[Chapter 2 from Civilization]
There have been times in the history of man when the earth seems suddenly to have grown warmer or more radio‑active . . . I don’t put that forward as a scientific proposition, but the fact remains that three or four times in history man has made a leap forward that would have been unthinkable under ordinary evolutionary conditions. One such time was about the year 3000 BC, when quite suddenly civilization appeared, not only in Egypt and Mesopotamia but in the Indus valley; another was in the late sixth century BC, when there was not only the miracle of Ionia and Greece – philosophy, science, art, poetry, all reaching a point that wasn’t reached again for 2000 years – but also in India a spiritual enlightenment that has perhaps never been equaled. Another was round about the year 1100. It seems to have affected the whole world; but its strongest and most dramatic effect was in Western Europe – where it was most needed. It was like a Russian spring. In every branch of life – action, philosophy, organization, technology – there was an extraordinary outpouring of energy, an intensification of existence. Popes, emperors, kings, bishops, saints, scholars, philosophers were all larger than life, and the incidents of history – Henry II at Canossa, Pope Urban announcing the First Crusade, Heloise and Abelard, the martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket – are great heroic dramas, or symbolic acts, that still stir our hearts.
The evidence of this heroic energy, this confidence, this strength of will and intellect, is still visible to us. In spite of all our mechanical aids and the inflated scale of modern materialism, Durham Cathedral remains a formidable construction , and the east end of Canterbury still looks very large and very complex. And these great orderly mountains of stone at first rose out of a small cluster of wooden houses; everyone with the least historical imagination has thought of that. But what people don’t always realize is that it all happened quite suddenly – in a single lifetime. An even more astonishing change took place in sculpture. Tournais is one of the very few churches of any size to have survived from before the dreaded year 1000, and the architecture is rather grand in a primitive way. But its sculpture is miserably crude, without even the vitality of barbarism. Only fifty years later sculpture has the style and rhythmic assurance of the greatest epochs of art. The skill and dramatic invention that had been confined to small portable objects – goldsmith work or ivory carving – suddenly appear on a monumental scale.
These changes imply a new social and intellectual background. They imply wealth, stability, technical skill and, above all, the confidence necessary to push through a long-term project. How had all this suddenly appeared in Western Europe? Of course there are many answers, but one is overwhelmingly more important than the others: the triumph of the Church. It could be argued that western civilization was basically the creation of the Church. In saying that I am not thinking, for the moment, of the Church as the repository of Christian truth and spiritual experience I am thinking of her as the twelfth century thought of her, as a power – Ecclesia – sitting like an empress.
The Church was powerful for all kinds of negative reasons: she didn’t suffer many of the inconveniences of feudalism; there was no question of divided inheritances. For these reasons she could conserve and expand her properties. And she was powerful for positive reasons. Men of intelligence naturally and normally took holy orders, and could rise from obscurity to positions of immense influence. In spite of the number of bishops and abbots from royal or princely families, the Church was basically a democratic institution where ability – administrative, diplomatic and sheer intellectual ability – made its way. And then the Church was international. It was, to a
large extent, a monastic institution following the Benedictine rule and owing no territorial allegiance. The great churchmen of the eleventh and twelfth centuries came from all over Europe. Anselm came from Aosta, via Normandy, to be Archbishop of Canterbury; Lanfranc had made the same journey, starting from Pavia. The list could be extended to almost every great teacher of the early Middle Ages. It couldn’t happen in the Church, or politics, today: one can’t imagine two consecutive archbishops of Canterbury being Italian. But it could happen – does happen – in the field of science; which shows that where some way of thought or human activity is really vital to us, internationalism is accepted unhesitatingly.
