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Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Invention of the Gothic [Paperback]

Philip Ball

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More About the Author

Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. He worked at Nature for over 20 years, first as an editor for physical sciences (for which his brief extended from biochemistry to quantum physics and materials science) and then as a Consultant Editor. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology.

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Universe of Stone Establishes Chartres Cathedral's iconic role in Europe's history: a revolution in thought embodied in stone and glass, a philosophy made concrete through the cooperation of theologians, craftsmen and engineers. This work shows us that there are other ways of seeing the world. It reveals the complex workings of the medieval mind. Full description

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  21 reviews
44 of 48 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Poetry in stone 1 July 2008
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
For anyone who has stood in awe of the splendid architecture of Notre Dame de Paris, Saint Denis, or Chartres itself, this is a delightful book. In his engaging and smooth prose, Philip Ball guides the reader through the religious, social, and philosophical milieu that produced the quintessentially Gothic cathedral at Chartres.

The essence of Gothic architecture is hotly disputed (Ball navigates neatly through the variety of scholarly opinion), but it certainly incorporated into a unified whole a number of different elements that had previously existed--all for the purpose, it seems, of achieving a soaring height and lightness inside, heaven on earth. Contrary to what the name suggests, Gothic was really a French style, and Ball discusses Chartres in the context of the nearby and near-contemporary cathedrals, especially St Denis, Sens, Soissons, and Strasbourg. (He occasionally brings up the adaptations of the Gothic style further afield.)

Like many other important churches, Notre Dame de Chartres was erected on an even more ancient sacred site: a sacred well (not a druidic temple, which is a Renaissance misinterpretation of Caesar's writing). The earliest churches that stood over Chartres's sacred well (which can still be seen in the crypt beneath the cathedral) were wooden and burnt down repeatedly: rebuilding was undertaken in 743, 858, 1020 (at which point the bishop Fulbert decided to make it an impressive Romanesque cathedral), 1134, and finally in 1194. At this point, it was decided to rebuild in the new Gothic style--a style introduced in the west front and choir of St Denis that had been completed a half-century before.

In a long middle section reminiscent of Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome, Ball keeps the reader waiting to find out the answers to some key questions: Who built it? How long did it take? He explains thoroughly the intellectual context of the Gothic cathedral and its material features in alternating sections not in chronological order.

The monastic trends of the era are pointed out, together with the structure of the cathedral's ministry (and the tension between Chartres's and the local bishop); and the cathedral's original interior colors, ochre and white, are revealed. The Aristotelian, Platonic, and Augustinian foundations of medieval philosophy and theology are laid; and important figures such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard are profiled. The state of the art in medieval science is discussed, and its incarnation at the cathedral school in Chartres; and Geoffrey of Leves and Bernard and Thierry of Chartres are profiled. The roles of architects, masters, and builders are discussed, together with their building materials (chiefly limestone in the Isle-de-France); Villard de Honnecourt and his drawings are discussed, as are the uses of military technology in building projects. The engineering challenges of a Gothic cathedral are presented, including forces and stability, cracking and buttressing. (It seems that the argument over whether to buttress or to vault first was never really settled.) And in a chapter reminiscent of Ross King's on pigments in Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, the making of colored glass is discussed, and it is revealed why blue and red were the dominant colors in medieval stained-glass windows.

In the second-to-last chapter, Ball describes the actual building of the cathedral at Chartres, and he debunks the legend of the townspeople putting their shoulders to carts of stones in a frenzy of enthusiasm. As for the cost of the project, Ball estimates that perhaps 5% of the total cost (around 4000 livres) came from the town; maybe another 5% from the French king; a little could be expected from pilgrims who came to see the town's prized relic, the Blessed Virgin's Sancta Camisa; but most of the funds probably came from the bishop's own salary and the rents on church lands. Ball addresses the age-old question of the order of construction--east to west? west to east?--amusingly, observing as evidence against the west-to-east theory that "the nave doesn't so much join up with the west end as crash into it." The question hasn't been settled, but in any case it seems that the architects had thought they would be able to replace Bishop Fulbert's two western towers. (Just one remains--the southwest, less elaborate one.) But funds ran out, and it was in retrospect a happy accident, because it forced the architects to simplify the design (nine spires were originally planned), thereby unifying it and providing a template for the great cathedrals that followed. One wonders how things might have turned out otherwise--would the great Gothic cathedrals all be like the colossal Duomo in Milan?

