Thursday, May 31, 2012


Our ideas about the construction of Gothic cathedrals remain very schematic and perhaps romantically enhanced. We are told that these wonders were somehow constructed over long periods by itinerant masons and their gangs, in spurts of effort as the funding, energy and interest allowed, with community - volunteer - help. Is it an idealistic vision? Periods of over three hundred years are recorded for the completion of some structures, but even buildings with shorter construction times leave us with a muddled perception and awareness of the processes and thinking involved in their making. Our understandings of this procedure seem happy to skim over and accept matters of very little substance without any questioning, and hold on to them as though they were meaningful. Just how did these complex structures get organised? Was it really such an ad hoc interplay amongst groups and people with various ideas and skills? Was it more than some feeling in the air - some communal love of/commitment to a cause? What individual ideas and decisions made these buildings that we know today? How?

We have a preconception that these structures are organic wholes that flowered into their present state through a spiritual effort, almost mystically. This is the organic vision that confidently lingers, and creates comforting feelings that stifle any searching doubt or further inquiry. The differences with today’s buildings and their possibilities make this ‘something in the air’ idea almost believable. Not only do our thoughts pander politely to this strange possibility, our eyes seem to want to see cathedrals as uniquely wonderful wholes in spite of glaring and blatantly obvious differences like the western towers on Chartres. There is a quality about our perception that is blindly over-positive - almost too heavenly: those were the days! If only . . . ! It is as if we have been charmed into seeing Ruskin’s texts as a reality - but:
"When you examine the cathedral closely, you discover to your immense surprise that the design is not a well controlled and harmonious entity, but a mess. We tend to think of a great work of art like Chartres as having been thought through to the end before it was begun. But Chartres is not like this, not at all. Our vision has been conditioned by the homogenizing eye of the camera, but when we look carefully we see that there are few things at one end of the building that match those at the other.
So what are these structures? How were they made?

Chartres Cathedral took only 57 years to construct – 1193 to 1250; and Notre Dame de Paris took 77 years – 1163 to 1240. Chartres is important as it, unlike Norte Dame, luckily missed out the ‘improvements’ of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Chartres came close to being demolished by the enthusiastic rage of the crowds of the revolution, but luckily it was saved by more rational minds and persuasive argument. John James of Sydney has spent years studying Chartres and its making. He remains a unique source of knowledge and understanding about Chartres and the buildings in the Paris basin. Unfortunately his amazing work remains generally unrecognised even though it knows no peers. Has it been caught up in the reading of cathedrals as anachronisms that are so familiar they have been shoved aside and shelved as dull images in old, dusty books, to be treated with the same disdain that of out-of-date travel guides are given - just an irrelevance to our era that has ‘moved forward’? James has skilfully and meticulously identified the masons, the sequences, and the processes involved in the construction of Chartres through his careful and painstaking study of its details. It is astonishing scholarship. He has published a summary of his work in a small book, The Master Masons of Chartres, and has more detailed studies in other related books.

Looking critically at the cathedral makes one ponder the thinking and processes that started the construction effort and managed to get to the building to become the object we see today. While the grandeur of the whole is overwhelming, with the eye being classically dragged upwards by the gestures of the building’s exterior and interior, the more mundane detailing of the column bases is easily overlooked as just base objects, in spite of their being so close to one. These beautifully worked and detailed stones have been polished by the touch of passersby and those who have chosen to rest on these edges and ledges over the centuries. But it is too easy to admire this primal patina and move on aimlessly, feeling good about being there in such a soaring presence. The bases hold a mystery in their beginnings – questions.

The various complexities of the massive columns held by the bases, with the confidently sculptured details of leaves, scrolls, scotias, toruses and ogees defining these chunky, polished pieces, stimulates one to ask more about the precise making and locating of these assemblages. Where and how did the bases come to be – come to be in that location; come to be in that form; come to be in that detail – at the time of their making? What was the vision? Who decided where, what and how to make and place these pieces to accommodate the vaults that must have been constructed many years later, perhaps by others? The complete set of floor, base, column, vault gives clarity to the sense of the base’s purposefulness that existed before any of the above pieces. What was the process of thinking that organised, made and installed these column bases that we admire today almost as an aside, as the eye continues up distractedly to be astonished by the beauty of the completeness of the towering height that spreads these columns into a spray of interconnected vaulting with their beautifully bossed highlights? Someone must have held the original vision in much more detail than merely some simple rudimentary sketches on tiny pieces of grubby paper that we frequently see published in books on cathedrals as examples of the guiding hand for construction. Consider the likelihood of the final vision being assembled out of a random groping of teams over an unknown span of time. It is rather like hoping for Shakespeare from a monkey and a typewriter - well, a computer these days. Why do we assume this epiphany came about out of the ether of belief? What are the facts? Were there principles, preferred patterns of structure that set the raw diagram that was then adapted and embellished by various minds over time in order to accommodate different temperaments and strategies? And it is not as though all of the bases were made and put in their specific locations, levels and orientations at one time.

Just look at these bases and think:

It would take a miracle for these beautiful parts to be made and located without understanding the implications of some future, no matter how schematic this might be. What height? Size? Mass? Loads? Spans? Thrusts? What materials are needed? Where? Who? Even pondering the purchasing of the materials for these parts leaves one amazed at the scope of the task, let alone the marking, making, shaping and placing process. It may not have been a linear process of progression, nor a logical one, but there seems to have been something more than things being randomly pieced and placed together over time by whoever might be available. What confidence must there have been to size, detail and decorate these base parts when the site would have been close to total chaos. One only has to think of a construction site today, especially at the beginning of a project, and wonder. It is still all about machines, men, management and a dirty, dusty disarray.

