A lecture by Paul Crossley at Harvard, March 12, 2013
What does it mean to describe a Gothic Cathedral as ‘rhetorical’? This lecture is a rudimentary attempt to tackle that question. On the face of it, the answer is simple. Rhetoric and the cathedral are natural companions. Their business is to persuade is to persuade, charm, delight and overwhelm. Like rhetoric, the Gothic Cathedral is a garrulous and pedagogical creature, crammed with images, inscriptions, and tituli- all demanding our attention and assent. It is equally clear that gothic cathedrals conform to some of the broad principles of classical rhetoric. Thomas Aquinas’s famous formulation of Christian art- to instruct, impress and stimulate- echoes Cicero’s well known definition of rhetoric. ‘to instruct, to delight, to move.’ From Quintillian to Hugh of St Victor the architect has been likened to an orator. In his discussion of the rhetorical category of disposition (arrangement) Quintillian draws on an architectural analogy: the architect lays out his building as carefully as the orator puts together- disposition- the elements of speech. And the cultivation of the rhetorical skill of memory, the classic mnemonic technic, which lasted well into the middle ages, involved mentally walking through buildings.
Given these general affinities it is curious that the aesthetics of the Cathedral have until recently never been brought into any relationship with the categories of rhetoric that informed classical and renaissance aesthetics. One reason for this reluctance may be the unsystematic nature of medieval aesthetics- its tendency to imagine beauty as a branch of theology, a way of describing the attribute s of God and the relationship between the Creator and the Created. No medieval cleric, as far as I know, wrote a theory of beauty based systematically on classical rhetoric principles. The Middle Ages had no Vitruvius or Alberti, no De Architectura or De Picture. Medieval aesthetics was primarily a branch of theology; it never pretended to offer a comprehensive aesthetic system. But the long term analogies between architecture and rhetoric should give us pause for thought. The Middle Ages may not have fashioned a systematic theory of aesthetics (strictly speaking, we had to wait for Baumgarten in the later 18th C to acquire that) but it place beauty at the centre of neo-platonic epistemology and in Aquinas’s definition of beauty- “integrity, proportion and clarity”- it came close to the classical Vitruvian precepts of order, disposition, rhythm and pronunciation. Did these principles exist only in the school room? Or can we see them at work in Great Church architecture? This lecture argues that we can: that Great Churches speak the language of certain classical rhetorical categories in their pursuit of clarity and beauty and that we can deduce their shaping presence in the spaces, meanings and narrative of the High Gothic cathedral.
The building chosen as my test case in this argument is predictable: Chartres cathedral (dating in its present form largely to 11094- circa 1240) is the most complete, the most homogenous and in many senses the most representative of the High Gothic cathedrals of Northern France. The “classic” character of its architecture, the almost complete survival of its stained glass and its imagery as well as its contemporary 13th C liturgical ordinal makes it a paragon of what the “Great Church” of the early 13th C should look like. The two rhetorical categories which I propose to attach to the building as its refractive media are “memoria” (memory) and “ductus” (movement, flow). “Memory” in this medieval sense means something more than reminiscence- it includes cognitive thinking, meditating, and composing. “Ductus”, the rhetorical category I will deal with first was originally applied to a literary composition as an arrangement of events and ideas (dispositios) sent in flow; a ‘way, a journey or a direction,’ the conduct of a mind moving towards a goal. Deriving from the classical rhetorical category of pronuntiatio (delivery or performance) it was first used (according to Jan Ziolkowski) as a separate textbook term by Consultus Fortunatianus and then rooted in monastic meditation by St Augustine. In translating narrative sequence into special progression the literary Ductus is not far from the architectural Ductus: both move along a ‘way’ or axis, articulated by what Augustine calls ‘Modes.’ (modi) and colours (colorii) which are the ornaments of rhetoric in the text or the eye catching images or objects in the space; and both illuminate and define the pathway to the final aim of the movement, the scopus; the climax which the whole ‘ductus’ has presupposed.