In so far as the intellectual and emotional lives of men and women of the twelfth century rose above mere necessity, they were inspired and directed by the Church. I suppose that they led narrow and monotonous lives, given rhythm only by the occupations of the months. Much of the year was spent in darkness, in very cramped conditions. What must have been the emotional impact of the inconceivable splendour, so much richer than any thing that has come down to us today, which overwhelmed them when they entered the great monasteries or cathedrals. This expansion of the human spirit was first made visible in the Abbey of Cluny. It was founded in the tenth century, but under Hugh of Semur – who was abbot for sixty years, from 1049 to 1109 – it became the greatest church in Europe, not only a huge complex of buildings, but a great organization and a power – on the whole a benevolent power – in Church politics. The building was destroyed in the nineteenth century – used as a quarry like the buildings of ancient Rome. Only part of the south transept remains and a few fragments of sculpture. But we have many descriptions of its original splendour [251. The abbey church alone was 415 feet long and 118 feet wide – the size of a large cathedral – and on feast days the walls were covered with hangings. The floors were of mosaic with figures, like a Roman pavement. Of the treasures it contained, the most astonishing was a seven‑branched candlestick of gilt bronze, of which the shaft alone was eighteen feet high – a formidable piece of casting, even today. So much for those who say that the beliefs and institutions of the early Middle Ages were conditioned by technical incompetence. Of all this nothing remains, and practically nothing like it – no hangings, no figured mosaic floors, except in the cathedral of Taranto; only a few candlesticks, later and much smaller. One of them, made for the Cathedral of Gloucester, is only about eighteen inches high, but so highly wrought that one can imagine it eighteen feet 1261. It is an extreme example of Cluniac elaboration.
The first great eruption of ecclesiastical splendour was unashamedly extravagant. Apologists for the Cluniac style tell us that its decorations were subordinated to philosophic ideas, and I am bound to say that the few remaining sculptures at Cluny itself do deal with rather difficult concepts – they are a series of capitals representing the tones in music, which, ever since Charlemagne, had played a leading part in medieval education. But my general impression is that the invention which boiled over into sculpture and painting in the early twelfth century was self‑delighting. As with the similar outburst of the Baroque, one can think up ingenious interpretations of the subjects, but the motive force behind them was simply irrepressible, irresponsible energy. The Romanesque carvers were like a school of dolphins.
All this we know, not from the mother house of Cluny itself, but from the dependencies that spread all over Europe. There were over 1,200 of them in France alone: a fairly remote one, the Abbey of Moissac in Southern France, was important because it was on the pilgrimage route to Compostella. The carvings have much that is typical of the Cluniac style: the same sharp cutting, the same swirling drapery, the same twisting line, as if the restless impulses of the wandering craftsmen, the goldsmiths of the Viking conquerors, still had to be expressed in stone. Moissac is a peculiar case, because the chief sculptor who worked on the portal door seems to have been an eccentric of the first order, a sort of Romanesque El Greco. What could be stranger than his crazy‑looking old men with their twisted limbs and fabulous mustachios? Something could, and that is the central mullion of the door with its fabulous beasts. When one considers that they were once brightly coloured – Cluniac ornament seems to have been painted, as manuscripts show us, in bright primary colours – one realizes that they must have looked even more fiercely Tibetan than they do today; and I can’t imagine that even the medieval mind, which was adept at interpreting everything symbolically, could have found in them much religious meaning.
The Moissac master produced an even more liberated piece of self-expression in the mullion of the church of Souilla, which is surely one of the most bizarre and terrifying works of art ever produced in Western Europe before the present century. It is a work of art – no doubt about that. The gigantic birds, with their evil‑looking beaks, and the cowering mortals achieve their effect on our emotions by plastic power and perfect mastery of means. It is an epitome of forest fears, a kind of totem‑pole of western man at the end of his wanderings. But what has this column to do with Christian values – with compassion, charity or even hope. It isn’t surprising that the most powerful churchman of his day, St Bernard of Clairvaux, should have become the bitter and relentless critic of the Cluniac style. Some of his attacks are the usual puritan objections, as when he speaks of ‘the lies of poetry’ – words that were to echo through the centuries and become particular favourites in the new religion of science. But St Bernard had an eye, as well as an eloquent tongue:
And in the cloisters, under the eyes of the brethren engaged in reading, what business have those ridiculous
monstrosities, at misshapen shapeliness and shapely misshapenness? Those unclean monkeys, those fierce lions, those monstrous centaurs, those semi‑human beings. Here you see a quadruped with the tail of a serpent, there a fish with the head of a goat. In short there appears on all sides so rich and amazing a variety of forms that it is more delightful to read the marble than the manuscripts and to spend the whole day in admiring these things, piece by piece, rather than in meditating on the Divine Law.
The last sentence shows clearly enough that Bernard felt the power of art; and in fact the buildings done under his influence, in what we call the Cistercian style, are closer to our ideals of architecture than anything else of the period.
