Unreal Nature

August 29, 2009

The Residue of Successive Evaporations

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:45 am

This is from Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Invention of the Gothic by Philip Ball (2008):

“The greatest works of architecture”, said Hugo,

are not so much individual as social creations; they are better seen as the giving birth of peoples in labour than as the gushing stream of genius. Such works should be regarded as the deposit left by a nation, as the accumulations of the centuries, as the residue of successive evaporations of human society, briefly, as a kind of geological formation.

[ … ]

It feels like heresy to say so, but there is something not quite Christian about Chartres Cathedral. Or perhaps one should say that it is somehow super-Christian, a place that connects the central spiritual tradition of the western world to a more ancient, strange and mysterious narrative. People have always seemed to sense this; it is not only in modern times that Chartres has become a nexus of theories about mystical symbolism, hidden codes and vanished wisdom. You will understand why this is so when you go there. There are few buildings in the world that exude such a sense of meaning, intention, signification — that tell you so clearly and so forcefully that these stones were put in place according to a philosophy of awesome proportions, appropriate to the lithic immensity of the church itself. This is partly a happy accident: a pristine document, miraculously preserved from a distant world, bearing a message that is barely diluted by other times and tastes and fashions. But the power of Chartres does not stem simply from its fortunate state of preservation, for even in its own time Chartres made a statement of unprecedented clarity and force.


No wonder people have argued for hundreds of years about what Chartres Cathedral ‘means’ (and still show no sign of reaching an agreement). From the moment you see the spires rise up on the horizon across the plains of Beauce, you can’t avoid the question. It is all too easy to get carried away — to imagine, say, that there are supernormal forces whirling around those pale towers or slumbering in the ancient well, or that there is some occult cipher that will unveil the secrets locked into the shapes of the stones. The cathedral and its history have been repeatedly romanticized, as though there was ever a time when workmen did not grumble while they toiled and when priests were no less falliby human than they are today. The incomparable windows and the astonishing labyrinth tempt us towards interpretations both fanciful and naïve, and the temptation has frequently proved too great. We have to come to Chartres prepared to admit that there are many things we do not and may never know, and that such answers as we have are not always simple or secure.




  1. My feeling on sighting the cathedral at Chartres is not “what does it mean?” but “how does it stay aloft, without wings?”

    Comment by Felix Grant — August 29, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

  2. The architecture of structures certainly does reflect on the culture that creates them. Once, while meandering about Milan, I came across a masoleum from the 1930’s in that cold as ice Fascist style we associate with Albert Speer. If I remember correctly, it was a circular structure that one entered and descended to the tomb of whoever was buried there. It was like something out of Star Trek. The spirit that invested that building must be the opposite of Chartres (which I have not seen) but was even much different than Lenin’s Tomb, which I have seen. (Gorgi Demitrov’s tomb in Sophia, Bulgaria is not much but the Ataturk’s is impressive.)

    Of course “spirit” is something that exists in an individual brain and may be different for different people. It is interesting that the “spirit” that surround Chartres is so similar for so many.

    Comment by Dr. C. — August 30, 2009 @ 11:48 am

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