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Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind Paperback – 30 Apr 2009
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"[Ball] has a knack for translating difficult concepts into lucid prose: he offers a refreshingly sceptical guided tour of Chartres Cathedral and the intellectual contents that helped produce it" (Daily Telegraph)
"Lucid and resplendent...a model of explanatory writing" (John Carey Sunday Times)
"Consistently and healthily sceptical ... an intelligent, enjoyable and well-produced book which deserves a wide audience" (Times Literary Supplement)
"An original and imaginative synthesis of art history and history of science" (History Today)
"Lucid and resplendent" (The Times)
'lucid, resplendent book'See all Product description
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Top customer reviews
The author describes the latter briskly, including an interesting discussion of the conflict between Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard, which is taken to be an example - very roughly - of the struggle between faith and reason. In the same context, he also mentions the chancellors of the school at Chartres, beginning with Bernard of Chartres, who provided (p108) "[the] vivid image of how knowledge progresses by building on its antecedents. 'We are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants,' he said, 'so we perceive more things than they do'". This remark was of course later appropriated by Isaac Newton (not to mention Oasis), and it's used in the stained glass windows in the South Transept of the cathedral, which depict the four (rather scrawny-looking) evangelists sitting on the shoulders of four Old Testament prophets.
A similar degree of erudition is exhibited throughout the book - perhaps most divertingly when he refers to a chap described as (p240) "the early Christian Neo-Platonist Pseudo-Dyonisius", an appellation that looks like a bit of a mouthful but which is fully justified and explained. There is also a detailed account of the evolution of the constituents of the Gothic style (strikingly characterised on p49 as "vertical ecstasy"), a fascinating twelfth century account of the way to make and stain glass and a handy list of the parts of a cathedral, in case - like me - you're hazy about the difference between the nave and the chancel (or don't know what a tympanum is).
Although it's not a guidebook, I found that it gave an memorable impression of the importance of the place, how it came to be, the way it was built and what it represents in human history. Without visiting the cathedral, the book could be read as part of a history of architecture, or mechanical engineering, or philosophy, but it's worth noting the apposite comment of John Carey in his review: "after finishing Ball's book, the temptation to catch the next Eurostar and head out to Chartes is strong".
By the way the Amazon price is a snip!
Yet overall the book is missing something. it isn't exactly a guidebook to Chartres, as other reviewers point out and as Ball himself straightforwardly acknowledges. But there is a strange lack of the actual physical object that is Chartres Cathedral. And there is no sense that this is a living church still, with services and parishioners and so on, and Ball's sneering contempt for what isn't High Gothic in the Cathedral grates a little.
Whilst I am not sure that one can really understand the medieval mind from a modern view point, the technicalities of the problems of construction in those times can be appreciated.
Clearly an enormous amount of work has been done by the author to try an establish all of the above. Having visited Chartres in the past I just had to read all about that wonderful Cathredral.