Most of them are abandoned and half‑ruined, simply because it was part of St Bernard’s doctrine that they should be built far from the worldly distractions of towns; so when, after the French Revolution, town monasteries were turned into local churches, the Cistercian monasteries fell into ruins. Yet in a few of them the monastic discipline has survived. It can be seen to this day, bringing the old buildings back to life, and it makes us realize how much we have lost by turning churches into museums.
This way of life is concerned with an ideal of eternity, and that is an important part of civilization. But the great thaw of the twelfth century was not achieved by contemplation (which can exist at all times), but by action – a vigorous, violent sense of movement, both physical and intellectual. On the physical side this took the form of pilgrimages and crusades . I think they are among the features of the Middle Ages which it is hardest for us to under stand. No good pretending that they were like cruises or holidays abroad. For one thing, they lasted far longer, sometimes two or three years. For another, they involved real hardship and danger. In spite of efforts to organise pilgrimages – Cluny ran a series of hostels along the chief routes – elderly abbots and middle‑aged widows often died on the way to Jerusalem.
Pilgrimages were undertaken in hope of heavenly rewards: in fact they were often used by the Church as a penitence or a spiritualized form of extradition. The point of a pilgrimage was to look at relics. Here again we like to rationalize in modern terms and compare the pilgrim looking at a large fragment of the True Cross in Constantinople with the tourist cricking his neck in the Sistine Chapel. But this is quite unhistorical. The medieval pilgrim really believed that by contemplating a reliquary containing the head or even the fingers of a saint he would persuade that particular saint to intercede on his behalf with God. How can one hope to share this belief which played so great a part in medieval civilization? Perhaps by visiting a famous place of pilgrimage – the little town of Conques, dedicated to the cult of St Foy. She was a little girl who in late Roman times refused to worship idols. She was obstinate in the face of reasonable persuasion – a Christian Antigone; and so she was martyred. Her relics began to work miracles, and in the eleventh century one of them was so famous that it aroused much jealousy and Bernard of Angers was sent to investigate it and report to the Bishop of Chartres. It seemed that a man had had his eyes put out by a jealous priest. He had become a jongleur, a blind acrobat. After a year he went to the shrine of St Foy and his eyes were restored. The man was still alive. He said that at first he had suffered from terrible headaches, but now they had passed and he could see perfectly. There was a difficulty witnesses said that after his eyes had been put out they had been taken up to heaven, some said by a dove, others by a magpie. That was the only point of doubt. However, the report was favourable, a fine Romanesque church was built at Conques, and in it was placed a strange eastern‑looking figure to contain the relics of St Fo. A golden idol! The face is perhaps the golden mask of some late Roman emperor. How ironical that this little girl, who was put to death for refusing to worship idols, should have been turned into one herself. Well, that’s the medieval mind. They cared passionately about the truth, but their sense of evidence was different from ours. From our point of view nearly all the relics in the world depend on unhistorical assertions; and yet they, as much as any factor, led to that movement and diffusion of ideas from which western civilization derives part of its momentum.
Of course the most important place of pilgrimage was Jerusalem. After the tenth century, when a strong Byzantine empire made the journey practicable, pilgrims used to go in parties of 7,000 at a time. This is the background of that extraordinary episode in history, the First Crusade. Although other factors may have determined its course – Norman restlessness, the ambitions of younger sons, economic depression, all the factors that make for a gold-rush, there can be no doubt that the majority of people joined the crusade in a spirit of pilgrimage.
What was the effect of the crusades on western civilization? I simply don’t know. But its effect on art was considerable. It explains a great deal that would otherwise be mysterious in the style we call Romanesque. The first attempts at monumental sculpture in the eleventh century, based on Roman remains, are dull and dead. Then about ten years later this stiff antiquarian style is animated by a turbine of creative energy. The new style was transmitted by manuscripts, and it arose from a conjunction of northern rhythms and oriental motives. I see them as two fierce beasts tugging at the carcass of Graeco‑Roman art. Very often one can trace a figure back to a Classical original, but it has been entirely tugged out of shape – or perhaps one could say into shape – by these two new forces.
