Today, we meet a medieval mason. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
It's hard to say too much
about Gothic cathedrals. Incredible size combined
with a delicacy of balance and detail that you must
see to believe. The spire of Strasbourg Cathedral
is 466 feet tall, almost as high as the Washington
Monument. Not until the late nineteenth century did
Europe erect anything taller.
Gothic architecture suddenly appeared in the middle
of the twelfth century, and it kept evolving for
250 years. Then it abruptly stopped developing
toward the end of the 14th century.
The people who created this art weren't formally
educated. In the early days, only forty percent of
master masons could even write their name on a
document. They weren't trained in formal geometry,
and it's unlikely they made any calculations. They
didn't know Euclid, but they worked magic with a
compass and square.
Medieval cathedral builders learned their empirical
art through apprenticeship. Master builders held
all kinds of jealously guarded tricks of the trade
-- a vast inventory of knowledge about material
selection, personnel management, geometrical
proportioning, load distribution, design, liturgy,
and Christian tradition.
And make no mistake, those masons saw no clear
boundary between things material and things
spiritual. Their art flowed from their right brain.
It was visual and spatial. They levitated tons of
stone into the air to communicate their praise of
God, and when they were finished, they embellished
the nooks and crannies and high aeries of their
buildings with the phantoms of their minds -- with
cherubs and gargoyles and wild caricatures of one
Of course, working on such a titanic scale in the
highest technology of the age, they grew
increasingly wealthy, powerful, and proud. They
signed their work boldly and dramatically. A
twenty-five foot long inscription on the south
transept of Notre-Dame Cathedral says:
Master Jean de Chelles commenced this work for
the Glory of the Mother of Christ on the second of
the Ides of the month of February, 1258.
Even the contemplative labyrinths on cathedral
floors led the faithful to a central plaque where
they found, not a holy symbol or a saint, but an
image of the master mason wielding a compass.
So what became of this marvelous Gothic art? It
died out as master builders became educated
gentlemen -- when they moved into an office and
managed the work of others at a distance. The kind
of hands-on creativity that'd driven it so
powerfully dried up.
And yet, the last Gothic cathedral was
made right here in the United States. Washington
DC's National Cathedral was built with great
fidelity to both the style and the working spirit
of the High Middle Ages. It took most of the
twentieth century, but this huge structure was
finally finished after 82 years of work, and it is
breathtaking. Next time you're in Washington, leave
the crowds in the mall, and make a side trip to see
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gimpel, J., The Medieval Machine: The Industrial
Revolution of the Middle Ages. New York: Penguin
Books, 1976. See esp., Chapt. 6.
For more on the medieval mason, see Episode 528. For more on medieval
cathedrals see Episodes 228, 439,
825, 942, 958.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 97.
Photo by John Lienhard
Typical Medieval Gargoyle (from the
Photos by John Lienhard
Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris and a detail of Angel
Musicians on its Roof
Photo by Judy Myers, with
The West Entrance to the National Cathedral in
The image in the text is from
Dictionnaire Raisonné de
L'Architecture, MDCCCLXVIII, courtesy of the UH
Art and Architecture library.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.