THE MYSTERIES OF CHARTRES CATHEDRAL
The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral
by Sir Ronald Fraser
What I have to say derives from a book by M. Louis Charpentier called Les Mystéres de la Cathédrale de Chartres, published in Paris by Robert Laffont, and obtainable from Hachette, 127, Regent Street, London, W.1.
M. Charpentier maintains that the Gothic mode, which came into being suddenly, was purposeful. Who taught the builders how to balance weight and counterweight, to arrange masses of stone so that the building vibrates to the tap of a fingernail? How to make glass that might have come from an alchemist's crucible? Who communicated the secret of ogive and pointed arch, and to whom? Nobody knows. Our author suggests that the Gothic mode expressed a principle the gods wished to make effective - a procedure that corresponds with the manifestation of a higher will that was regular in Egypt. Indeed, some measurements at Chartres correspond with those of the Great Pyramid, not to mention Solomon's temple. Solomon was an initiate of the Egyptian mysteries.
The men who built Chartres didn't mean merely to enliven the horizontal country of La Beauce with a vertical shaft. They built the cathedral because they thought it would be useful in a special sense. The relations of length, breadth and height result from a necessity they couldn't escape. The ogive, for instance, proceeds from a necessity that is less architectural than physiological; so do the windows. All is designed to work on mankind. And it was brought about by men who somehow knew how to poise the largest known Gothic vault and one of the highest. And why did they set up just here a temple that raises its towers into aerial currents, and is rooted in terrestial influences? They were shaping a crucible for the transmutation of mankind?
The cathedral stands on an eminence, a mound not unlike a tumulus. In Christian times it was one of the most sought-after places of pilgrimage in France; but the Gauls went there in crowds and still earlier the whole Celtic world. Christian pilgrims did homage to Our Lady of the Underworld, the Black Virgin, whose statue was found in a crypt or grotto beneath the church that then stood there, where they were aspersed with water from a Druidic well and drank it. The statue, made by Druids before the birth of Jesus, represented a Virgin with a child on her knees. It was announced to Druid priests by an angel that a Virgin would give birth to a god. She was named Isis, perhaps, or Déméter, or Bélisma; for in effect she is Earth giving birth to a radiation of divine quality and power that affects the life of man.
Those who took the pilgrim's staff set out, not knowing if they would see home and family again, and faced the most formidable difficulties and dangers in order to reach a place where divinity dwelt. They sought a gift, one that Earth bestows like a mother; a place where a man breathes in spirit, steeps himself in it, that it may quicken the consciousness of itself in his being. A place, too, where quickening is brought about by terrestrial action.
An old Gaulish name, Wouivre, is given to snakes that glide, to rivers that snake through the landscape, to telluric currents that snake underground from the depths of the terrestrial strata, bringing life that fructifies Earth and Man. The name is also given to such currents as we term cosmic or magnetic. Anyone who has driven across La Bauce, which Waiter Pater called the country of peaches and wine, and seen the cathedral on its mound can easily imagine that the towers draw power from the sky while telluric currents rise through the well to mingle with it. Such places used to be marked with stones we call menhirs; tall stones that localised and condensed the vertilising properties of Earth and Heaven. One can think of the cathedral as such a stone.
Again, the crypt or grotto beneath the cathedral is a dolmenic chamber. A dolmen is found at a spot where the telluric current exercises its action. It is a stone table, resting on supports, that acts like an accumulator and it is capable of vibration, so that it acts as an amplifier as well; it is a drum. Thus, it is in the domenic chamber that man seeks Earth's gift. It seems probable that the cathedral stands over a point where a particular current surfaces, a current that may awaken a man to the spiritual life in him. That is why among all the churches in France that are named for Notre Dame, Chartres is the only one in which no king, cardinal or bishop is interred. The Mound must remain inviolate.
The cathedral, then, is an instrument of high initiation. To be initiated is to be integrated with the play of natural forces and to be penetrated with spirit. There were three stages of progress before the aspirant came to the dolmen-chamber and this journey must lie in the orientation of the cathedral. We note that the apse faces not East but North-East. This probably shews the direction of the telluric current which a man must face, upright, with bare feet, hands raised. To turn the back on it is to reject the gift.
