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.