Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why Philip Ball's Question is a Bad Question

Philip Ball approaches the study of medieval construction from a historical perspective and asks the question: “...whether such [geometrical] figures were merely a matter of practical convenience, or whether they reflected a desire to ‘encode’ geometry into the building, is obviously bound up with the matter of what the builders knew, and of how much say they had in matters of design.”

Fortunately Philip Ball nullifies his own question later by saying: “First and foremost, Christian theology was the bedrock on which all of cultural life was constructed, and it is eminently clear that builders were mindful of that just as were logicians, grammarians and proto-scientists. Church schools and abbeys were the repositories of the technical as well as the metaphysical literature of the ancient world and those books often recognized no boundaries between the two spheres of thought.”

The geometrical figures served different purposes for construction, however symbolic and practical considerations existed simultaneously. There was no distinction between symbolism and practicality. The medieval symbol was accurate and real to the extent that it was reality. Geometry was symbolic of a higher order while simultaneously allowing for the organization of ‘mundane’ reality.

Philip Ball continues: “Rigid distinctions that continue to be made between practical, theoretical, and allegorical geometry are likely to be more modern than medieval...It is unlikely that a patron would have understood the lodge practice behind the mason’s markings on a keystone any more than a mason would understand how the geometrical figures he was constructing related to the cosmological speculations of Christian Platonist thought. Yet these were undoubtedly the ends of a single spectrum of understanding.”

The single spectrum of understanding may have existed with different ends of the master mason, and the theologian. However, we must not divide the practical and the master mason from the symbolic / allegorical and the theologian. The Cathedral campaigns took many generations, and different skill levels were involved. A materials labourer could become a mason, free-mason, and later a master mason. The skill level increased with each successive trade, and so did the intellectual development. “By becoming a sculptor”, says the historian Jean Gimpel, “the stonecutter graduated to the intellectual world.” The inundation into the medieval intellectual climate of the mason increased with skill level, in part because all literature was housed in the church schools.

What was the intellectual climate that the stone mason was introduced to?

The prevailing cosmology and general understanding was influenced by Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Early Christianity. Prior to the introduction of Aristotle into Western Europe via contact with Islamic Spain, theology was a mixture of Christian doctrine and Platonism. Platonic Form merged seamlessly with Christ as deity. The difference between Greek cosmology, and Christian cosmology lay with the destruction of the self-sufficient cosmos. Given the divinity of Form; a nature who’s being depended on God no longer had a form of its own. The cosmos was no longer self-sufficient, but instead depended on the unique presence of Christ as the appearance of universal God.

The stone mason was brought into this climate of Christian thought that embraced the universal Form that arose from material as a unique manifestation of God. The stone mason was doing the work of God in forming the material; stone. As the stone mason increased his skill level, he also increased his proximity to God. The ability to form stone was not only a practical matter, but a matter of salvation as well.

Philip Ball reinforces this idea: “The idea that materials have spiritual values may sound strange today, but it is essential to an understanding not only of the stone universe of Chartres but of all medieval art. Suger may have drawn inspiration here from John Scotus Eriugena, who said ‘It is impossible for our mind to rise to the imitation and contemplation of the celestial hierarchies unless it relies upon the material guidance which is commensurate to it.”

This emphasis of materials in medieval cosmology is an influence not only of the particularity of the person of Christ, but also of Aristotelian philosophy. The danger for medieval cosmology was to emphasise material too much. “To take too strong an interest in nature,” Philip Ball states, “as a physical rather than a moral entity was to invite accusations of blasphemy.” Furthermore, “Since everything was surely determined moment by moment by the will of God, it was not only futile but impious to seek anything akin to what we would now regard as physical law, since that would be like trying to second-guess God at his own business.”

The question Philip Ball asks of medieval builders and their knowledge of theology is erroneous. To understand the unique interrelatedness of theology, and the ubiquitous nature of Medieval Christianity, the initial question cannot pre-suppose a division between labour and theology. It must be understood that any understanding of materials that masons developed would have been within a Christian cosmology, and any speculation outside of a Christian cosmology was in danger of blasphemy.

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