This feeling of tugging, of pulling everything to bits and re‑shaping it, was characteristic of twelfth‑century art, and was somehow complementary to the massive stability of its architecture. And I find rather the same situation in the realm of ideas. The main structure, the Christian faith, was unshakable. But round it was a play of minds, a tugging and a tension, that has hardly existed since and was, I think, one of the things that prevented Western Europe from growing rigid, as so many other civilizations have done. It was an age of intense intellectual activity. To read what was going on in Paris about the year 1130 makes one’s head spin. At the centre of it was the brilliant, enigmatic figure of Peter Abelard, the invincible arguer, the magnetic teacher. Abelard was a star. Like a great prize‑fighter, he expressed his contempt for anyone who met him in the ring of open discussion. The older medieval philosophers like Anselm had said: ‘I must believe in order that I may understand.’ Abelard took the opposite course: ‘I must understand in order that I may believe.’ He said: ‘By doubting we come to questioning, and by questioning we perceive the truth.’ Strange words to have been written in the year 1122. Of course they got him into trouble. Only the strength and wisdom of Cluny saved him from excommunication. He ended his days calmly, in a Cluniac house, and after his death Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, wrote to Heloise saying that she and Abelard would be reunited ‘where, beyond these voices, there is peace’.
I am in the Cluniac Abbey of Vezelay, standing in the covered portico. Above my head the relief on the main door shows Christ in glory [32), no longer the Judge as at Moissac, but the Redeemer. His saving grace streams from his finger‑tips and inspires his apostles, who will preach his Gospel to all the nations of the world. These are represented in the panels that surround the tympanum, and in the long frieze below – and a queer lot they are, including pygmies, wolf‑headed men, and various other experiments that the Creator made before arriving at the solution known as man, whose likenesses had been transmitted to the Middle Ages in a late antique manuscript.
Vezelay is full of sculpture on the doors and capitals. But fascinating as it is, one forgets about it when one looks through the door at the architecture of the interio. It is so harmonious that surely St Bernard, who preached the Second Crusade here, must have felt it to be an expression of the Divine Law and an aid to worship and contemplation. It certainly has that effect on me. Indeed, I can think of no other Romanesque interior that has this quality of lightness, this feeling of Divine Reason. And it seems inevitable that this Romanesque should emerge into a beautiful early Gothic.
We don’t know the name of the architect of Vezelay, nor of the highly individual sculptors of Moissac and Toulouse. This used to be taken as a proof of Christian humility in the artists – or alternatively as a sign of their low status. I think it was just an accident, because in fact we do know the names of a good many medieval builders, including the architect of Cluny, and the form of their inscriptions does not at all suggest excessive modesty. One of the most famous is bang in the middle of the main portal of the cathedral at Autun, under the feet of Christ. Gislebertus hoc fecit. One of the Blessed looks up at the name of Gislebertus with admiration. He must have been considered a very important man for his name to have been permitted in such a prominent place. At a later date it would have been, not the artist’s name, but the patron’s. And in fact Gislebertus was important to Autun because he did something unique in the Middle Ages and very rare at any time, he carried out the whole decoration of the cathedral himself. As a rule the master‑mason did the relief over the main portal and some of the principal figures, and left the rest to assistants. Gislebertus seems to have carved the whole thing, including nearly all the capitals of the interior, with his own hand.
This extraordinary feat was in keeping with his character as an artist. He wasn’t an inward‑looking visionary like the Moissac master, not a perfectionist, like the master of St Etienne at Toulouse. He was an extrovert. He loves to tell a story, and his strength lies in his dramatic force. The row of the Damned under the feet of their Judge in the predella of the tympanum forms a crescendo of despair. They are reduced to essentials in a way that brings them very close to the art of our time: a likeness terrifyingly confirmed by the gigantic hands that carry up the head of a sinner as if it were a piece of rubble on a building‑site. The same is true of the capitals. They haven’t the compulsive rhythm of the finest Cluniac art; but, on the other hand, they are not so open to the objections of St Bernard. Of course they contain rich and splendid pieces of ornament, but in the end it’s the human narrative that counts. Even in the abstract‑looking design of the Three Kings asleep under their magnificent counterpane, what matters is the angel’s gesture, the gentle way he places one finger on the hand of the sleeping king. Like all story‑tellers, Gislebertus had a taste for horrors, and went out of his way to depict them. He dwells with relish on the repulsive suicide of Judas. But he also did a figure of Eve which is the first female nude since antiquity to give a sense of the pleasures of the body.