‘Ductus’ articulates the spaces of Chartres in a number of directions but all of them share what seem to be a single law: that the images in the porches and portals outside the church, relate the images, alters or relics displayed inside the building, and form sequences between them thus (as Peter Kurmann noted) the three main portals of the south transept, the principle entrance to the Cathedral for pilgrims and clergy are dedicated the martyrs, the apostles and the confessors- preparing us for the dedications of the three main radiating chapels of the chevet; martyrs, apostles and confessors. The right hand, confessors, portal of the south transept singles out the figures and lives of St Martin, St Nicholas, and St Gilles, pilgrimage saints who reappear inside the choir along the south aisle, in the alters of St Martin, St Gilles and St Nicholas. These related ‘memoria’ articulate the most direct route taken by the pilgrim from the confessors’ portal to the shrine of the Virgin Mary in the choir, a shrine containing the famous tunic or sancta camisia, supposedly worn by the Virgin at the birth of Christ. Like the colori or modi of literary ductus, these eye-catching images of the same set of saints moving from stone in the portals, to alters, glass and relics inside- light the way to the scopus of the shrine. They form what Pamela Graves called the ‘cognitive map’ of the church, whose sacred sights are joined together- and given reinforcing meanings- by the movements between them.
A more complicated pilgrims’ ductus appears in the north aisle of the crypt. Ways into and out of the vast 11th C crypt of Bishop Fulbert are legion, but one pathway is worth exploring as another indication as a carefully contrived ductus. It begins at the right hand portal, the so called Incarnation portal of the west front. Part of the famous triple portal ‘portai l royal’ dating to the mid-12th C and the only substantial part of the earlier church to survive the fire of 1194 and the building of the great 13th C Cathedral. The iconic image of the Incarnation portal, the Christ Child seated frontally on the lap of the Virgin, the sedes sapientiae, begins a journey, a ductus, which will take us into the depths of pre-Christian Chartres. Through the portal, undoubtedly used as an everyday entrance, the pilgrim could enter the long south corridor of the crypt down a set of stairs in the southwest tower move anti clockwise around the crypt apse and arrive, in the northern corridor, at a site of ancient, sacred, myth: a chapel dedicated to Notre- Dame sous- Terre original dominated by another, probably 11th C, sedes sapientae. Here too stood the mythic grotto the pre-Christian Druids who worshiped a Virgin lactans, and next to it a sacred well- the Puis de Saintes Fort- into which were thrown Chartres’ Early Christian martyrs, including the evangelist bishop, St Potentian and the young Ste Modeste, converted to Christianity by St Savinien. Appropriately the chapel of Notre-Dame sous-Terre adjoined an alter dedicated to Saints Savinien and Potentian, the first century apostles of Chartres. This protracted sequence along the southern and then northern, flank of the whole cathedral, a sequence of cult, Virgin, crypt, crypt chapel and repeated Virgin, leading the saints of early Christian Chartres, is typical of the repetition which I identified earlier as a leit motif of ductus at Chartres. But the journey does not end in the crypt. An exit shaft takes the pilgrim upwards and outwards to a small portal above ground in the buttresses of the North transept where he is greeted immediately by the prominent figures of Ste Modeste and St Potentian, standing above the steps of the north porch. Their resonant presence in the crypt is translated into their vivid likenesses above it. As in the south transept, so here, Saints venerated in the church come alive in their sensuous images outside it, or conversely, the full scale image outside announces the sacred locus inside.
And now, for the notional pilgrim standing at the corner of the north western porch, a full scale Odyssey- what we might call a long ductus- begins, as the vast extent of the North transept sculpture spreads itself across the whole façade. Tripartite, as on the south side, it begins on the right with the Job portal, the symbol of penance and the Churches’ suffering, and appropriately, the portal through which on Maundy Thursday, the public penitents entered the church for absolution. A little further, and we encounter a myriad of figures celebrating the life and triumph of Chartres particular saint, the Virgin- the central portal dominated by her death and coronation, above her mother saint Anne, on the Trumeau, and the left hand portal showing the incarnation and the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi. It was probably through this portal with its animated and doll-like figures (as if drawn from a liturgical play) that the pilgrim would have entered the north transept, here to find in a sequence typical of ductus , direction via repetition; St Anne and the Virgin the in central lancet of the transept glass, and the Virgin in the centre of the rose, with Infancy windows clustering around the crossing. The narrative sculpture of the destroyed screen, now in fragments, would have carried the viewer across the crossing by means of a touching rendition of the story of the incarnation and the early life of Christ, starting with the annunciation on the screens’ north side, and running southwards through the Nativity, the annunciation to the Shepherds, the Magi before Herod, the Dream of the Magi and the Presentation in the Temple. Once passed the screen the shorted route to the shrine would be via the south aisle of the choir, a ductus marked out with Marian ‘highlights’; a window showing her life, and another sedes sapientae next to it, the popular “Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere”, in front of which was the alter of Our Lady of the Snows.