The Gothic mode appeared after the first Crusade and after the return to France in 1128 of the first nine knights templar. The facts suggest that those who promoted it expected a potent effect from the ogival device on which the style rests. Its action on men is indeed marked. Beneath the ogive a man pulls himself together, stands erect. The telluric current can only enter him by way of a vertebral column that is upright and straight. Thus, the ogive marked a beginning of individual consciousness, till then in subjection to the race of seigneurs.
At Chartres the ogive is based on the five-pointed star, often regarded as a symbol of Man (in Egypt for instance). The star is enclosed in a circle whose diameter is the height of the vault. It seems likely that the master-builder saw the cathedral as an extension of Man himself. The action of the ogive will of course continue within the man until there is a real enhancement of consciousness.
There must exist in man, M. Charpentier maintains, a means of knowledge on which science has turned its back. Those who built the cathedral must have had access to such knowledge. The crossed ogive, for instance, secret of the musical stone, is constructed on the principle of the transformation of lateral into vertical thrust and weight. Weight that creates thrust becomes its own negation. The stone is in a state of tension which the master-builder can tune. We note that whereas the well is 37 metres below the choir the vault is about 37 metres above it. The length of the nave is in the relation of an octave with the length of the choir; the width of the nave is in relation of an octave with the width of the aisles. These proportions are also found in the elevation. Line and angle, height and width, the system of verticals and horizontals, reveal a series of intervals, a musical scale, in accord with the five-pointed star. There are in fact two architectures, M. Charpentier says, one in stone, the other as it were a shaped emptiness which makes the sounding-box. Was it Walter Pater who described the cathedral as frozen music?
Now the author links his theme with the Crusades and a visit in 1118 of nine knights templar to Jerusalem, where King Baldwin handed them for their sole use a house on the site of Solomon's temple.
Their ostensible purpose was to form a small force to police the public roads and protect pilgrims from thieves and murderers. But didn't this overt assignment mask another and secret task? It looks as if they were allotted the house on the site of Solomon's temple by act of some over-riding will. And did it lie in the duty of one of the greatest landowners in France, Hugues, Count of Champagne, to abandon wife and child in order to police lines of communication? The nine, later ten, weren't there to do any such thing. M. Charpentier suggests that their task was to find, guard and remove something of special importance. What object could be so sacred, precious and dangerous? What indeed, if not the Ark of the Covenant and the Tables of the Law?
The Ark was a coffer of resinous wood covered with gold plates inside and out. Electrically speaking, it was a condenser. Moses, who seems to have known something, affixed four metal antennae in the shape of cherubim to gather static electricity, enough to strike poor Uzza, when he attempted to touch the Ark, dead. It was a coffer that ensured its own protection and it contained the Tables of the Law.
The Commandments were not secret. M. Charpentier suggests that coming as the Tables did from the hand of God they amounted to a contract and means of power. They disclosed the cosmic equation so that to possess them would be to possess dangerous secrets. It will be remembered that Moses promised the people power and dominion through the Tables, which God wrote with his finger in a cypher that could be construed in two ways, esoteric and exoteric. Moses was an initiate of the Egyptian temple, which taught, with much else that is lost to us, alchemical science.
Certain units of measurement were also placed in the Ark.
Mr. Charpentier argues that as the Ark, after journeys in the course of which it gave the Philistines haemorrhoids, was hidden in the temple, it was this the nine knights were sent to find. Solomon planned the temple, which implies a knowledge of cosmic proportions and standards of measurement. He also composed an erotic song, which became highly recommended reading for white Friars; a song in which it is written, with obvious reference to the Ark, "Stir not up, nor awaken my love, until the hour she chooses."
