Gothic Monuments in Soaring Stone

By Andreae, Christopher | The Christian Science Monitor, March 29, 1993 | Go to article overview
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Gothic Monuments in Soaring Stone

Andreae, Christopher, The Christian Science Monitor

CHARTRES cathedral, often called the epitome of Gothic architecture, rose like a phoenix from the ashes. Most of the Romanesque church on the site had been damaged beyond repair by fire in 1194. The crypt under the church was safe, and the West Front was not harmed. These were retained. But a new edifice was built, most of it in the astonishingly short time of 20 to 30 years. Some eight centuries later, except for a few later completions and additions, this is Chartres cathedral.

The different cathedrals at Chartres were by no means unique in their history of destruction by fire and subsequent rebuilding. It happened at Laon, at Canterbury, and at Rheims. At Chartres it had happened at least twice before. But the response to such devastation - after initial despair - was not to restore what was lost but to rethink and reinvent. It was an opportunity for improvement.

This eagerness for the new was perhaps partly the result of ambition, but conversely, it also grew out of a humility that admitted the possibility of learning from past inadequacies. It also must have had something to do with the stonemasons. These remarkable medieval craftsmen were often itinerant, and, summoned to the place of a new building, they brought with them considerable experience of other recent building projects. All the evidence also points to the fact that they were continually eager to surpass themselves, to build on previous achievements, but also to extend them experimentally.

The stonemasons' energy seems integral to the energetic architecture of the Gothic period, which architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described as "far from reposeful." Gothic cathedral architecture is vigorous and directional, not tranquil. This is true of Chartres, yet at the same time it has a fresh coherence and unity that invests the lively repetitiveness of ribs and arches with a kind of single-minded clarity of space.

The building of a new cathedral was also a chance to make the new building less vulnerable to fire - by using more stone and less wood. The older churches' use of wood, particularly in roofs and spires, had been a fire hazard. Though the 1194 fire at Chartres had swept up to the cathedral from the city below, sometimes fires started inside cathedrals and churches themselves.

Cathedrals were not simply places of worship. They were public halls, social centers, places of learning, and the culmination of pilgrimages. They also served as hostels and hospitals. Pilgrims - or so a guide at Chartres informed the group I was in - would camp in the nave and cook their food on open fires. So accessible to the masses were the cathedrals that there are even decrees on record curbing ball games inside them, not to mention regulations to stop the launching of missiles (stones, presumably) at birds who had unfortunately found themselves within the walls.

Religious fervor does, however, seem to have been the driving force - along with available funds - determining the speed with which Notre Dame de Chartres was rebuilt in the early 13th century.

By 1222, a chronicler could write: "None can be found in the whole world that would equal its structure, its size and decor ... the mother of Christ has a special love for this one church.... None is shining so brightly than this nowadays rising anew and complete, with dressed stone, already finished up to the level of the roof."

The style of this cathedral was indeed new. The idea of completeness - increased visual and structural unity between all its various parts, not unlike the natural relationship of the different parts of a tree to each other, from root to canopy - took a decisive leap forward in the design and making of this building.

Absolutely crucial to the fulfillment of this concept of what a cathedral building should or could be were the skills of the stonemasons. The quoted chronicler doesn't fail to mention "dressed stone" in his proud description.

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