This was a very enjoyable book, filled with great pictures and diagrams (unfortunately not indexed, though) and eventually answering those key questions: No one knows who the masters or architects were, but there were probably a number of them. And it took just 26 years to build, much less than the century or so needed for Amiens or Reims. This is a great book for the traveler--armchair or otherwise--who is interested in Chartres or medieval architecture.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ultimately Disappointing 29 July 2008
By Harold S. Levine - Published on Amazon.com
The author sets the bar high: a book that describes the design and building of the cathedral at Chartres while putting it into the context of medieval philosophy, theology, technology, science, politics and economy. In theory a laudable goal, but in practice a muddle. This reader was alternately bogged down in overly-long and involved chapters discussing the differences between scholastic Platonists and Aristotelians and disappointed that there wasn't more about the cathedral itself. Ball is a journalist who has obviously done his homework -- there's an extensive, multi-page bibliography and he quotes from dozens of experts -- but in the end this feels like a well-written overview of other people's writings on the subject, rather than an original look by a writer with any strong convictions himself. About halfway through this book I had the nagging thought I would have done better by re-reading Thomas Cahill's lively "Mysteries of the Middle Ages" and my nephew's illustrated copy of David Macaulay's "Cathedral." There's no shortage of wonderful books on Chartres and the building of the cathedrals and the curious reader should consider them seriously before investing in this book.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brings light to a period once thought dark 11 Sep 2009
By Michael Tiemann - Published on Amazon.com
I have always had a special place in my heart for Gothic cathedrals: Notre Dame, Chartres, and though technically not a cathedral (because it's an Episcopal church, but very Gothic nonetheless), St. Thomas Church in New York City. With a trip planned to Paris in the fall, I thought it would be fun to dive deeply into the ideas behind these architectural masterpieces that affect my senses so deeply.

The book is well organized, and attempt to really provide a full telling of the story, including the religious, political, philosophical, cultural, and economic contexts that ultimately shaped the Gothic design. And it provides for me a much more sensible preamble to the renaissance than the simplistic (and somewhat self-congratulatory) stories that emanated from the renaissance actors themselves.

The book also reads very nicely: the editing is superb, and each chapter moves with purpose through an extraordinary amount of research. The book definitely delivers everything it promises on its cover!
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Better Than A Trip To Chartres 2 Oct 2008
By Augustine J. Fredrich - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I've taught an interdisciplinary course entitled "Cathedrals and Other Great Churches of Medieval Europe" a dozen times (twice in England), had Malcolm Miller as a guest lecturer (and tour guide at Chartres in one of my three visits there) and Peter Gibson of the York Minster Stained Glass Workshop as a guest lecturer (and tour guide at York Minster twice), visited more than a hundred medieval and renaissance great churches, and read at least parts of more than half of the books and articles listed in the seven-page bibliography of this book, and, in my judgment, no other book comes close to this one in providing real insight into understanding the great medieval churches. For my course, I used a reader I developed comprising excerpts from dozens of different books to give my students the breadth of ideas, opinions and knowledge needed to understand these great churches. Like many other compilations it suffered from wide variations in the "voices" of the various authors and from unevenness in coverage of the diverse subjects that students needed to grasp the significance of these monuments. I dreamed that some day I would have the time and energy to assemble a coherent anthology -- maybe one with a title like: "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Medieval Churches . . ." but, alas, retirement reared its ugly head and the motivation to do so disappeared. Now, however, Philip Ball has fulfilled my dream, and although he has done so in the context of a single great church, much of what he has written is applicable to most of them. His book makes me wish I hadn't retired so I could use it as a text. Not every reader will understand all of the nuances of the many subjects Ball covers in this book, but every reader with any interest in medieval churches will find this wonderfully well-written book to be not only a fascinating read but also a great addition to his or her library.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, not great 19 Oct 2008
By Peter - Published on Amazon.com
UNIVERSE OF STONE really piqued my interest in Gothic architecture, medieval history, and Chartres in particular. That is no small accomplishment for a single book. Ball has hit upon a fascinating topic. That being said, I have the following quibbles: (1) I found Ball's written prose to be cumbersome, digressive in a way better suited to the lecture hall than the written page; (2) I would have appreciated more--and more helpfully labelled--diagrams to explain the architectural concepts Ball describes; and (3) it is a crime that there is only one exterior photograph of the cathedral, and it shows only the western facade and towers; having finished the boook, I still don't really know what Chartres actually looks like; the same could be said for interior shots: there is one excellent picture of the nave, but that's it; for a subject whose grandeur is the focus, to have but two pictures illustrating that grandeur seems a shame.
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