Now I have to admit that these “pathways” or “journeys” are hypothetical reconstructions based on likely circulation patterns; they are not prescribed in the Chartres ordinal, drawn up for the Cathedral between 1225 and 1235, during the later stages of the Church’s construction and the instillation of its images. But thanks to the researches of Margot Fassler we can reconstruct one such pathway as part of the annual liturgy, that of the entrance of the Bishop into the Cathedral on the major feasts of the year, through the central Portail Royal. We can correlate the meanings of the liturgy- its tropes, hymns and prayers- with the imagery that marks out its pathways, both outside and inside the church. The Introuit tropes sung or said by the Bishop and his procession in front of the three portals of the west façade- tropes of Christ’s entering into human space and time- find their visual echo in its sculpture. In particular, the themes of the right hand incarnation portal seem to embody the meaning of the Introuit liturgy- Christ on the Throne/lap of his mother in a sedes sapientae composition, the Presentation to old Simeon of the Christ Child in the Temple, the Annunciation of the Shepherds and to the Virgin- all these images are matched by the hymns sung as the procession moved under them. “Behold, Christ born from the Virgin comes to his holy Temple, let us rejoice saying we have received your mercy, O God, whom the righteous old man Simeon received with rejoicing…” ‘He descended from the starry heavens to the Throne of his own kingdom’. Performative liturgy and static imagery here join to re-enact Christ’s and the Bishop’s ‘adventus’ into both the spiritual and physical church. On Palm Sunday when this processional liturgy encompassed all the churches of Chartres the responsory ingrediente domino was sung when the Bishop entered the central portal of the Portail Royal; and true to the principle of ductus where themes related to the exterior of the building are repeated immediately in the interior so the central window of the west façade, standing above the central portal, shows a prominent ‘Palm Sunday Christ’ looking down on the main access of the nave along which the Bishop , having entered, now moves. The next station in this procession, the choir screen, connects the Portail Royal, and the Bishop’s entrance, to the scared centre and climax of the church; as the procession did. Just as the 12th C Incarnation portal of the Portail Royal places a unique emphasis on Eucharistic imagery, especially in the quasi sacrificial alter in its presentation in the Temple scene so the 13th C screen expands and humanises these Eucharistic overtones. The entrance portal of the screen through which the Bishop moved into the choir, was decorated with two images of the Agnus Dei, one carved on its central vault boss, the other in a medallion on the back, inner, wall of the choir, equally central. Above these axial reference to Christ’s redemption rose its ultimate symbol, the huge cross, behind which stood the Virgin shrine overlooked directly and on the same axis by yet another sedes sapientae, crowning the axil bay of the apse clerestory, seeming to rise out of the Eucharist bread at her feet. The scopus towards which this sequence- this adventus- seems to have been directed.
I use here the term scopus from literary rhetoric because this Palm Sunday liturgy and the liturgy it moved through raises interesting parallels with literary ductus. Both are pathways which give a static composition (disposition) an active meaning, as much dependant on the sequence as on the elements disposed. The longitudinal spine of the cathedral, moving from west of east as the all-important structure in this controlled ductus enlivened- to borrow the rhetorical terms of Fortunatianus – by modi (modes) or colorii (colours) which are the ornaments of ductus and which can be identified not just as the embellishments of writing but as the decorations of the cathedral- its sculptures, screens and windows. Both verbal and visual ornaments light the path to the goal of the movement. Christ’s incarnation beneath the sedes sapientae opens the journey at the west façade, and closes it on the central axis of the clerestory. In this sequence of portal sculpture, stained glass, screen, shrine, and the sedes sapientiae in the axial widow of the apse we are confronted with all that we have so far called the ‘rules’ or conventions of ductus: the repetition and amplification of key themes and motifs strung out along a pathway and defined by a sequence of images, a pathway that provides the direction for the images theatrical equivalents- the liturgy of entrance and salvation.
