Today, we read a great book written in stone and
glass. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
I've finally reached
Chartres Cathedral. There it is! The first and
finest High-Gothic church. The Romans once built
here. Then a series of churches, each grander than
the last, rose -- one upon another. When fire
damaged the cathedral that stood here in 1194, it
was a sign to the people of Chartres that their
protector, the Virgin Mary, wanted a still grander
church on this spot.
Whether or not that's what Mary really wanted, it's
what she got. Technologists came from all over
France. They threw heart and skill into creating
such size, intricacy, and lasting beauty as to set
the standard for Gothic architecture ever since.
Much of what I see at Chartres I'm prepared to see.
Then the unexpected: we meet Malcom Miller, who
came here from England 38 years ago and fell under
the spell of 21,000 sqare feet of stained glass,
still brilliant after 800 years. It's the finest
there is, and he knows it better than anyone. We
sign up for his tour.
Chartres, he explains, was the Oxford/Princeton of
the medieval world -- a great learning center and
library. And where is the library? Why, all around
us! For an hour we read some of the 10,000 images
of saints, sinners, and common folk who tell their
stories in stone and glass from every wall, window,
Example: The story of the Good Samaritan, told from
bottom left to top right of a window in the nave.
The pictures, evocative and wordless, draw us in.
First picture: a group of shoemakers pools money to
pay for the window. Then the story: a man leaves
Jerusalem and is beset by thieves who mug and strip
him. A priest and a Levite pass him by. Finally a
despised outcast -- a Samaritan -- stops to give
aid. And you know the rest.
The parable ends with the Samaritan promising the
innkeeper to come back and settle accounts. But
we've read only half the the window! There follow
layers of interpretation -- the parallel between
the robbed traveler and outcast Adam. The
Samaritan's promise to return becomes the promised
second coming. It's subtle, and it's all acted out
by a huge cast of accurate medieval figures. (My
wife counts 52 humans, one donkey, and a snake.)
These are no Saturday afternoon cartoons for
uneducated peasants. This is serious scholarship
for a smart public who, in a world with few books,
doesn't read. The cathedral begins by assailing the
senses with a vast and blurred symphony of color
and space, shape and light. Once caught, we're
drawn into its seemingly infinite library of
artistic and architectural detail.
And I think about the practical, unlettered people
who made this place -- who shaped a living book
that reaches out across eight centuries and speaks
to us with eerie eloquence.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Miller, M., Chartres Cathedral (with
photos by S. Halliday & L. Lushington). New York:
Riverside Book Co., 1985.
Chartres Cathedral is named the Church of Our Lady
-- Notre-Dame. It houses a peculiar relic: the
purported garment worn by Mary when Christ was
born. Or was it worn at the Annunciation? The story
changes. It was given to Charlemagne by the Empress
Irene of Byzantium. The relic is still there today,
but no one seems greatly concerned with questions
about its authenticity. The importance of the
garment is symbolic.
Clergy took the garment into the Carolingian crypt
below the cathedral during the fire of AD 1194.
When they emerged with the relic unharmed, it was
taken as a sign from Mary that she wanted the old
Romanesque cathedral rebuilt. In 1220, as the new
Gothic Cathedral rose from the ruins, William the
Mary, the Mother of God, desired to rebuild the
church inMuch the same thing had happened back in
AD 1020. The Carolingian cathedral, built in 876,
burned. That, too, was taken as a sign. The
Romanesque cathedral replaced it and stood until
1194, when fire destroyed a good part of it. Large
portions of the Romanesque building of 1020 have been
incorporated into the present cathedral. Thus, when
you visit the cathedral, you see parts that are over
1200 years old and parts that are just under 1000
years old. The architectural and artistic integrity
of the building was formed just after the fire of
1194, and other changes have been made since -- like
the grand 18th-century altarpiece.
Much more praiseworthy form, especially for her own
... A miraculous accident happened,
Through the fury of Vulcan. She gave him leeway to
So that ... this ruin would give a reason for
building a new house.
The cathedral's most distinctive features are its
two asymmetrical steeples. Oddly enough, the
earlier and plainer of the two was part of the
earlier Romanesque church, and and the slightly
larger flamboyant one was added in the early 16th
Photo by John Lienhard
Chartres Cathedral as seen from the streets of
Photo by John Lienhard
Figures from the right-hand side of the north
portal of Chartres Cathedral
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Photo by John Lienhard
Three typical panels of stained glass in Chartres
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