslims in medieval Spain were called) to set a fatal ambush for Roland, along with
scores of Roland’s fellow fighters. The most relevant tidbit from this epic in our context is Roland’s magical
sword, Durandel. This sword, given to Roland by Charlemagne (so says the Song, which also says that it was
an angel who gave the sword to Charlemagne: typically, there is a passing of the sacred object from one hand to
another), possessed impressive powers, stemming from the religious relics encased in its hilt: a tooth from St.
Peter, St. Basil’s blood, the hair of St. Denis, and a scrap from a garment worn by the Virgin Mary. When
Roland realizes that he will be killed at the hands of the Saracens, he tries to break the sword on a huge rock
(not wanting this incredible weapon to fall into the “wrong” hands), but the sword proves indestructible. He
then hides it beneath his body, along with his magic horn, Oliphant, to safeguard it. These events are told in the
“Charlemagne” stained glass window in the ambulatory of Chartres. The importance of these legends to
Chartres is connected with claims of antiquity and authenticity. For example, Chartres’s claims about the
camisa of the Virgin Mary relate to the belief that this relic was given to Chartres hundreds of years before the
building of the cathedral. Charlemagne’s legendary (that is, not verified by the historical record) crusade to
Jerusalem was something the later medieval crusaders wished to believe in, because it set a heroic and
powerfully mythological precedent for their own efforts. To the extent that the stained glass windows could
reinforce the “Crusader” persona of Charlemagne, and his favorite Frenchman, Roland, that helped the cause of
claiming Charlemagne’s legacy (being the first great conqueror of medieval Europe to convert to Catholicism)
for France and, specifically, for Chartres, with its supposed special ties. In medieval times, stories were told
that Chartres, before the time of Jesus, was visited by an angel who directed the town to build a cathedral in
anticipation of the events of Jesus’ Passion. That is a pretty impressive claim of primacy to dare to make!
The Cathedral of Chartres was built, in large part, on an economic foundation of pilgrimage. Donations
were made from people across Europe, who believed in the reality of the camisa of Mary, and who wished to
help secure a worthy house for this relic, a place they would themselves have hoped to visit some day. And the
church also depicted pilgrimage, significantly in the form of crusade, as in the Charlemagne window.
Supporting Citations: Relevant Passages
[Note that material within brackets represents my own attempts to clarify and/or to amplify the material being quoted.]
from Otto von Simson: The Gothic Cathedral
pp. 36-7
. . . [T]he musical harmony that the Platonists of Chartres [Chartres was home to one of the most important
Cathedral-schools of the medieval period] discovered in the universe was primarily not a physical but a
metaphysical principle, maintaining the order of the nature but far more clearly present in the world to come [cf.
Canto 33 of Dante’s Paradiso]. For Adam’s fall on earth had obscured the theological order of the cosmos, its
origin and end in what in Augustinian terms is the “unison” with God. [St. Augustine was one of the most
important early Christian theologians: the term “Augustinian” refers to thought that originates from
Augustine’s writings.] That order, however, is still manifest in the harmony of the heavenly spheres. Hence the
medieval inclination, familiar to every reader of Dante, to connect the realm of the stars with the celestial
habitations of the blessed. [Cf., again, Dante’s Paradiso.] The same tendency explains the seemingly dual
symbolism of the cathedral, which is at once a “model” of the cosmos and an image of the Celestial City [aka
the Heavenly Jerusalem]. If the architect designed his sanctuary according to the laws of harmonious
proportion, he did not only imitate the order of the visible world, but conveyed an intimation, inasmuch as that
is possible to man, of the perfection of the world to come.
