Chartres Cathedral – The Real Thing

January 16, 2011

A few months ago, I watched Orson Welles’ strange and fascinating movie, F is for Fake, a real Orson tour de force.  He gives a moving speech about art, monuments, and authorship while regarding the gothic cathedral of Chartres (watch it here).  It’s been a very long time since I stood beneath Chartres’ vaults, but I decided to do a bit of studying again since I can’t just pick up and go there.

I happened upon a wonderful book, Universe of Stone:  A Biography of Chartres Cathedral, by Philip Ball.  It’s a popular treatment, but quite thorough, ranging from structural analysis of buildings to Platonic analysis of ideas.  Along the way, he is quite short with historians of architecture who show no interest in or knowledge of how a large building is made to stand up, and he is refreshingly commonsensical discussing knotty intellectual disputes such as just how much are gothic cathedrals reflections of medieval scholastic philosophy, as Erwin Panofsky said they were.

As an art history student with a passionate interest in historical architecture, I was vaguely suspicious of pronouncements on structure and aesthetics that I read – I always wondered if those writers knew whereof they spoke.  Later, after taking a degree in civil engineering, I realized my doubts had been solid.

One of the fascinating points Ball makes, partly by way of debunking the popular myth of the cathedrals as communal achievements erected on the basis of heartfelt contributions by all members of a deeply religious society, is that these amazing buildings were mostly paid for by the Church.  Yes, the kings and nobles gave some money, and local town burghers did too, but not nearly enough to pay the huge costs of building a cathedral.  Chartres, not an especially rich town, did have church institutions that were rich, rich in land.  And almost all wealth of that time was from land.  And so, the churchmen of Chartres built themselves a glorious cathedral to celebrate their faith, and their power we must suppose, and paid for it from rent on their vast holdings of land.  The land that grew the grain to make men’s bread.

Ball points out that baskets of bread are seen in many images throughout the cathedral, in stone and in stained glass.  Insofar as nearly everyone then was laboring on the land, we can say that since the wealth they created was what paid for the monument, it was a product of everyone in the society.

Incidentally, Welles makes much of the fact that Chartres, one of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements, is unsigned.  It’s true: we don’t know who was its master builder, but for many cathedrals, we do.  The fact that his name has been lost to us may be nothing more than the results of poor records retention.


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