Traditions regarding the Ark were at one time so widespread that it may be asked whether the Crusades were not organised with a view to getting hold of it. Many signs point to the probability that the knights found it. Tradition makes the Knights Templar keepers of the Tables, through which they obtained initiation and power. In the Cathedral of Chartres images of it are sculptured in relief. Moreover, it was Bernard the Cistercian who sent the nine to Jerusalem and the Gothic style came from Citeaux. The Sleeping Beauty awoke in gothic form.
A temple, M. Charpentier points out, is not built like a hangar. Some inspired man produces a dedicatory formula, the letters of which, read esoterically, furnish numbers that determine the temple's proportions. Then some instructed soul will deduce from the relations between site and sky on a given date the unit of measurement that is to be used. Measure, orientation and number, but not the dedicatory formula, are communicated to a master-craftsman; and he, having worked out the harmonic proportions of the fabric, draws the plan on the ground itself. The unity of the monument, the effect it is to have on men, derive from the formula and to change them renders the temple useless. The geometrical data that decide the plan of Chartres Cathedral show that its harmonic development reaches completion at the towers, which were built after the fire in 1134, well in front of an older church which was then destroyed, as if in foresight of a church yet to come. In 1194 all but the towers was again burnt down and the new cathedral was built almost in its entirety between 1194 and 1220. The problems of how to contain the forces of lateral expansion, of weight and other factors for the buttresses that must take the expanding thrusts within a space given by the formula, were solved. The master-craftsman knew what he was about, had chosen his stone and had his labour-force standing by. The work wasn't done by apprentices.
The building of numerous churches at that time was held up for want of money. Chartres, a small town with a few thousand inhabitants, brought off what was beyond Paris, Amiens, Rouen. Was Chartres to be the Golden Book of the West in which wise men were to write their wisdom? The cathedral answers our questions though men have shattered some of its symbols in the name of religion.
M. Charpentier now discusses some important matters with mathematical and other argument for which we simply haven't time. The germinal point of the cathedral, he writes, is the head of the telluric current, where the altar once stood. Here sprang the column which is the first sign that a temple is emerging, first relationship between the site and the sky. We then have three Tables, round, square and rectangular, which have the same surface and their number is 21, 2 and 1, that of Egyptian and Greek temples.
We note that the square Table is constructed by taking the main axis of the rectangular Table as its diagonal. The length of its side is near one-tenth of the base of the Great Pyramid, the angle of whose inclination seems to be near the angle on which another figure that gives the cathedral meaning is constructed. This is the seven-pointed star. The septenary signifies incarnation. It is also the symbol of the Black Virgin. The master-craftsman took his essential measurements from it all he had to do, when it came to squaring the circle, for instance, was to use the drudical card of twelve knots or thirteen segments. Or he may have followed the procedure used in the building of the pyramid.
But what is the significance of the three Tables?
Three Tables bore the Grail, it has been said. They constitute a way of initiation. The Grail, our author says, is an alchemical symbol and the word can't be dissociated from the word Cauldron. Every Greek temple had its Crater or Cup. We are concerned, then, with a vessel whose contents are beginning to partake of divinity, to be transmuted. Alchemy is the art of gathering and concentrating a vital current and the concentration is called the Philosopher's Stone, whose powerful activity allows the Adept to do what would otherwise take ages, to change base metal. actually or figuratively, into silver or gold. Transmutation through concentration of the vital stream in themselves was what the pilgrims sought.
The three Tables, then, represent three ways of approach, the round or intuitive, the square or intellectual, the rectangular or mystical. The round Table resembles a dance?floor for dances which afford a means of integration with natural rhythms, an approach from circumference to centre. Round dances led by the bishop were customary in the cathedral at Easter.
The square Table, a squaring of the round, affords an initiation which is a passage of instinctive ideas or impulses into consciousness. It is also a trap for an intellect which may delude itself regarding the validity of its own creations, just as in the game of chess Bishop and Castle are caught between their lines of movement. It is often depicted by a chess-board and it is the child's game of hopscotch, which proceeds from square to square. To square the circle is to transform instinctive initiation into an initiation that is conscious and reasoned.