This symbolic interconnection between cosmos, Celestial City, and sanctuary is well explained in a
passage of [Peter] Abelard [1079-1142: French scholastic theologian, philosopher, and logician], whose ties
with the School of Chartres were mentioned earlier . . . . After identifying the Platonic world soul with world
harmony, he first interprets the ancient notion of a music of the spheres as referring to the “heavenly
habitations” where angels and saints “in the ineffable sweetness of harmonic modulation render eternal praise to
God.” Then . . . he relates the Celestial Jerusalem to the terrestrial one, more specifically to the Temple built by
Solomon as God’s “regal palace.” No medieval reader could have failed to notice with what emphasis every
Biblical description of a sacred edifice, particularly those of Solomon’s Temple, of the Heavenly Jerusalem, and
of the vision of Ezekiel, dwells on the measurements of these buildings. To these measurements, Abelard gives
a truly Platonic significance. Solomon’s Temple, he remarks, was pervaded by the divine harmony as were the
celestial spheres. [Cf. the numerological symbolism used by Dante, for example, referred to by the notes about
the 64th line of the 64th canto of the Divine Comedy.]
from Otto von Simson: The Gothic Cathedral
p. 51
According to the Platonizing metaphysics of the Middle Ages, light is the most noble of natural
phenomena, the least material, the closest approximation to pure form. For a thinker like Grosseteste [Robert
Grosseteste: English theologian and philosopher, and Bishop of Lincoln: 1175-1253], light is actually the
mediator between bodiless and bodily substances, a spiritual body, an embodied spirit, as he calls it. [In more
contemporary scientific thought, incidentally, light plays an equally magical role, being a phenomenon that is
best described as both a particle and a wave: it seems to have a persistently dual identity, even as we continue to
study and be fascinated by it. And the mediating quality of light imbues many aspects of our thought and
culture. In a book on the craft of poetry, Mary Oliver, in defining and describing figurative language, has
recourse to the imagery of light itself: “In figurative language, a familiar thing is linked to an unknown thing,
as a key, to unlock the mystery, or some part of the mystery, of the thing that is unknown. . . . . An image is
frequently a pictorial phrase, which delineates or captures some essence of a known thing. In the metaphoric
device, this essence is then extended so that it applies to an unknown thing. The chosen phrase is believed to be
suitable — that is, we have faith that the poet will have chosen something suitable — both to the known and to
the unknown thing. This transfer of some quality of the known to the unknown is like a beam of light; we ‘see’
(that is, we understand) something about the unknown in light of the known.” -- Mary Oliver: A Poetry
Handbook, pp.99 and 100 A few pages later, Oliver, in a discussion of the ways in which figurative language
(metaphoric, etc.) relates to our knowledge of the natural world, makes a connection both to light and,
simultaneously, to compass-point directional symbolism, as she quotes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
“Indeed, what would Romeo’s amazed outcry ‘It is the east, and Juliet is the sun! —‘ mean to a reader who is
without an intimate feeling for the way, every morning, the light rises and blazes against the darkness.” Oliver,
p.107 In the context of Dante, it is worth noting not only the metaphoric connection between light and love, but
that between romantic love and love of the divine: for Dante, the first type of love is most vital as a pathway to
the second, and in his view, more “true” form of love.] Light, moreover, is the creative principle in all things,
most active in the heavenly spheres, whence it causes all organic growth here on earth, and weakest in the
earthly substances. But it is present even in them, for, asks St. Bonaventure, do not metals and precious stones
begin to shine when we polish them, are not clear windowpanes manufactured from sand and ashes, is not fire
struck from black coal, and is not this luminous quality of things evidence of the existence of light in the?
According to the medieval thinkers, light is the principle of order and value. The objective value of a thing is
determined by the degree to which it partakes of light. And in experiencing delight at the sight of luminous
objects, we grasp intuitively their ontological dignity [ontological means pertaining to their actual being] within
the hierarchy of beings. The reader will find in Dante’s Paradiso the greatest poetical exposition of medieval
light metaphysics. The poem might be described as a great fugue on a single theme, . . . “the divine light
penetrates the universe according to its dignity.” [In Canto 33 of Paradiso, Dante, and the translator in his
notes, make it evident that one aspect of God’s greatness and supremacy is that God alone is his (!) own light
source: all other light is but a diminished reflection of the original source of light.]
from Otto von Simson: The Gothic Cathedral
pp. 128-9
The insight of the artist alone is pure since only he beholds both the reality and the image of it that he creates.