Gislebertus had probably been employed at Cluny and he certainly worked at Vezelay. When he came to Autun, in about 1125, he was a mature man whose style was set; it was the crowning work of his career, hence the prominent inscription. By the time it was finished, say 1135, a new force had appeared in European art: the Abbey of St Denis. The royal Abbey of St Denis had been famous enough in earlier times, but the part it played in western civilisation was due to the abilities of one extraordinary individual, the Abbot Suger. He was one of the first men of the Middle Ages whom one can think of in modern, I might almost say in transatlantic, terms. His origins were completely obscure and he was extremely small, but his vitality was overwhelming. It extended to every thing that he undertook – organization, building, statesmanship. He was Regent of France for seven years and a great patriot; indeed he seems to have been the first to pronounce those now familiar words: ‘The English are des tined by moral and natural law to be subjected to the French and not contrariwise.’ He loved to talk about himself without any false modesty, and he tells the story of how his builders assured him that beams of the length he needed for a certain roof could never be found because trees just weren’t as tall as that. Whereupon he took his carpenters into the forests (‘they smiled,’ he says, ‘and would have laughed if they had dared’), and in the course of the day he had discovered twelve trees of the necessary size, had them felled and brought back. You see why I used the word transatlantic.
Like several of the pioneers of the new world, for example Van Horne, the builder of the Canadian‑Pacific Railway, Suger had a passionate love of art. one of the most fascinating documents of the Middle Ages is the account he wrote of the works carried out at St Denis under his administration – the gold altar, the crosses, the precious crystals. Suger’s great gold cross was twenty‑four feet high; it was studded with jewels and inlaid with enamels made by one of the finest craftsmen of the age, Godfroix de Claire. It was all destroyed in the Revolution. We can form some idea of an altar in St Denis from a fifteenth‑century picture by the master of St Gilles in the National Gallery; and a few of the sacred vessels have survived, most of them made out of semi‑precious materials from the East like an Egyptian porphyry jar now in the Louvre, which, Suger tells us, he found forgot ten in a cupboard and, inspired perhaps by a piece of Byzantine silk, made into an eagle.
Suger’s feeling for all these objects was partly that of a great collector – love of brightness and splendour and antiquity – and a love of acquisition. He describes how some Cistercians (who didn’t believe in display) brought him a lot of gems – hyacinths, sapphires, rubies, topazes, emeralds – which had belonged to the feckless King Stephen of England, and how he was able to get them for £400 (thanks be to God) although they were worth much more. But as usual the analogy with a modern collector breaks down because everything Suger did was genuinely done to the glory of God. And he was not merely a collector – he was a creator. His work had a philosophic basis that is very important to western civilization.
It arose out of atypical medieval muddle. St Denis, the patron saint of the abbey, was confused with an Athenian named Denis who was converted by St Paul, and this Greek Denis was, quite wrongly, believed to be the author of a philosophical treatise called The Heavenly Hierarchies. Suger had this treatise translated from the Greek, and it was from this that he was able to give a theoretical justification of his love of beauty. He argued that we could only come to understand absolute beauty, which is God, through the effect of precious and beautiful things on our senses. He said : ‘The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material.’ This was really a revolutionary concept in the Middle Ages. It was the intellectual background of all the sublime works of art of the next century and in fact has remained the basis of our belief in the value of art until today.
In addition to this revolution in theory, Suger’s St Denis was also the beginning of many new developments in practice – in architecture, in sculpture, in painted glass. Owing to its connection with royalty the church was a good deal knocked about during the French Revolution, and then all too thoroughly restored. But one can still see that Suger introduced, perhaps really invented, the Gothic style of architecture, not only the pointed arch, but the lightness of high windows – what we call the clerestory and triforium. ‘Bright,’ he says, ‘is the noble edifice that is pervaded by new light,’ and in these words anticipates all the architectural aspirations of the next two hundred years. One knows that he introduced the idea of the rose window, and a few pieces of his painted glass are still to be seen at St Denis. The most striking (much restored, I fear) shows the ancestry of Christ in the form of a tree growing from the side of Jesse; and like so many symbolic-historical subjects of Gothic art, this too seems to have been invented by Suger. Many of his other innovations have disappeared from St Denis: for example his porticos with rows of standing figures, now all replaced by columns. And the whole exterior, in its squalid Parisian suburb, stained by the fumes of factories, makes no impression of sanctity. To form any notion of its first effect on the mind one must go to Chartres [36).
