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Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral Hardcover – Deckle Edge, July 1, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

In this lively biography of Chartres Cathedral, Ball explores the configuration of cultural and technological factors that enabled Europe to achieve a "liberation from gravity" in the twelfth century, including the rise of scholasticism, Platonic obsessions with light and proportion, and heroic masons who "turned geometry into stone." The accomplishments of Gothic architecture were all the more remarkable given that stonework was virtually forgotten in the West in the centuries after Rome fell. Though much of the history of Chartres Cathedral remains opaque, Ball’s account of its construction reveals fascinating details (such as the origins of its blue glass, likely scavenged from Roman or Byzantine sites) and evokes its raison d’être: in an era when architecture "existed to reveal the deep design of God’s creation," Chartres "encoded a set of symbols and relationships that mapped out the universe itself."
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“A lively biography of Chartres Cathedral. . . . Ball’s account of its construction reveals fascinating details . . . and evokes its raison d’être.” (The New Yorker)

“There is no better general introduction to the subject... [Ball’s] account is bold and plausible.” (Wall Street Journal)

“Lively...Ball puts the fun back in medieval scholasticism...seems as much at ease on the medieval building site as in an abbey library.” (Los Angeles Times)

“A terrific book…A lucid, thoughtful tour de force…A fascinating book with important insights and observations on every page.” (Christian Science Monitor)

“Anyone who has been thrilled by the great Gothic cathedrals will revel in this study of both the spiritual and architectural qualities of those medieval wonders.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))

“Ball leaves no stone unturned . . . A revelatory look at a seminal period in art history.” (Kirkus Reviews)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 322 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers; 1st edition (December 31, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061154296
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061154294
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,151,881 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover
For anyone who has stood in awe of the splendid architecture of Notre Dame de Paris, Saint Denis, or Chartres itself, this is a delightful book. In his engaging and smooth prose, Philip Ball guides the reader through the religious, social, and philosophical milieu that produced the quintessentially Gothic cathedral at Chartres.

The essence of Gothic architecture is hotly disputed (Ball navigates neatly through the variety of scholarly opinion), but it certainly incorporated into a unified whole a number of different elements that had previously existed--all for the purpose, it seems, of achieving a soaring height and lightness inside, heaven on earth. Contrary to what the name suggests, Gothic was really a French style, and Ball discusses Chartres in the context of the nearby and near-contemporary cathedrals, especially St Denis, Sens, Soissons, and Strasbourg. (He occasionally brings up the adaptations of the Gothic style further afield.)

Like many other important churches, Notre Dame de Chartres was erected on an even more ancient sacred site: a sacred well (not a druidic temple, which is a Renaissance misinterpretation of Caesar's writing). The earliest churches that stood over Chartres's sacred well (which can still be seen in the crypt beneath the cathedral) were wooden and burnt down repeatedly: rebuilding was undertaken in 743, 858, 1020 (at which point the bishop Fulbert decided to make it an impressive Romanesque cathedral), 1134, and finally in 1194. At this point, it was decided to rebuild in the new Gothic style--a style introduced in the west front and choir of St Denis that had been completed a half-century before.
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35 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Harold S. Levine on July 29, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The author sets the bar high: a book that describes the design and building of the cathedral at Chartres while putting it into the context of medieval philosophy, theology, technology, science, politics and economy. In theory a laudable goal, but in practice a muddle. This reader was alternately bogged down in overly-long and involved chapters discussing the differences between scholastic Platonists and Aristotelians and disappointed that there wasn't more about the cathedral itself. Ball is a journalist who has obviously done his homework -- there's an extensive, multi-page bibliography and he quotes from dozens of experts -- but in the end this feels like a well-written overview of other people's writings on the subject, rather than an original look by a writer with any strong convictions himself. About halfway through this book I had the nagging thought I would have done better by re-reading Thomas Cahill's lively "Mysteries of the Middle Ages" and my nephew's illustrated copy of David Macaulay's "Cathedral." There's no shortage of wonderful books on Chartres and the building of the cathedrals and the curious reader should consider them seriously before investing in this book.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Michael Tiemann on September 10, 2009
Format: Paperback
I have always had a special place in my heart for Gothic cathedrals: Notre Dame, Chartres, and though technically not a cathedral (because it's an Episcopal church, but very Gothic nonetheless), St. Thomas Church in New York City. With a trip planned to Paris in the fall, I thought it would be fun to dive deeply into the ideas behind these architectural masterpieces that affect my senses so deeply.

The book is well organized, and attempt to really provide a full telling of the story, including the religious, political, philosophical, cultural, and economic contexts that ultimately shaped the Gothic design. And it provides for me a much more sensible preamble to the renaissance than the simplistic (and somewhat self-congratulatory) stories that emanated from the renaissance actors themselves.

The book also reads very nicely: the editing is superb, and each chapter moves with purpose through an extraordinary amount of research. The book definitely delivers everything it promises on its cover!
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Augustine J. Fredrich on October 2, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've taught an interdisciplinary course entitled "Cathedrals and Other Great Churches of Medieval Europe" a dozen times (twice in England), had Malcolm Miller as a guest lecturer (and tour guide at Chartres in one of my three visits there) and Peter Gibson of the York Minster Stained Glass Workshop as a guest lecturer (and tour guide at York Minster twice), visited more than a hundred medieval and renaissance great churches, and read at least parts of more than half of the books and articles listed in the seven-page bibliography of this book, and, in my judgment, no other book comes close to this one in providing real insight into understanding the great medieval churches. For my course, I used a reader I developed comprising excerpts from dozens of different books to give my students the breadth of ideas, opinions and knowledge needed to understand these great churches. Like many other compilations it suffered from wide variations in the "voices" of the various authors and from unevenness in coverage of the diverse subjects that students needed to grasp the significance of these monuments. I dreamed that some day I would have the time and energy to assemble a coherent anthology -- maybe one with a title like: "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Medieval Churches . . ." but, alas, retirement reared its ugly head and the motivation to do so disappeared. Now, however, Philip Ball has fulfilled my dream, and although he has done so in the context of a single great church, much of what he has written is applicable to most of them. His book makes me wish I hadn't retired so I could use it as a text. Not every reader will understand all of the nuances of the many subjects Ball covers in this book, but every reader with any interest in medieval churches will find this wonderfully well-written book to be not only a fascinating read but also a great addition to his or her library.
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