My second aesthetic category which rhetoric may have offered the Cathedral as a model for the theology of seeing is the notion of ‘memory’ or memoria. Thanks to a succession of formidable publication by Mary Carruthers, memory has become a hot topic among interdisciplinary minded art historians. Indeed, so successfully has the craft of memory explained our experience of Medieval Art that one could be forgiven for thinking that nothing more can usefully be said on the question? I chose to single it out here openly because I believe that the wide Medieval, meaning of the term- not just recalling but thinking, composing and above all categorising- may underlie the organisation and direction of Cathedral imagery, an application so far not recognised by Carruthers, who confines her study of the artistic mnemonic largely to early Medieval art.
Emile Male began his masterly analysis of medieval iconography, L’Art Religieuse de Trezieme siècle en France, published in 1898, with the lapidary phrase ‘The Middle Ages had a passion for order.’ Visual organisation, combined with increasing visual complexity is the hallmark of the High Gothic Cathedrals of France. The portals at Chartres balance tympana and archivolts, capitals and column figures with a lucidity unprecedented in 12th C sculpture. Its terminal façades are dominated by the ordered unfolding of rose windows, their presence more insistent here than in any Cathedral before it. And in the narrative windows of its side aisles the stories of the bible and of Saints’ lives re disposed within the complex armatures of the windows in such a way as to invert, extend or emphasises the main themes of the narrative itself. The famous Saint Lubin window in the north aisle of the nave presents us with a narrative sequence of the Bishop’s life showing his rise from Shepherd to monk, from Cellarer (in charge of the monastic wine) to Bishop. These events, placed in foiled figures surround a central spine of circular scenes which act as a moral and didactic sublimation of the narrative for if read from bottom to top they describe the transformation of earthly wine into the wine of the Eucharist, a transformation effected by the Bishop Cellarer himself. We are confronted with a kind of writing in Geometry, where the structure of the window allows us diagrammatically to emphasize, repeat, or confront the special elements of the story, thus taking us beyond simple narrative sequences and into the domain of instruction and mediation. These windows taught, edified and –in their geometric order- stimulated memory. “A well-ordered sermon, beautifully spoken,” said St Bonaventure “resembles the crystalline clarity of a well-designed stained glass window.”
What prompted this encyclopaedic desire to memorise and think via diagrams, often architectural? There is nothing essentially new in this desire to use imaginary or drawn schemata or pseudo buildings as machines for mediation or intellection. Fictional buildings offered clear compartments, layers and stories, where meanings, associates and letters could be placed, retrieved, combined with other associations, in other schemata, and finally returned to where they belonged. As Mary Carruthers showed the architectural mnemonic was used- amongst many others- by St Augustine, Adam of Dryburgh and Peter of Celle, (the latter had been Bishop of Chartres not long before the High Gothic rebuilding). Some of these diagrams or picture (to give them their proper name) were used to order, moral, cosmic and divine themes and to illustrate numerical categories of things such as the Seven Liberal Arts, the Cardinal Virtues, the Twelve signs of the Zodiac and the labours of the month, The Ancestors of Christ. Or they could be maps or wheels or schematic trees. Madeline Caviness, in a famous article, called them Images of Divine Order and traced heir ancestry back to the art of the migrations and forward to the monastic scriptoria of the 11th and 12 C where they survive largely in manuscript form (Augustine, City of God, made in Canterbury circa 1120).
