Chartres: Sacred Geometry, Sacred Space

Chartres: Sacred Geometry, Sacred Space

Gordon Strachan 
Edinburgh, Scotland, U.K.: Floris Books, 2003. Paperback, $30.00, 111 pages.

Among the many great religious buildings in the world, Chartres Cathedral ranks among the most analyzed and most interpreted. Gordon Strachan joins a host of other professional and amateur writers who try to make sense out of the many mysteries contained in this great Gothic edifice in his book Chartres: Sacred Geometry, Sacred Space.

Unlike Adolf Katzenellenbogen, (The Sculptural Programs of Chartres Cathedral, 1959) Strachan does not attempt to describe or interpret the symbolism surrounding the portals of Chartres. He also says little about the famous stained glass windows or about the history of the construction of the church. One is never told, for instance, that while most of the building was built between 1194 and 1220, the north tower was not completed until the sixteenth century. He does not describe what Hans Jonas (High Gothic, 1957) thought was essential for the invention of the Gothic style: the heightened columns of the nave so that there is no gallery above the arcade.

Instead, what Strachen does emphasize is the probable borrowing of the pointed arch from the Muslims. His theory is that the Templars were influenced directly by Sufis in Jerusalem and brought back to Europe aspects of both Islamic mysticism and architecture. Along with the pointed arch, they also imported an emphasis upon geometric proportion to replace the arithmetical proportions of the Romanesque as a way of emphasizing symbolically the mystery of God's transcendence.

In the last chapters, the author turns to the influence of the Christian mystical tradition, as embodied in Dionysius the Areopagite (in his first, third, and fifth century forms) upon the aura and message of Gothic architecture.

This work is relatively brief and clearly written for the general reader and what the author says may be largely true. It is difficult, however, to demonstrate with any degree of assurance that the Templars were ever influenced by Sufis (can we, for instance, name one Sufi who lived in Jerusalem while the Templars were there?) or that the French architects could not have invented the pointed arch on their own. The borrowing of "geometrical proportions" seems perhaps more convincing, though there are, as the authors acknowledges, reputable scholars who cast doubts upon the whole matter. Louis Charpentier, (The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, 1975) who also explores the same structure, shows how a wholly different reading of proportions can be developed.

So, like most other books about Chartres, this one is very speculative and by no means definitive. Still it is an interesting, even absorbing, study that, for those interested in Gothic churches, sacred mathematics, or Christian mysticism, deserves a place on the bookshelf. Although I remain unconvinced about many details, I find it a very provocative book.

Jay G. Williams
Hamilton College