[Note Dante’s insistence, at the end of Paradiso, that he is incapable of adequately expressing the divine light
he finally, at the end of his journey through the Divine Comedy, he was privileged to behold. That section
seems relevant here.] The contemplator who sees merely the image [created by the artist] has but a dim and
indirect impression of that reality. For the religious artist or poet this creates a peculiar problem: the sole
concern and justification of his work are to mirror ultimate reality. [This clearly is Dante’s aim.] But for this
very reason he cannot leave the onlooker alone with his work but will seek to reveal to him the state of soul, the
act of divine illumination, that enabled the artist or poet to create his work and that is of so much greater
significance than the work — mere image of that illumination — can ever be. St. Augustine had been the first
to direct the eyes of the faithful from the visible beauty of a new church to the “beauty of the inner man from
which it had proceeded.” The invocations with which so many medieval poems [cf. classical epics, as well:
e.g., Virgil’s Aeneid, which begins with an invocation of the muse] open or close have the similar purpose of
directing the reader’s attention to the divine assistance that the author experience in composing his work. And
Dante’s main concern in the Divine Comedy is not the unfolding of a tremendous eschatological panorama
[“eschatology” is the study of the end of things: e.g., death, the end of the world, the ultimate destiny of
humanity and of all the created universe: and Dante’s Divine Comedy does in fact present such a panorama!],
but rather the account of his own gradual illumination, which we are to relive as we read his poem.
from Malcolm Miller: Chartres Cathedral
p. 93
The Heavenly Jerusalem
The masterbuilders and theologians who conceived and constructed Chartres Cathedral, and her sisters
[i.e., other Gothic cathedrals], were inspired by various Biblical sources, which included the descriptions of
Noah’s ark and the Temple of Solomon, both symbols for Christ’s Church — the ark as a means of salvation,
the temple because it was built by Solomon who prefigured Christ in His wisdom and as judge.
The principal inspiration, however, came from apocalyptic visions of a heavenly city in both the Old and
New Testaments:
‘O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colours,
and lay their foundations with sapphires. And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles,
and all thy bordoers of pleasant stones’ (Isaiah 54:11-12).
But the greatest inspiration of all was the Book of the Revelation, in which the author saw and described
‘The holy city, New Jerusalem coming down from God, out of Heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her
husband . . . and her light was like unto a stone most precious . . . and the building of the wall of it was jasper,
and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass. And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished
with all manner of precious stones’ (12 in all like the 12 tribes of Israel), jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, emerald,
sardonyx, sardonius, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprasus, jacinth and amethyst’ (Rev.21 especially verses 1820).
The people of the Middle Ages knew that their cathedral-church was the seat (cathedra) of their bishop,
but that, above all, it was a symbol within their city for the Heavenly Jerusalem, dwarfing all else, including the
count’s castle. Built inside a close [i.e, a walled complex of buildings] where, at Chartres, some 600 people
lived — canons, priests, and their servants — it formed a spiritual city within the city, as the Vatican does in
rome, and outside the jurisdiction of the count, which is why sanctuary could be sought within the close. [Otto
von Simson recounts some of the ways in which the French monarchy of this period, the Capetians, allied
themselves with certain important religious sites, such as the church of St. Denis and the close of Chartres, in
part as a way to build up their own power in relation to the power of the counts and other more local, and
secular, authorities: the kings of France allied themselves more and more strongly with the cathedrals as centers
of religious power, and with religious authority more generally, in part to expand their powers of sovereignty.]
Like an embassy today, which is our territory within another land, and where we may seek refuge, so in
medieval times a cathedral was one of God’s embassies; the bishop being, as it were, a celestial ambassador.
For the medieval pilgrim, drawn by the cathedral steeples, like beacons, beckoning from afar, the
cathedral awaiting them at the end of their journey would similarly be a symbol for the Heavenly Jerusalem
awaiting his soul at the end of its journey.
This impression would be strengthened by the nine entrances, with their thousands of sculptures, at that
time polychromed [i.e., painted in many colors], painted, gilded and with may inscriptions. The canopies over
their heads [that is, the sculpted canopies, or roofs, over the heads of the sculptural figures in the many portals
of Chartres Cathedral], in fact symbolize the New Jerusalem. Awestruck, the pilgrim would pass, as it were,
through the gates of Paradise [and the facades of Gothic cathedrals, from around the time of Chartres onward,
were specifically designed to call to mind the imagery of gates, as Otto von Simson points out] into the
heavenly city itself, with its walls opened up and set with glittering jewel-like stained-glass windows which
diffuse a mystic and divine essence: light.