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Universe of Stone

A history of Chartres, "the most perfect cathedral ever created."

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Chartres cathedral is an icon of Western civilization. Largely spared the damage and destruction that has marred so many other churches that date from the Middle Ages, its carved stonework and stained glass have captivated visitors for centuries. One architectural historian calls it simply, “the most perfect cathedral ever created.”

But Chartres is much more than a breathtaking architectural accomplishment. To Philip Ball, a consulting editor for Nature magazine and author of a wonderful new book, Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral, this stunningly beautiful building represents a fundamental “shift in the way the Western world thought about God, the universe and humankind’s place in it.”

Despite its enormous popularity, much about Chartres remains unknown. The name of the architect who designed it is lost to history. Nor have any architectural drawings ever been found – perhaps, Ball speculates, because there were none. We don’t even know the order in which the huge cathedral was built.

What we do know is that the cathedral school at Chartres was a preeminent center of learning in France for several centuries before the current cathedral was built. An Italian scholar named Fulbert (c. 960–1028) became head of the school and was later named bishop of the cathedral.

He emphasized the study of Aristotle, Plato, and Euclid and encouraged students to seek a rational understanding of the universe. The principles of logic were paramount.

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