Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Review: Contractors of Chartres

Historical Circumstances & Medieval Cosmology 

John James makes the claim that medieval construction grew out of the historical circumstances.  His argument is rooted in the archaeological evidence of “mobile crews, inadequate long term supervision, and ad hoc solutions”.  Through these circumstances of constructing Chartres cathedral we can see the influence of medieval cosmology upon the decisions made by the contractors of Chartres.  The speculative geometries John James presents alongside the stone and mortar evidence from the cathedral create a very possible argument. 

Despite written evidence for the procedures of medieval cathedral design, the process of using geometry for specific details as John James has presented it is a likely approximation.  It is likely in that the geometry explains the measures of the building as well as fits within the habits of mind and cosmologies of the period.  Despite the contractual methods of “mobile crews, inadequate long term supervision, and ad hoc solutions,” the master masons and social organization maintained a unity within the cathedral.

That medieval cosmology and medieval geometry are co-extensive is well established within medieval scholarship, and John James draws upon names such as Panofsky in establishing the relevance of his geometrical explanations of Chartres cathedral.

For instance:  “Seeing the world as polarities, and yet as being one underneath the differences, they saw ambivalence as the fundamental manifestation of the Creation. To every black there was a white, to every meaning could be found its antithesis, and in architecture as in philosophy they strove to reach beyond the poles to that calm centre which is God.  In Scholasticism this approach of reconciling the irreconcilable was "perfected into a fine art that determined the form of academic instruction, the ritual of the public disputationes de quoilibet and above all the process of argumentation in the Scholastic writings themselves. Every topic had. to be formulated" in a particular manner. "Needless to say, this principle was bound to form a mental habit no less decisive and all-embracing than that of unconditional clarification."46  46. Panofsky, 1957, p.67-8.  P.147”

Furthermore from John James:  “This habit was reflected in geometry no less than in philosophy. Our view of unconditional clarity tends to simplify things, to ride over the differences to find the common laws that underly them all, and so to reduce the multiplicity of life to its basic common factors. Theirs gloried in multiplicity as part of the Divine Order. They abhorred sameness or uniformity which denies the principle of manifestation. In geometry we must therefore expect to find a number of constructions, not just one, each flowing over one another, yet locked together at a few essential points which thereby express the most sacred locations in the building.  p.148”

The connection between philosophy, theology, and architecture is emphasised by the work of John James.  The lack of written evidence that theology and architecture held importance for each other left a tenuous connection between the two within medieval scholarship.  To what extent should medieval architecture be interpreted within a theological framework was open to debate within medieval scholarship.  John James presents a thesis that medieval architecture should be fully interpreted within a theological framework, and nothing existed outside of a theological understanding including “mobile crews, inadequate long term supervision, and ad hoc solutions”.

The apparent unity of the dimensions is therefore no proof that it was built to a fully detailed master plan, but is instead a demonstration of how their techniques maintained unity in spite of the discontinuity of their contractual methods. p.254

Geometry & Templates

Geometry is co-extensive with medieval theology in that both disciplines sought order in the cosmos.  The former did so by returning to the point of origin within the geometric construction, the latter did so by the resolution of opposites.  Both sought to bring disparate conditions together into one reconciled whole.

John James illustrates the importance of mobile crews within the construction method.  Given the disparate conditions created by mobile crews of craftsmen whose work was regularly left incomplete, the completion of what had come before could only be done with a medieval mindset.  The ability to hold the work of predecessors as sacred and not demolish it, but instead continue what had been established could only have been accomplished within the cosmology and habits of mind at the time.  The resolution of the unique nature of what had been constructed previously with the subtle and complicated preconceptions of the current mobile crew is evidence of the prevalent mindset and how the construction method fit within that mindset.

For example:  “It is a circular geometry which starts from one figure, expands it in two quite different systems, and then expects the two to meet up again in the first figure. It is a well nigh impossible task, yet they attempted it and in trying came extraordinarily close to success. In this medieval geometry is the companion of their philosophy, which strove to bring together and to reconcile the totality of knowledge with all of its contradictions into one all encompassing 'Summa'. p.116”

The emphasis of interrelation between things was achieved through the use of centre lines.  There were many separate centre lines and axes, and it was the geometry of the master mason that brought them all together into one unity and harmony.  John James continues on to see a primal way of seeing structures as forces along these centre lines and axes.  His conclusion is that Gothic innovation followed from this new way of looking at structures as geometrical constructions instead of the previous manner of looking at structures as weight.  The suggestion here is that Gothic architecture is a prototypical way of looking at structures as a system of forces, in a manner similar to contemporary thinking about structure.

Seven guidelines for the geometrical construction of Chartres cathedral as taken from John James:

  1.  Every item must be related to another.
  2.  Thrusts are visualized as an axis running through the centre of the piers.
  3. All complexities in proportions stem from attempts to resolve the gap between the linear two dimensional quality of geometrical lines, and the three dimensional thickness of architectural elements.
  4. New templates are cut for each stone and architectural element; standardising elements like windows did not occur until the fourteenth century.
  5. The master masons used a square and dividers.
  6.  The proportions of each relate to the geometric needs of each without being mixed up together.
  7.   Separation of parts, geometry, and proportions enhances the clarity of the whole.
Principles of Construction

The principles of construction that could be quoted from the work by John James  are as follows:

1.       Work evenly over the entire site, even if that means only laying one or two stone courses.

2.       Continue the patterns previously existing.

3.       If the templates were not created new, the elements would not: 1. Fit what was previously constructed, and 2. Would not require dedication from the individual stone mason.  (Which shows how important it was for each element in the building to be derived from, and to be integral with the total all-encompassing geometric system.)

4.       As each change in coursing height takes three times as much labour to rebate and adjust on site as it does in the quarry, mouldings and ashlar were coursed to standard height. On the other hand carved work like capitals and cornices were probably roughed in at the quarry to be finished in a site shop, so they could be transported without risking damage to their delicate edges p.84

5.       Their carvers do not seem to have believed they were unusually endowed men doing a special job, but craftsmen who in their skill could turn their hands to anything. They probably had the natural unselfconsciousness only to be found today in traditional peasant communities like the Balinese or the Tuaregs. Naturally it was only the most skilful among them who could turn out a John or a Queen of Sheba but when he was not carving figures he would have been as busy on work demanding almost as much skill if not as much feeling or imagination. The carving of capitals and crocketed cornices requires the same care and experience. The complex organic forms of torus moulds with their parabolic curves bending round the columns are just as hard to finish perfectly as drapery, though they may require less patience. The men of this period do not seem to have specialised. They kept their horizons open and remained aware. So while some of Bronze's men were carving the heads his Lobelia gang was building the nave ribs and their bosses. p.232