A Message from Father Nick 19, 26th July 2020
A “miracle” in stone
Oscar Wilde lamented – typically perhaps – that “the dreary classical Renaissance” had interrupted and spoiled what he called “Christ’s own Renaissance”. By Christ’s own Renaissance he specifies “the cathedral of Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the life of St Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante’s Divine Comedy”. His singling out of Chartres cathedral is worth noting because this is the building which Kenneth Clark compared with Hagia Sophia for beauty. Those who know Chartres will need no convincing of its special qualities.
Yet the two buildings are not at all alike. Chartres cathedral in France is a product of very different circumstances. We still sometimes speak about the “Dark Ages” and the “Middle Ages” in the West, though many now are less inclined to use those terms. But as Western Europe settled into a new kind of life in towns, after long years of decline, its prosperity increased and learning and the arts began to flourish. New opportunities, new skills, new patrons and a widespread spiritual yearning all combined to stimulate a real creative impulse. Old arts were restored and a new art form emerged: stained glass.
Chartres was the centre of a mathematical school (Pythagoras and Aristotle are among its stone-carved figures – other carvings show a range of images of work and ordinary human life). And its glorious coloured windows offer a delightful perspective on our debt to the past: in them we see four prophets carrying the four evangelists on their shoulders. But most of all Lord Clark is moved by the sculpted figures of the central doorway. He claims that their look of selfless detachment and spirituality shows a new stage in the ascent of western humanity and that beside them the gods and heroes of ancient Greece look arrogant, soulless and even slightly brutal.
“We know from the chronicles,” he says, “something about the men whose state of mind these faces reveal. In the year 1144, they say, when the towers seemed to be rising as if by magic, the faithful harnessed themselves to the carts which were bringing stone, and dragged them from the quarry to the cathedral. The enthusiasm spread throughout France. Men and women came from far away carrying heavy burdens of provisions for the workmen – wine, oil, corn. Amongst them were lords and ladies, pulling carts with the rest. There was perfect discipline, and a most profound silence. All hearts were united and each man forgave his enemies. This feeling of dedication to a great civilising ideal is even more overwhelming when we pass through the portal into the interior. This is not only one of the two most beautiful covered spaces in the world (the other is Santa [Hagia] Sophia in Constantinople), but it is one that has a particular effect on the mind; and the men who built it would have said that this was because it was the favourite earthly abode of the Virgin Mary.”
Chartres was believed to contain the most famous of all Our Lady’s relics, the tunic she had worn at the time of the Annunciation. Whatever the truth of that belief, such an enterprise undertaken in faith has left its own indelible mark. It remains a miracle in stone today.