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God and Geometry

That view is from the chapter house of York Minster in York, England. It’s part of photographer David Stephenson’s book on European cathedral vaults.

See more at Stephenson’s website. Stunning stuff. This homeschooling adventure in Paris is going to be so much fun. Driving to tutorial this morning, Matthew told me he was looking forward the most to Chartres. Not sure how big he is on religion just now, but geometry, he can definitely relate to. We’re about to read together “Universe of Stone,” science journalist Philip Ball’s engrossing book about the Chartres Cathedral, and the philosophical and theological ideas that gave birth to Gothic architecture. I blogged on it here, and posted this excerpt from Ball’s book:

The building was a sacred symbol, and every part had the primary function of expressing piety and encoding a belief in divine order. We no longer know how to read this code. It unites the physical with the metaphysical: according to Abbot Suger, building a church involved the transposition of the material into the spiritual. Artists of later ages, even until the present, have tried to achieve something analogous, but they have had no rules to guide them. Their attempts to forge materials into an expression of the ineffable therefore become highly personal visions, reflections of one individual’s spiritual world.

The theoretical principles governing the construction of the Gothic cathedrals were geometry and clarity. The structure of these buildings is dictated by proportion, by simple numerical relationships between the key dimensions. These mathematical relations were deemed to be expressions of perfection, a belief that stemmed from ancient Greek thought and for which some found endorsement in the Bible. So when we experience unity and order in Chartres Cathedral, it is the result of careful and rational planning, motivated not by aesthetics but by morality. The building expresses a conviction that the glory of God’s universe is expressed as a system of eternal order.

We no longer know how to read the code. Alas for us. Still, might we be able to feel the presence of divine order, even if we don’t really know what we’re looking at? That was absolutely my experience of the Chartres cathedral when I was 17 years old. I walked out of there knowing that, in Walker Percy’s phrase, that I was onto something.

(H/T: Fr. S.)

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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