What united all these schemata was visual exegesis- the presentation of logic, metaphysical, medicine and astronomy especially theology by visual means. The connection between these diagrams and the monumental art of the Cathedrals hardly needs pointing out. In both, geometrically organised schemata shape and order the images and texts of high truth. In some cases the diagrams look as if they have been borrowed from the tracing floors of the mason’s lodge. In order the masons geometry seems to have set the matrix for the small scale schemata. One example of these exchanges will have to suffice. In a copy of the English monk Byrhtferth’s manual is a cosmological diagram (circa 1100) of particular clarity, joining the seasons, the humours, the ages of man, the astrological calendar. As Christopher Norton has pointed out a geometrical diagram like this opus sectile pavement of the Trinity Chapel at Canterbury (before circa 1220) it’s very similar geometry surrounded by the conventional imagery of the cosmic diagram- the signs of the Zodiac and the Labours of the Month. But a similar geometric picture determine the design of the iron armature of the north transept rose window of Canterbury, a design in tern translated into stone: in the plate tracery of the rose window of the south transept of Lausanne cathedral, who’s glass is filled with cosmic and terrestrial themes. It is as if the ‘monastic’ diagram of Byrhtferth was taken out of its context and enlarged, upended, and made into a memorable picture for a public audience in a Great Church. Such a transfer was in effect, the beginnings of what we call Gothic. In the western portals in the stained glass of Saint Dennis and the Portail Royal at Chartres, both dating the mid-12th C, we are confronted, for the first time, with a lucid, systematic, and essentially rhetorical arrangement of images held in place by the discipline of architecture and designed to teach and persuade. The achievement of the churches that followed in the later 12th and 13th C was to exploit what might be called this ‘architectural mnemonic’ to increase the number of images to unprecedented levels in Western Art, and yet to order those images with ever greater clarity and readability. But what forces in Northern France saw the value of this transfer from the manuscript page to the Great Cathedral? And how was it brought about? Who was responsible for this translation of a rhetorical category memoria to a church?
Recent scholarship has focused out attention on the supposed artistic initiatives of Hugh of St Victor (1096-1141) and the Parisian cannons of St Victoire in the birth of Gothic. Hugh’s ‘ orthodox’ commentary on the Pseudo-Dionysius’ celestial hierarchies of the 1120s has been noted as a possible source for Abbot Suger of St Denis fascination with neo-Platonic light mysticisms; while the bronze doors of St Denis are supposedly ‘victorine’ in their emphasis on the Works of Redemption. But the strongest primate facie for Victorine influence on early Gothic lies in the Victorine’s application of theological exegesis to quasi-architectural mental structures. For Hugh of St Victor learning began with looking, and his looking had a strongly architectonic character. In his short treatise on practical geometry, Hugh explores the nature of the cosmos as if it were a rose window: ‘the measurement of the cosmos starts at its centre, evaluates the diameters and circumferences of the celestial sphere and its inner orbits with the help of proportion theory, and… sets a specific ratio and value for each distance. Our discussion accordingly, must start at the centre and move in fixed order to the other parts.’ Hugh goes on to note that ‘the celestial hemisphere is rotated in twelve integral equinoctial hours, the entire celestial sphere in twenty four’. All three of Chartres’ roses are composed of twelve spokes! The 13th C manuscripts of Hugh’s ‘on the Five Sevens or Septenaries (de quinque septenis sue septenariis- Bodlien 13th C) show the Sevens and Fives of Christian truth and practice in the form of Rotae- Seven segments and five rings. Which closely resemble rose windows even down to the way in which the figures are visually generated from the centre but ascend theologically in importance from the circumference, the outer rings always subordinate to the inner.
Hugh’s most influential architectural mnemonic was his famous Noah’s Ark which he made the centrepiece of his two treatises on the Ark. The Ark was his model for the ideal church, both institutional and architectural. From his intricate descriptions of its shape and arrangement we can deduce that the Ark had square compartments like architectural bays and a central ‘crossing’ in the form of a square cubit decorated at its centre by an image of the Lamb of God. It had three stories, divided into smaller and larger seats- all mnemonic loci into which Hugh place images of the prophets, apostles and Popes- in effect the lineage of the heavenly hierarchy. The cleric had to memorise this structure, open its compartments and mediate on their contents, compare them to other subjects in other compartments and then return them to their rightful places in the whole. Despite the parallels between Hugh’s constructs and a real church, it has been difficult to find a direct and literal link between Hugh’s structuralist theology and early Gothic architecture. Perhaps because the drawing of the Ark described by Hugh does not exist, and may never had existed. Undeterred, Grovers Zine reconstructed the drawing and then argued that it formed the blue print of Suger’s tympanum of the central west portal of St Denis. I remain, I am afraid, unconvinced. There is as far as I know no evidence that Hugh ever made a drawing of the Ark or he wanted Artists to take up his writings a model for their designs. His Ark may have been a purely mental construct, akin to those visions which often accompany architectural design. Gunzo of Baume’s plan for the third church of Cluny was visited on him by a vision of its geometry laid out in ropes by Saints Peter and Paul; and Haito sent the famous plan of Gall to Abbot Gosbert so that ‘you might exercise your wits on it’ (and sollertiam exerceas tuum) not build it. There is no evidence that it was ever built.
