Today, we meet a medieval mason. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
It's hard to say too much
about Gothic cathedrals. They combined incredible
size with a delicacy of balance and detail that has
to be seen to be believed. The spire of Strasbourg
Cathedral, for example, is almost as high as the
Gothic architecture suddenly appeared in the middle
of the 12th century. It kept evolving for 250
years, and then it abruptly stopped developing
toward the end of the 14th century.
The people who created this art appear to have been
largely uneducated. Only 40 percent of the master
masons could even write their name on a document.
They probably knew nothing of formal geometry, and
it's unlikely they made any calculations.
The medieval cathedral builder learned his
empirical art -- his empirical science -- through
apprenticeship. The master builder had all kinds of
tricks of the trade at his disposal -- many of them
jealously guarded. These tricks amounted to a vast
inventory of knowledge of material selection,
personel management, geometrical proportioning,
load distribution, architectural design, and a firm
sense of liturgy and Christian tradition.
And make no mistake, these men saw no clear
boundary between things material and things
spiritual. Their art flowed from their right brain.
It was visual and spatial. They levitated tons of
stone into the air to communicate their praise of
God, and when they were finished, they embellished
the nooks and crannies and high aeries of their
buildings with the phantoms of their minds -- with
cherubs and gargoyles and wild caricatures of one
They also signed their work, boldly and proudly. An
inscription, 25 feet long, on the south transept of
Notre-Dame Cathedral says:
Master Jean de Chelles commenced this work for
the Glory of the Mother of Christ on the second of
the Ides of ... February, 1258.
So what became of this marvelous art?
The best guess is that it died when the master
builder became an educated gentleman -- when he moved
into an office and managed the work of others at a
distance. At that point the kind of hands-on
creativity that had driven it so powerfully dried up.
Still, this art has recently been recreated here in
the United States. The National Cathedral in
Washington, D.C., was built with great fidelity to
both the style and the working esprit of the
medieval art. This huge structure is finally being
finished after 82 years of work, and it's
breathtaking. If you're ever there, don't miss the
chance to see it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on the medieval mason, see Episode 528. For more on medieval cathedrals
see Episodes 228, 439, and 825.
This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1530.
Photo by John Lienhard
Typical Medieval Gargoyle (from the
Photos by John Lienhard
Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris and a detail of Angel
Musicians on its Roof
Photo by Judy Myers, with
The West Entrance to the National Cathedral in
The image in the text is from
Dictionnaire Raisonné de
L'Architecture, MDCCCLXVIII, courtesy of the UH
Art and Architecture library.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
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