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Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral
by Philip Ball
Harper, 322 pages, $27.95

An inquisitive reader wanting to learn the history of Chartres Cathedral might pick out the classic Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres as the place to start. Henry Adams’ book, however, tells us more about Adams’ own view of the Middle Ages than how and why groined vaults were built. For that, turn to Philip Ball’s Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral . Cathedrals are not Ball’s usual subject; he is the author of numerous popular science books and a consulting editor for Nature . But Ball has immersed himself in the necessary literature and produced an enjoyable, readable guide to the age of Chartres.

That is no small feat. To begin, the description of Gothic cathedrals requires a large and confusing vocabulary”what is the difference between the tribune and the triforium, for instance, and why should we care? Ball makes the cathedral’s design clear both in his writing and in numerous helpful diagrams. With care and precision, he tries to tease out the past from historical records, works of philosophy and theology, and architectural plans. Was Chartres a monument of numerology and pagan symbols? Not likely. In its walls we see a mix of forces. The stone and glass tell stories and show the architectural limits of the time and place, as well as the ambition of the cathedral’s canons. Artists etched details invisible to the unaided eye out of love for God, but they also looked for payment worthy of their work. And what work they left us. In one portal angels and saints hover near a peasant warming his feet by a winter fire. In brilliant colors overhead, God pulls Eve”both with those wide, medieval eyes”out of Adam’s side. Joachim’s sheep, with delightful waves of wool along their backs, graze high over a doorway.

Ball is at his best when describing how the cathedral’s sculptures, glass, and walls were made. His chapter on the metaphysics of light”in which light and translucent objects served as anagogical means of contemplation of God”is beautiful. But he makes no effort to mask his hatred of Bernard of Clairvaux and Augustine. He calls original sin “a doctrine of despair, which is nowhere afforded clear support in the Bible . . . [and is] surely Augustine’s most insidious legacy.” Part of the problem is that Ball can describe particular doctrines and ideas, but he lacks the religious sensibility and sympathy necessary to understand them fully. For him, Chartres is a monument to the beginnings of scholastic reasoning, which eventually lead to modern science and the modern rivalry between faith and reason. That assessment is a bit simplistic, but it does not keep Universe of Stone from being a lucid introduction to one of the world’s marvels.

Nathaniel Peters