But if we cannot expect a literal transfer from Hugh’s theological diagrams to the Great Church we should not dismiss the possibility that the widely read Ark Treatises contained general principles which were found to be exemplary for the secular clergy when they came to build their cathedrals and plan their ‘programs’. After all, the regular cannons of St Victor, like their secular counterparts had a vocation to the secular world, to teach through word and example in town, city and Parish. The artistic and pedagogic challenge to the secular clergy of the 12th C – those who were singled out as living among the world, and who were often seen in most need of reform- was to apply these schemata of contemplation and understanding loosely and not literally to the public art of the Cathedrals, and thus to appeal to the ‘world’- to the laity, the secular cannon and the university trained Bishop. Hugh’s Ark was not a videmecum for designing art but it embodied a set of general principles which these new patrons could credibly have welcomed as models of the new church art. Just as the Ark contained for Hugh the whole of biblical history, so the Cathedral presented us with extensive scenes from the old and New Testament. Just as the Ark, for Hugh, must be drawn mentally in its ideal form, so the Cathedral is made into an image of perfection- that of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Just as the Ark gathers truths from diverse sources, so the cathedral gathers the saints and their teaching into the company of Christ and the apostles. The Ark is a machine for teaching and for self-transformation, leading the soul from beauty and history to allegory, tropology and final illumination. The cathedral’s images in much the same way lead the viewers in much the same way from literal meaning to anagogical wisdom.
All this is, of course, only analogy; but it is not an-ahistorical one. The hinterland of motive and commission may be lost forever, but clues as to the climate of architectonic thinking and memorising at Chartres and its depleted ‘school’ during the construction of the cathedral have survived and they are worth examining carefully. They are to be found in a treatise on The Church written by the Chancellor of the Cathedral school at Chartres, Peter of Roissy, during his period of office (1204-11). His two versions of the Manual of the Mysteries of the Church (manual de mysteriis Ecclesiae) offer intriguing glimpses into the ethical and pictorial imagination of a cleric whose training and outlook may have made him responsive to the rhetorical implications of the cathedral’s imagery, and to the frameworks that articulate its figures. In a characteristically Victorine way, Peter explains the mysteries of the faith by what is seen- namely the Church and its furnishings. He certainly knew the abbey of Saint Victoire since Mary Therese D’alveney accuses him of plagiarizing entire passages of the poenitintiale of Robert of Flamborough, cannon of St Victoire. Peter arrived at Chartres too late to have influenced the Cathedral’s overall architectural design but he presided over the completion of the nave and the beginning of the transepts and the choir, and in those years there are hints that he developed an interest in the Cathedral’s fabric and glass. His commentary on the ‘Book of Job’ may help to explain the rare inclusion of the portal to Job on the North Transept. The church of Peter’s Manual consists of the conventional allegorical interpretations of the Christian basilica with the mystical commentaries expected of such formulae. Thus, the glass signifies Scripture by keeping out evil weather but admitting light. Its windows are wide inside and narrower outside because their mystical sense is greater than their literal meaning. But compared to other contemporary ecclesiologists of Church symbolism, Peter of Roissy was, according to Mary Therese D’Alverney, more than simply a purveyor of ekphrastic topoi. He does not mention Chartres by name, but his long descriptions of the forms of the Christian Church- its portals, columns, thrones, vestments, hangings and precincts- amount to a more systematic and detailed discussion of architecture than any of his contemporaries could offer. This suggests that his manual may have been founded on a real engagement with actual architecture, not just with mental and allegorical diagrams. For instance, when he speaks of churches with three stories, (tria tabulate) like that of Noah’s Ark (inarcha Noe secundum) he may have remembered Hugh of St Victor’s picture of the Ark as a three- tiered set of rectangular boxes, but he could also be reconciling that fictive image with the three story elevation that made Chartres such a novel experience in 12th C France. And when he speaks of the Church that has ‘major’ and ‘minor’ columns (mairoes, and minores) does he mean the alternating systems of early Gothic churches, or is he noticing another novelty of Chartres, its new cantonne pillars, with minor shafts surrounding a major core? And is it a coincidence that in the manuals section on the Church’s portals (de hostia) he describes a church with doors facing north and south, both open to the people (populo), when Chartres is unique among Great Churches of the early 13th C in having extensive sculpted portals in north and south transepts, both open to pilgrims and visitors? And when Peter comes to describe the stained glass and windows of the Christian Church, which are of major interest to him, one senses a response to the unique emphasis given to glazing at Chartres in the first decade of the 13th C. When Peter comes to describe the geometrical framing of figures in the glass, he seems to betray an awareness of memoria’s ‘geometry of the mind’. Figures placed in round frames, he says, signify the original and infinite love of God; the triangle suggests the Trinity; the square signifies the four-sided Virtues. In the same vein he describes the windows as square- rectangular below to contain the ‘moral virtues of great prelates’ and circular above, because ‘they must be perfect and serve God always who is Alpha and Omega.’ He could be describing in his ekphrastic language the novel forms of the Chartres clerestory, the plate tracery windows, their lancets containing huge standing figures of ‘Great Prelates’, crowned by a single oculus (‘circular above’). ‘We should’ he concludes in his section on Easter hangings, ‘diligently consider how to do the same for all images (picture) and diagrams (figure) from images of plants to those of humans. (Similiter alie figure et picture diligenter debent considerari). Clearly Peter understood that the status and meaning of things represented in art (Picture) must be organised and presented appropriately in their proper frames (figure) and that this should be done for all art across the multiplicity of images in his sacred church. Here is evidence from the heart of the building enterprise at Chartres that images can be understood in terms of schemata, and that both can be made literally manifest in the ordered manifest of figures in the Cathedral.
My summing up is both a drawing together and a self-critique. The organisation of imagery in a gothic Cathedral like Chartres and the experience of those images in sequences and overlaps, show analogies to the literary and rhetorical arts of memoria and ductus. But they are analogies. I have found no indication that such rhetorical categories were discussed in the chapter at Chartres- they were certainly not mentioned by name in Peter of Roissy’s manual. But that should not persuade us that rhetoric is a useless instrument in revealing the discourses that surround Chartres and its contemporary Great Churches. The cathedrals were planned as vast instruments of persuasion and pedagogy. Ductus and memoria, as visual systems may have offered the secular clergy of the Great Church ancient endorsement of their costly and colossal experiments of teaching via stone. They certainly put forward clear notions of how to integrate imagery into a new clarity of exposition- moving from the mental and the private (the monastic) to the public and the visible (the secular cathedral). And they offered kinetic system translatable into the liturgy of procession and pilgrimage. That such cross-overs might have taken place at Chartres rather than in any other great church of its day is suggested by its position in the history of Northern French gothic. All art historians recognise that Chartres was a new beginning, a new kind of Gothic architecture with a vastly enlarged range of images organised with a new clarity of exposition. Like all beginnings, it presupposes careful thought; a rehearsal of motives perhaps even inquest on how best of realise the Gregorian and the Victorine principle of learning by seeing. Its huge windows and extensive sculptural ensembles- more ambitious than any in contemporary Christendom – suggests a self-conscious enterprise: a clear statement from its school and chapter on the proper uses and display of church art. The obscure hinterland of instruction and commission which marks the beginning of a Great Cathedral will always be lost to us, but we know that art was seen by the Chartres chapter as an intellectual virtue and it is possible- just possible- that rhetoric belonged to those intellectual categories alongside theology, allegory, and tropology. Rhetoric, in other words, could have offered clergy and laity instruction via memoria and exploration via ductus: it could have taught them how to learn and how to move: to learn with their eyes and move with their minds.