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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Secrets of Medieval Cathedrals...

…aren’t really all that secret. But if you’re an overzealous editor at NOVA, you might be tempted to invoke “secretly encoded” information in sacred architecture to drum up popular interest. When PBS last week reaired the series’ 2010 opener, “Building the Great Cathedrals”, it was apparent that even their high standards could sometimes be duped by that popular myth that codes, DaVinci or otherwise, are hidden all about those mysterious Middle Ages, just waiting for modern sleuths to expose the hidden past.

To be sure, the first two-thirds of the program were excellent. As we’ve come to expect from NOVA, they seamlessly wove excellent scholarship with lucid explanations of the main architectural feats and features of the great Gothic cathedrals. They use their profile of Frank Helmholz’s work in California to reconstruct the Cistercian chapter house William Randolph Hearst imported, piece-by-piece, from Europe, elegantly to explain the physics of the Gothic arch and flying buttress. Another team in France, led by Columbia’s Stephen Murray, uses precise laser scanners to analyze the problems facing the Cathedral at Amiens, problems long-evident and far worse at Beauvais. Likewise, modern stained glass blowers offer an excellent introduction to their medieval counterparts.

When they get to their final segment, however, the tendencies of the conspiracy theorist take over. Claiming to offer a “radical new theory”, they use handsome graphics and several art historians to discuss the use of sacred numbers “ripped” from the Bible as “blueprints” for the buildings. The narrator provokes: “Is there a hidden mathematical code that unlocks the secrets of the Gothic Cathedrals?”

The evidence:
  • Patterns of thirty and sixty units of measure (in this case, royal feet) in the structures of Notre Dame in Paris, measurements that correspond to the biblical description of the Temple of Solomon (1 [3] Kings 6).
  • The large space at the center of the transept and nave in Amiens is fifty roman feet square, a number derived from the measurements of Noah’s ark (Gen. 6:15).
  • The height from floor to vault keystones in Amiens is just about 144 roman feet (42.55 meters), the same as the measure of the New Jerusalem (in cubits) seen by John in the Apocalypse (Apoc./Rev. 21); and that passage was read by the bishop at the dedication of the cathedral!

To anyone at all familiar with the medieval mind, however, this seems rather more ordinary than extraordinary.  Of course the architects of sacred spaces would look to Scripture for inspiration!  Of course they would model the earthly tabernacle after its heavenly exemplar!  Hugh of St. Victor went to extraordinary lengths to use the precise design of Noah’s Ark to explain all of salvation history and the theology therein revealed.(1)  Exhaustively detailed typologies of every cubit of Solomon’s Temple abound, especially in twelfth-century exegesis and art, which had a predilection for diagrams.(2)  The very Historia Scholastica of Peter Comestor cited in the program isn’t exactly an obscure text.  Written as a paraphrase of biblical and salvation history for students at Paris in the twelfth century, it was translated into every major vernacular and was one of the most widely read texts of its type in the later Middle Ages.(3)  At the end of that century, Joachim of Fiore would enumerate interpretations of scripture and history so bewilderingly complex that scholars still struggle to unravel it today.(4)

Is it important to our understanding of cathedral art and architecture to recognize this use of sacred geometry?  Certainly; but that by no means implies that there are “hidden codes” to be revealed after the buildings have been “stripped to their bare bones”.  Did the use of scriptural proportions “drive” medieval builders to “evermore dangerous heights”?  Perhaps; but we need not sensationalize these facts in order to better understand.  The great cathedrals are no less fascinating, no less wondrous, no less hauntingly beautiful, if we strip away the conspiracy theories and see through the veil to the reality beneath.

NOVA’s use of this particular rhetorical device is symptomatic of so much of the obfuscating penumbra that still surrounds popular conceptions of the Middle Ages.  Brown’s supposed codes of templars and DaVinci are just one of the more spectacular examples.  These misconceptions are also projected forward onto the contemporary Roman Catholic Church; a supposedly articulate commenter in a recent discussion of faith and politics made the specious claim that “Pope Ratzinger” was the “sociopath who helped elect George Bush in 2004.”  Invoking such conspiracy theories and intimating hidden codes and shadowy agendas can, perhaps, add an exhilarating air of illicit discovery, but do little to illuminate the actual character of the Middle Ages.

Indeed, such radicalizing language strengthens the alterity of the Middle Ages, widening the gulf between us and them and making it ever harder to peer across it.  As a medievalist, one of my primary goals is make those centuries more accessible, not less.  I want to illuminate the past, not cloak it in vague claims of hidden secrets and mysterious figures.  And while NOVA does an excellent job invoking the awe of a rural peasant, accustomed to low ceilings and dark rooms, gazing at the great walls of stained glass, it does the medieval artisans a disservice when it claims for them hidden secrets rather than sublime allegories.  For the sacred geometry of these great cathedrals is not meant to hide and conspire but to reveal and display the numinous light of divine beauty.  As the narrator rightly (and finally!) says, these were “sacred space[s] for transporting medieval minds from their daily lives of toil to the lofty heights of eternity.”  Walls of glass and sparkling colors create a space that lifts the soul to God, whose eye pierces any cloak of secrecy.  Beauty here is the truth, not false secrets.

Notes    --Back to Text--
(1) ^ See Conrad Rudolph, “First, I Find the Center Point”: Reading the Text of Hugh of Saint Victor’s ‘The Mystic Ark’. (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 94/4. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2006).
(2) See Christiania Whitehead, “Temple”, pp. 7-27 in ibid., Castles of the Mind. A Study of Medieval Architectural Allegory, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003); and Michael Curschmann, “Texte - Bilder - Strukturen. Der 'Hortus deliciarum' und die frühmittelhochdeutsche Geistlichendichtung (mit 10 Abbildungen)”, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 55:3 (Oct. 1981), pp. 379-418.
(3) See James H. Morey, “Peter Comestor, Biblical Paraphrase, and the Medieval Popular Bible.” Speculum 68:1 (Jan. 1993), pp. 6-35.
(4) Amongst the ever-growing literature, see Part III in Bernard McGinn’s Apocalyptic Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), pp. 97-148; ibid., The Calabrian Abbot: Joachim of Fiore in the History of Western Thought, (New York: Macmillan, 1985); and Marjorie Reeves, The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages: A Study in Joachimism, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993).

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