The Cathedral Church of Our Lady of Chartres has a multilayered history well worth a moment of reflection. Since it was the biggest building around, in addition to its sacred uses, the enormous structure became something of a medieval shopping mall, where vendors could hock their wares without paying local tax. The only admonition put on marketing in the church was to the vintners, who were forbidden to stock or sell wine in the sacred crypt below the nave.
Charles the Bald endowed the church, whose foundations rest on a Roman temple, with a special holy relic known as the Sancta Camisia, which was believed to be the cloak or tunic that the Blessed Virgin Mary wore while giving birth to the baby Jesus. Whatever the Holy Cloak’s validity might be, Chartres has been a focal point of Marian devotion since before the 8th century. Since 1979 the cathedral has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The Cathedral School of Chartres produced the greatest neo-Platonic, esoteric and, yes, Gnostic scholars of the age. The neo-Platonist Bernard of Chartres’ philosophy and theology is listed sneeringly by the Catholic Encyclopedia as an ‘attempt to account for the universe of nature (physics) by describing the cosmic emanations from an original Monad.’ Bernard’s theological views are echoed in the first principle of Johannite Gnosticism, that the Monad, or Godhead, ‘made manifest the Universe through Emanation.’
Another giant of the Chartres School was the English humanist John of Salisbury, another neo-Platonist and the father of Political Science. Salisbury’s career brought him close to the affections of yet another Marian devotee, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder and patron of the Templars, who wrote Salisbury his letter of introduction to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1150. Salisbury would return to Chartres Cathedral as bishop thirty years later.
The edifice stands both as a living library of esoteric knowledge and the physical and intellectual headquarters of neo-Platonism, Gnosticism (as it was well understood), and Scholasticism of 12th and 13th century Christendom. Among the well-known curiosities of the cathedral is its maze, which is based on Kabalistic numerology translated into the Latin alphabet. But the structure and floor plan of the cathedral is itself a series of symbols. A detailed description of the architectural significance of the church is given by Australian architect John James in his book The Master Masons of Chartres. Here’s a taste of that description:
Just as the pilgrim moves towards Christ in and over the labyrinth, so at the altar Christ comes to him in the Eucharist. The contrariness of all things is implicit in every part of the cathedral. The opposites are posed clearly, appropriately balanced and reconciled. The building is a statement of the inner truths of life, with the contradictions separated and then placed in an orderly way against one another. The final statement is so integrated that what may have appeared to be confusion may seem to stem from divine intelligence.
The crossing lies at the exact center of the design. Just as the square is the symbol of man’s external setting, including earth and, by extension, the walls of the city that give him security, so the cross is that of his internal state. Every place on earth can be located from the four cardinal points, and people who are unhappy often say they are ‘disoriented.’ The crossing represents the calm position of rest around which everything has been properly arranged. To the west is man’s world with his path on earth, to the east is God’s church with its power to bring him to the spirit.
In the other direction, passing at right angles to what I have called the axis of Understanding, lies another. I call this the axis of Knowledge. The clergy at Chartres adhered to the Platonic or Gnostic tradition, which taught that only through knowledge could God be successfully reached. They believed that study was as important as faith, for without philosophy we would be led astray and miss the true path. Hence knowledge and understanding went hand in hand, and though the former could achieve nothing without the latter, philosophy gave the pilgrim the same stability on his way as the well-cut feathers gave to the arrow. Hence the cross axis and the transepts which embodied it helped to center the cathedral and to make it secure.
According to the legend, Urban II asked the Crusaders to find the Ark of the Covenant, which was returned to Chartres Cathedral by the Templars. The story thus links the carving in the North Porch as a commemoration of this event. Whether this legend has any basis in fact is really not as interesting as the carving itself, which depicts the Ark in the Temple of Dagon. The Babylonian and Philistine deity Dagon is the personification of the giver of knowledge and initiation, Oannes, which in turn is the source of the Hebrew name Yohanny, the Latin name Ioannes, or simply “John.” This archetype is as important to the Johannite Tradition as Chartres Cathedral and its school is to the development of Scholasticism, humanism and the modern age.