John James is the authority on Chartres and its process and parts, but to the more casual observer there is one aspect of the cathedral that seems to show how one vision came to accommodate another, suggesting how the cathedral could be seen as a ‘mess’ by the knowing of the educated eye. The columns hint at the story. Those in the nave are the typical, elegantly clustered variety with a collection of trunks running from the base at floor level, up to cross the vaults in all their continuous glory of vertical thrust and growth. As one moves eastwards towards the ambulatory, the columns become more rudimentary with a core circular or octagonal form having oppositely blocked appendages to give a crucifix section until, as one moves further to the east, the columns become simply a repetition of alternating plain circular and octagonal trunks.

Yet all these varied supports carry similarly detailed vaults. Unlike those on the multi-clustered columns, the ribs on the more basic and rudimentary columns stop at the top the capitals with a unfussy mass shaped simply to accommodate these pointed arched ribs. As the complexity of the columns grows, the result is aesthetically more appealing, but the simple forms manage to hold a quiet comfort and authority, even with their cruder clashes and difference. The bases vary to suit the columns. Just what has happened here? One can assume different masons have brought in and implemented different visions over time. Was this the layering of ideas over a basic, core diagram? The James reference needs to be searched to see the sequence. He records many more differences, including differences in the quality of the workmanship and decorative profiles. Yet, in spite of this, Chartres remains a unique assemblage of amazement. Perhaps it is better because of this diversity – and more modest?

This process has made Chartres a massing of ideas that have been incorporated into the whole, making it a wonderful ‘mess.’ Look at the ingenuity of the stair window, skilfully tucked in behind the attached column so that both work beautifully. This shows thought and planning beyond ordinary and haphazard chance - doing it as one goes – while still allowing for this to have been the larger strategy. It is indeed a hybrid mix of ingenuity that does hold together to give us that unified ‘photographic’ image.

James gives careful attention to understanding the making of the external windows in the stair towers. It is good research and casts a new light on the old, discarded engravings that give cathedral books such a bland, uninteresting appearance, making them just too common.

To get a better sense of the whole one has to read John James. His work is the primary reference. His latest study The Master Carvers Series is available on line as a work in progress – see  This pre-publishing is a good strategy for a researcher/thinker to take. It turns private study into a communal effort by opening the research and thinking up for review instead of having it dumped down as gospel. The openness has a rich and tentative quality and shows humility and a genuine concern for the subject. As in the making of the cathedrals themselves, there are no unique heroes here. I recall how Marion Boyars published Ivan Illich’s work similarly as ‘ideas in progress.’ Illich’s writings make an impressive list: Celebratgion of Awareness; Deschooling Society; Disabling Professions; Energy and Equity; Gender; H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness; In the Mirror of the Past; Limits of Medicine; The Right to Useful Unemployment; Shadow Work; Tools of Convivality; and ABC The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind.

These publications are noted here because they too have become dust collectors beside the old books on cathedrals and should, like many older publications, never be forgotten. Ideas never fade; they become absorbed into our present presence to be a part of us and our futures. It is for this reason that we need to remember them and not neglect them, for they can assist us in knowing ourselves.

One needs to spend time looking more closely at cathedrals and thinking about matters more rigorously. More questions need to be asked. We must forget all that we have come to know or assume about these structures so that we might really learn about them and better understand them. We carry a false familiarity about cathedrals that makes us consider them with a latent contempt - to dismiss them in favour of ‘smarter’ architecture that is not so ‘common.’ This is not a call for any ‘Gothic Revival’ Revival. Clichés need to go, then we might come to really know about Gothic thought. The more we assume and dismiss about architecture of any kind, the lesser we become – and the more arrogant too. Cathedrals did not just make themselves. They did not just appear complete as part of a set of photographic images spread out fashionably on a coffee table. Each part was subjected to the process of planning and making and management – designing, marking out, cutting, detailing, decorating, installation to fit the previous pieces, ready for the next. – and so on. There is an intimacy here, a personal involvement in each step. We gloss over these matters too easily today in order to talk about more general aspects and to goggle at the astonishing morphs.

While the column bases give us a cause to pause and think, wander outside and ponder on the wonders of the beautiful sculptures that cover this building. One just remains stunned by their astonishing elegance and humour, making it easy not to be distracted by the question: how were these managed as part of the construction process? Who? What?

The real surprise with Chartres is that it was built on top of a Romanesque church that remains its crypt, in tact. This crypt alone would have given Chartres the name it holds today, but we have the cathedral on top of it - a twin astonishment and delight anchored by its deep and ancient well. The original church would have established much of the articulation for the cathedral above, but just saying this ignores an awful lot that is full of awe. It is indeed an amazing feat that only raises more and more questions as one peruses its stones. John James’s work helps us know more about these buildings from the viewpoint of the makers’ involvement. His is an approach that can be applied to all architecture. It challenges the power of the glossy image with its delusions, and opens up real issues for us to comprehend. The great danger is that we might remain happy, contented with some misguided interpretation that distorts reality and creates heroes and sagas out of ordinary men doing ordinary things in their everyday. Honest, committed research is able to clarify circumstances and help us come to know those who were involved in the making of these places, not as personalities but as thoughts, processes and activities, and push aside the theories and generalisations that make things lesser – just simplistic diagrams of ideas.

Considering other contexts, one can ask: how were the mosques made? Like cathedrals, we know these as ephemeral wholes – a complete haze of packaged wonder and enchantment: as seen on TV and coffee tables. We need to understand things more rigorously than just enjoying these snappy overviews, for such understandings will not only change perceptions, but change us too. Who knows, we might also become more respectful, tolerant, caring and sympathetic.

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