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Customer Review

on 8 September 2007
Surveying the alleged alchemical content of stone-carvings in Notre Dasme, Fulcanelli muses thus: 'The spirit cannot but feel troubled in the presence of this even more paradoxical antithesis: the torch of alchemical thought illuminating the temple of Christian thought.' In a sense this proposed dichotomy highlights the shortcomings of Fulcanelli's method underlying this often brilliant and fascinating quest to uncover the hermetic symbolism of the gothic cathedrals. For in truth the antithesis which he purports to find between alchemical and Christian thought never really existed in the medieval mind. Nor is it actually that likely that any furtive agenda was afoot in the minds of the Guild craftsmen who built these great edifices of the Western spiritual tradition and ornamented them with such magnificent artistry. The iconography of Catholic eccelesiasticism in the High Middle Ages represents the emblematic expression of the conventions of perfectly orthodox faith on the one hand, but in accord with the anagogical principle of polysemous exegesis, these same emblems, the Creation, the Nativity, Crucifixion, the Last Judgement etc are also susceptible to deepening levels of esoteric interpretation and would have been regarded in such a light my the mystics and alchemists of the age. No antithesis, 'heretical' undercurrent or opposition is to be imputed, only deepening levels of meaning encapsulated within the traditional symbology. Nor need clandestine intent be imagined as regards the Cathedral builders, but our own modern mindset, trapped within a cumbrous straitjacket of surface literalism, consistently fails to appreciate a sacred art tradition that could simultaneously convey a whole spectrum of significance from the exoteric to the profoundly esoteric. A similar case can be made for medieval Tarot, whose outwardly conventional 'status mundi' and 'salvation cycle' is likewise susceptible to such an exercise in mystical hermeneutics, including alchemical arcana whilst Dante explicitly states that his 'Commedia Divina' was intentionally written along such lines. Again Fulcanelli's propositions about alleged 'pagan' symbolism misses the point because in the great artistic cultures of the European Middle Ages, the imagery and myths of the classical world had long been assimilated into the Christian world-view in an expression of a harmonic and integral tradition, so we need hardly be surprised to encounter planetary and zodiacal glyphs beside Biblical motifs. Again any furtive 'crypto-paganism' is revealed to be a projection of modern fantasies rather than an indication of medieval cultural and religious sensibilities. The Guilds of the Middle Ages were at one and the same time repositories of authentic ancient wisdom and bodies of perfectly sincere and believing Christians working for the greater glory of God. Having clarified some of these misapprehensions which fed into the writing of this book in the mid 1920s it has to be said that this is a truly wonderful book and a great read; Fulcanelli's emblematic meditations on the gothic Cathedrals as carven expositions of the Magnum Opus of the Alchemists are both unique and enchanting and even if one sometimes feels a little less than convinced by his 'decoding' of the images and carvings themselves 'Le Mystere des Cathedrales' is nonetheless a beguiling, dazzling and ludistic display of symbolic perception, alchemical erudition, cryptic paronomasia and word-play and intuitive analysis of medieval artforms. Read this book to see the faculty of Alchemical mytho-poesis in action and you will be charmed and illuminated: Fulcanelli's grasp of the essential symbology and modus operandi of Alchemy is inspiring and enlightening.(For an alternative take on these great temples of the Catholic Middle Ages, and one perhaps grounded in a more authentically traditional spiritual foundation, read Joris Karl Huysmans 'Le Cathedral', an encyclopaedic exploration of the ecclesiastical art of Chartres Cathedral thinly veiled as a novel.)
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