In some miraculous way Chartres has survived. Fire and war, revolution and restoration, have attacked it in vain. Even the tourists have not destroyed its atmosphere, as they have in so many temples of the human spirit from the Sistine Chapel to Elephanta. One can still climb the hill to the cathedral in the spirit of a pilgrim; and the south tower is still more or less as it was when it was completed in 1164. It is a masterpiece of harmonious proportion. Was this harmony calculated mathematically? Ingenious scholars have produced a system of proportions based on measurements it’s so complex that I find it very hard to credit. However, one must remember that to medieval man geometry was a divine activity. God was the great geometer, and this concept inspired the architect. Moreover, Chartres was the centre of a school of philosophy devoted to Plato, and in particular to his mysterious book called the Timaeus, from which it was thought that the whole universe could be interpreted as a form of measurable harmony. So perhaps the proportions of Chartres reflect a more complex mathematics than one is inclined to believe.
One proportion certainly wasn’t calculated, and that was the relation of the west front to the towers. It was originally much further back, but soon after it was built the foundations became unsteady, so it was taken down, comparable to Erasmus. In the arch of the right‑hand door the Greek philosophers are represented with their attributes: Aristotle, with the severe figure of Dialectic; Pythagoras, who discovered that the musical scale could be stated mathematically, with Music striking the bells; and so forth, all round the arch. Music meant a great deal to the men of the twelfth century, and round the arch of the central doorway a really extraordinary artist – perhaps the head master himself, cutting more sharply in harder stone – has shown the elders of the book of Revelation, with musical instruments, each so accurately depicted that one could reconstruct it and play it.
These figures give one an idea of the incomparable richness of the west portal, and the thought that underlies the whole scheme. But from the point of view of civilization, the most important thing about the central doorway, more important even than its Greek derivation, is the character of the heads of the so‑called kings and queens‑ no one knows exactly who they are. Think of the people we encountered in the ninth and tenth centuries
vigorous, passionate, earnestly striving towards some kind of intellectual light, but fundamentally still barbarians; that is to say, embodiments of will, their features moulded by the need to survive. Do not the kings and queens of Chartres show a new stage in the ascent of western man? Indeed I believe that the refinement, the look of selfless detachment and the spirituality of these heads is something entirely new in art. Beside them the gods and heroes of ancient Greece look arrogant, soulless and even slightly brutal. I fancy that the faces which look out at us from the past are the surest indication we have of the meaning of an epoch. Of course something depends on the insight of the artist who portrays them. If you pass from the heads of the master‑mason to those of his more old‑fashioned colleagues you are back in the slightly woozy world of Moissac. But good faces evoke good artists – and conversely a decline of portraiture usually means a decline of the face, a theory which can now be illustrated by photographs in the daily papers. The faces on the west portal of Chartres are amongst the most sincere and, in a true sense, the most aristocratic that Western Europe ever produced.
We know from the old chronicles 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 civilizing 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 St Sophia in Constantinople), but it is one that has a peculiar 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 contained the most famous of all relics of the Virgin, the actual tunic she had worn at the time of the Annunciation, which had been presented to Chartres by Charles the Bald in the year 876. From the first this relic had worked miracles, but only in the twelfth century did the cult of the Virgin appeal to the popular imagination. I suppose that in earlier centuries life was simply too rough. At any rate, if art is any guide, and in this series I am taking it as my guide, the Virgin played a very small part in the minds of men during the ninth and tenth centuries. She appears, of course, in incidents like the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi, but representations of the Virgin and Child as objects of special devotion are extremely rare in Ottonian art. The earliest cult figure of the Virgin and Child of any size is a painted wooden statue in St Denis which must date from about 1130. The great Romanesque churches were dedicated to the saints whose relics they contained – St Sernin, St Etienne, St Lazarus, St Denis, St Mary Magdalene – none of them to the Virgin. Then, after Chartres the greatest churches in France were dedicated to her – Paris, Amiens, Laon, Rouen, Rheims.
What was the reason for this sudden change? I used to think that it must have been a result of the crusades: that the returning warriors brought back an admiration for the womanly virtues of gentleness and compassion, as opposed to the male virtues of courage and physical strength which they themselves represented. I am not so sure about this now; but it does seem to be confirmed by the fact that the first representations of the Virgin as an object of devotion are in a markedly Byzantine style, for example on a page of a manuscript from Citeaux, the community of St Bernard. St Bernard was one of the first men to speak of the Virgin as an ideal of beauty and a mediator between man and God. Dante was right to put into his mouth at the close of the Paradiso a hymn to the Virgin which I think one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry ever written.