The rectangular Table is a Table of revelation. There can be no intellectual explanation of this. It is the Table of the Last Supper.
Thus, the Tables represent a sequence of three births.
Now for the unforgettable windows. The power of the true Gothi stained-glass window comes less from the colour of the mosaics than from a certain unanalysable quality of both colour and glass. It doesn't react to light like ordinary glass, but seems to turn into a precious stone that itself becomes luminous. No chemist has so far penetrated the mystery.
Luminosity and colour are not caused by irisation brought about by the elements: none of these qualities are seen in stained glass of the XIVth century. The windows, M. Charpentier says, are a product of alchemy - anyone who has seen them in their glory will be ready to believe it. The same thing appeared towards the XIth century in the laboratories of certain Persian adepts, among them Omar Khayam, poet of the rose; and there is evidence in documents deposited by the nine knights with the Cistercians that this is the origin of the windows at Chartres. Towards 1140 the source dried up, probably through the disappearance of some adept whose work was done.
Now there is in light a particle of energy that is penetrating, sterilising and relatively dangerous to life. No alchemical experiment can be attempted in daylight. The experiment in alchemy that is directed at the human being, initiation, must take place in cavern or crypt. The Greek mysteries were enacted at night. The alchemical windows acted as a filter to retain the particle that is harmful to man's evolution within the Temple.
It is sad to have to recall that a good many of the windows were destroyed by a bishop who wished to be seen in full daylight. This, following destruction of the screen in 1763 by order of the Chapter. Not to mention removal of the altar from the vital centre.
On the question of funds, M. Charpentier argues that only the religious Orders could play the part of banker-treasurer. The Order of the Temple warehoused, financed, bought and became exceedingly rich in lands, benefices, cash and credit and all was organised in the public interest. They protected merchants and the movement of goods from robbers and from the great seigneurs. Their dwellings were a sort of police station. In fact they undermined the feudal system then in force: so much so that Philippe Le Bel suppressed the Order, had the property confiscated and tortured many of the members or burnt them alive.
There were of course two other sources of wealth. First, alchemical gold, a possibility that can't be rejected out of hand. Next, the Templars may have been able to bring gold from the Mexican mines. But one way or another, M. Charpentier maintains, the Templars were responsible for financing the project.
What, broadly, does it all come to?
It was sought to create an instrument of power, a crucible for the power of transformation. The cathedral is a means of passage from one world to another. Certainly it isn't now wholly what it was, the high altar moved from the place where it should be and other desecrations effected through the stupidities of ecclesiastical rule. Today the tables are crowded with chairs to facilitate the sleep of the right-thinking. But the crucible hasn't lost all its power. Even today no man leaves the cathedral the same as he went in.
Consider the scene in old time.
A man enters. The ogive raises him. He stands as he was created, erect. He is in a world where the more stone weighs the lighter it is, stone become spirit. He hears in himself the note of his own affinity with the real. He proceeds by the route of the telluric current. He stands before the round Table, called the labyrinth because of certain designs on the flagstones, in which it is impossible to get lost because the only path leads to the centre. He goes unshod that the feet may be in direct contact with stone that is an accumulator for the properties of the current. Power works in him. The man who reaches the centre, having danced, is changed when he advances to the square, the intellectual Table where the Numbers expressed in the cathedral are perceptible, where they can be rationalised under three great Roses. We note that alchemically the rose stands for the action of fire and that only at the square table is a simultaneous inflow from the three rose windows perceptible, here where the cathedral speaks to the mind.
To pass to the mystical Table was to renounce the world.
Finally, we note that the Mound was inviolate. Was it, so to say, taboo to prevent access to a place where some especially precious subject was hidden? Let us ask a question of our own: if the Ark of the Covenant was hidden at Chartres, where is it now?
Towards the end of the thirteenth century there seems to have been a withdrawal of spirit from the western world. What was required of the Gothic mode has been done. A Cistercian abbot led a crusade against the Albigenses. The Dominicans invented the Inquisition. The Templars were put to trial. The Beauty sleeps once more. But she will awake at the appointed time.
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