The Cathedral at Chartres

There is a story that I think is based on truth about the cathedral at Chartres. It’s more likely to be based on truth than the stuff your mate tells you “they” don’t want you to know. I found it as a teenager, in a book in a library. This was pre-internet, but my bookish friends who followed similar “research” reading tracks – when research meant critical thinking and time and obscure books rather than conformist consumption and videos and radicalisation – they understand why I chose to break my journey here in Chartres. I always thought the story of how the cathedral was rebuilt was well known and publicised. It isn’t. “The mainstream media don’t want you to know the real story of the xxx” I hate to be like that regarding this issue, but it’s a curious one to me. It should appeal to people who are inclusive and non-hierarchical. But the story is not well known of how the edifice was restored and who helped.

You can never underestimate the power of an institution like the Roman Catholic Church to try to remove character from a story, and to make everything about hierarchy. From what I can see, the character is also now being picked out of this monolith, to the detriment of future generations.

There’s an extensive refurbishment going on inside the cathedral right now. I happened to arrive in time for a mass for the dead. People were making huge clunking noises at the start of it from the scaffolding. And I started to worry about the purpose of the scaffolding. It looks like a very busy interior refurb. And you can bet that they are covering up any personality left behind in the aftermath of the story that brought me here.

The internet is very scarce regarding this tale. It’s esoteric, but it’s perfect. I’m really surprised it isn’t readily available online. Maybe I can add to it. Here goes. The Cathedral at Chartres.

1134 and the Cathedral at Chartres burned to the ground. It was on a trade route though, and let’s compare to Notre Dame just a few years ago and how much was raised so quickly. These monolithic buildings capture our imagination. If we can add to their life we can somehow extend our remembered span. The burning of this vast and important cathedral inspired artisans from all over the world who were passing, and many who traveled specifically knowing how big the project was. Some stayed for years, some only gave a short time. The book I read, and that my friends read too… I can’t find it online and it feels like this story has been erased by the internet. But it was a beautiful book examining all the strange things these people had built into the architecture from their own set of experiences.

People from all over the world. Therefore people from different belief systems and different power dynamics. People with different skillsets. They all knew they were helping rebuild a Catholic Cathedral, but they all brought their own thing. Maybe they slept or ate for free while they worked on it. The whole thing began to be brighter and wider and more alive than many of the protective stone monoliths that characterise one of our more judgemental well followed belief structures. Different ways of making pigment and glass, different ideas of gargoyles, different names for God, different priorities, mischief, story. The foreman must have been extremely open minded, the workforce was willing but extremely diverse. The cathedral came up in 30 years, and is still weird and beautiful and huge. The book I read spoke of mischief in the roof where Islamic artists had put in a bit of their doctrine, or frescoes where there was a cheeky touch of Hinduism, or even little personal Latin motifs and materials and gargoyles that might be called “pagan” by people with a blanket reading of the huge mix of pantheism that gradually filed us to where we are now. It got rebuilt. It’s a Catholic Cathedral for the worship of the Judao-Christian continuance of Osiris but parsed through the Roman anti-pantheist lens and smudged. We call it Roman Catholic and it’s got some lovely art. Better than brute Anglicanism by a country mile. But in the end it’s run by Catholics who are just another competitive noise in a very well filled arena of “my idea is better than your idea!” This is why I love that it was rebuilt with wider angle ideas plugged in. The only belief I find ugly is the Nullgod faith of Dawkins etc. Just as doctrinal and smug, just as certain of the existence of a (NO)thing but empty of beauty and empty of magic and so so very easy.

It is still beautiful here at Notre Dame of Chartres even if I fear they are trying to obliterate the very thing that makes it powerful. To build over the strange character. Still there’s a sound and light exhibition right now though that acknowledges aspects of the history that pulled me. The artist is definitely aware if it even if the commissioner isn’t.

But … inside there’s scaffolding up all over the place and banging and clattering. And online you can’t find anything referring to the mischief I read in that book. For now, knowing how these things work, I am going with a theory I’ve just made up that the Catholic Church have bought the internet on it and they aren’t letting anything through about the random multifaith international wonder that makes up this incredible cathedral. If so that’s a spectacular own goal, and it’ll come back to haunt them.

I went to a mass for the dead. I lit a candle for my Catholic dead. I sang tonics. I wept. It was genuinely beautiful and resonant. We sang in the little portioned space. Three women read the list of the dead (timespan?) and it was into the hundreds – enough to fill a small mediaeval village. Was that just this year? I hope not. But… Only about 30 in the congregation and the priest flinched when I said “Thanks be to God” in English when he told me it was the body of Christ in French. Perhaps I wasn’t supposed to be there. Or perhaps he could sense that I’d spent the previous 4 hours listening to Joseph Campbell…

I just hope and pray that the Catholic church don’t overlook the chance they have for inclusion with this beautiful crowdsourced building, if they proudly bring to the fore the voices in the rebuild that clash with their doctrine they might start to build congregations where the living outnumber the dead again. It’s not like Catholicism is so weak they need to defend themselves. They own much of the best real estate in the world. They can be sanguine about the fact that humans subscribing to other curious and beautiful governing ideas lent them a hand when they were in need. Can’t they?

Author: albarclay

This blog is a work of creative writing. Do not mistake it for truth. All opinions are mine and not that of my numerous employers.

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