But whatever the effect of St Bernard, a strong influence in spreading the cult of the Virgin was certainly the beauty and splendour of Chartres Cathedral. Its very construction was a kind of miracle. The old Romanesque church had been destroyed by a terrible fire in 1194: only the towers and the west front remained, and the people of Chartres feared that they had lost their precious relic. Then, when the debris was cleared away, it was found intact in the crypt. The Virgin’s intention became clear – that a new church should be built, even more splendid than the last. Once more the chroniclers describe how people came from all over France to join in the work, how whole villages moved in order to help provide for the workmen; and of course there must have been many more of them this time, because the building was bigger and more elaborate, and required hundreds of masons, not to mention a small army of glass‑makers who were to provide the hundred and seventy huge windows with stained glass. Perhaps it sounds sentimental, but I can’t help feeling that this faith has given the interior of Chartres a unity and a spirit of devotion that exceeds even the other great churches of France, like Bourges and Le Mans.
However, one must add that all the faith in France couldn’t have rebuilt the cathedral if the see of Chartres hadn’t been extremely rich. After the fire, the Dean and Chapter decided to put aside three years’ income for the re building; and their income in modern terms has been reckoned to be about £750,000 a year. The Dean’s personal income was £250,000 a year. Add to this that the see of Chartres was closely connected with the royal house of France, and one sees that, like most miracles, this one can be explained in material terms which, in fact, do not explain it at all.
The building is in the new architectural style to which Suger had given the impress of his authority at St Denis: what we call Gothic. Only at Chartres the architect was told to follow the foundations of the old Roman esque cathedral, and this meant that the Gothic vaulting had to cover a space far wider than ever before. It was a formidable problem of construction, and in order to solve it the architect has used the device known as flying buttresses – one of those happy strokes where necessity has led to an architectural invention of marvellous and fantastic beauty. Inside there is no trace of difficulty or calculation: the whole harmonious space seems to have grown up out of the earth according to some natural law of harmony.
So much has been written about the Gothic style that one feels inclined to take it for granted. But it remains one of the most remarkable of human achievements. Since the first expression of civilized life in architecture, say I the pyramid of Sakara, man had thought of buildings as a weight on the ground. He had accepted their material nature and although he had tried to make them transcend it by means of proportion or by the colour of precious marbles, he had always found himself limited by problems of stability and weight. In the end it kept him down to the earth. Now by the devices of the Gothic style – the shaft with its cluster of columns, passing without interruption into the vault and the pointed arch – he could make stone seem weightless: the weightless expression of his spirit.
By the same means he could surround his space with glass. Suger said that he did this in order to get more light, but he found that these areas of glass could be made into an ideal means of impressing and instructing the faithful – far better than wall‑painting because with a resonance, an effect on the senses, that the matt surface of a wall‑painting could never have. ‘Man may rise to the contemplation of the divine through the senses.’ Well, nowhere else, I think, is this saying of the old pseudo‑St Denis so wonderfully illustrated as it is in Chartres Cathedral. As one looks at the painted glass which completely surrounds one, it seems almost to set up a vibration in the air. It is primarily a sensuous‑emotional impact. As a matter of experience it is quite hard to find out what is going on in the various windows, even when one goes round with a crib prepared by some learned student of iconography; and whether the faithful of the early thirteenth century were well enough informed to follow all these stories seems to me extremely doubtful. But then we know that the frieze of the Parthenon was almost invisible when it was in its original position, and we must accept that in a non‑utilitarian age people under the stress of some powerful emotion are prepared to make and do things for their own sakes or, as they would have said, to the glory of God.
Chartres is the epitome of the first great awakening in European civilization. It is also the bridge between Romanesque and Gothic, between the world of Abelard and the world of St Thomas Aquinas, the world of restless curiosity and the world of system and order. Great things were to be done in the next centuries of high Gothic, great feats of construction, both in architecture and in thought. But they all rested on the foundations of the twelfth century. That was the age which gave European civilization its impetus. Our intellectual energy, our contact with the great minds of Greece, our ability to move and change, our belief that God may be approached through beauty, our feeling of compassion, our sense of the unity of Christendom – all this, and much more, appeared in those hundred marvellous years between the consecration of Cluny and the rebuilding of Chartres.