Thursday, September 12, 2013

Chartres Cathedral and the Seven Liberal Arts



The West or Royal Portal of Chartres, sculpted around 1150 AD, brings worshippers into the Cathedral's vast and sacred space.

The left or north arch of the Portal portrays the ascension of Christ, drawn upward on a cloud by two angels while the apostles look on from below. The central arch portrays Christ seated in heavenly majesty.

The right or south arch celebrates the incarnation of God's Wisdom in Christ. The infant Jesus sits in the lap of Mary, who in turn is enthroned upon what Christian tradition has called the Sedes sapientiae or Throne of Wisdom. This tradition is rooted in the dozen or so passages in the New Testament that refer to Jesus as God's Wisdom incarnate.

The astonishing multiplicity of the Royal Portal's images is overwhelming, and many images are inscrutable even to art historians. Here let's concentrate on only one group of images from this south arch, where the traditional representation of the Throne of Wisdom takes on new and specific meaning. Uniquely at Chartres, the Throne is framed by the seven liberal arts, carved into two bandlike arches or archivolts.




Each of the liberal arts is represented by a carved Personification of the art, with a historical practitioner of the art carved immediately below. One of the practitioners (Boethius) is Christian, and possibly a second (Donatus); the others are pagan. The Personifications are all female, in keeping with the feminine gender of the Latin ars, "art."

To begin at the lower left of the outer archivolt, the practitioner Aristotle bends over his writing while personified Logic stands above him with a staff in hand. Above them sits Cicero with Rhetoric above, then Euclid with Geometry above.

Progressing through the peak of the archivolt and down the other side we find Arithmetic above Boethius, Astronomy above Ptolemy, and Grammar above Priscian (6th-century author of an eighteen-volume treatise on grammar), or perhaps it is Donatus (4th-century tutor of St. Jerome).


Grammar has her work cut out for her. Switch at the ready, she is attempting to teach two boys.
 One of them, his book akimbo, is enjoying a good pull on the curly hair of his more studious classmate.
 Some things never change.

Since the figures of Grammar and her practitioner fill the final spaces available on the outer archivolt, Music has been carved on the inner archivolt, alongside Grammar. She is occupied with her instruments of research: bells and strings. Below Music, Pythagorus her practitioner sits at his work. 

Why are the seven liberal arts arrayed on this south portal? Philip Ball suggests an answer:
It was not until the start of the second millennium after the crucifixion of Christ that the western world dared to revive the ancient idea that the universe was imbued with a comprehensible order. That notion flourished in the twelfth century, fed by an influx of texts from the classical world, preserved by the Islamic scholars and now becoming available in Latin translation. (Universe of Stone, pp.5–6)
The 12th-century masters of the Chartres School were devoted to the liberal arts as God-given resources for exploring and expressing the comprehensible order of creation. Their devotion was grounded in the affirmation of Genesis 1:
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
Other biblical books also testify to creation's order and regularity, this one with charming imagery:

       When the Lord created his works from the beginning,
          and, in making them, determined their boundaries,
       he arranged his works in an eternal order,
          and their elements for all generations.
       They neither hunger nor grow weary,
          and they do not abandon their tasks.
       They do not crowd one another,
          and they never disobey his word. (Sirach 16)

Another passage issues an enticing challenge for inquisitive students of arithmetic, geometry, and music:
You [God] have arranged all things by measure and number and weight. (Wisdom of Solomon 11)
The masters at Chartres treasured these scriptural passages. The measures, numbers, and weights they famously employed in the immense Cathedral's design and construction express their profound trust in universal and comprehensible order.

For the Chartres masters the liberal arts are manifestations of God's Wisdom and portals into God's presence. The liberal arts are not alone, however. Christ is central in the south portal, as in the other two portals as well. The Royal Portal unites sacred and secular, faith and reason, liberal arts and divine wisdom. All truth is of God.

One of the Chartres masters, William of Conches, was particularly devoted to uniting reason and faith. He anticipates the objection of any who would quote the Apostle Paul's assertion (First Corinthians, chapter 1) that "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom":
The wisdom of the world is foolishness with God, not because God thinks the wisdom of this world foolish, but because it is foolish in comparison with God's wisdom. It does not follow on that account that the wisdom of this world is foolishness. (Philosophia, I, 19).
Christians today, I believe, should be inspired by the Chartres masters to place our trust in a universe imbued with comprehensible order, and to pursue truth through the liberal arts and beyond, wherever truths may be found. We should ever be asking ourselves, Is my faith reasoning faith? Is my reasoning faithful reasoning?


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