Monday, April 2, 2012

History of Science at Chartres Cathedral, and Zodiac

In the previous post there was Zodiac window form Chartres, today is the astronomical clock. Strange setting for such symbols?

No way. Zodiac then was nothing unusual in churches. So, why all the mystery so many tourists talk about? Actually there is nothing mysterious about it. Explanation follows.
Chartres Cathedral Choir, Astronomical Clock, via Wikimedia Commons, thanks to Harmonia Amanda
First, the clock comes form XVI c. but its ideological roots are medieval, and proto-scientific, not really esoteric. Astronomy, astrology, the synthesizing medieval minds didn't see the difference.

 It is a common misconception that the Middle Ages were not interested in science, only in religion, or there was no reading of Classical texts before the Renaissance. Actually the classics were read, not as widely as  during the Renaissance, of course, but were not unknown, rather kept in high esteem. Many Classical and Arabic texts of science were translated into Latin. Arabic texts about astronomy, mathematics, anatomy and chemistry, and medicine contributed a lot in development of Western medical sciences, we often forget about it. Or simply don't want to know. And there was no agreement about if the Sun was the center of Universe or moved around the Earth. The official decision   in favor of the Earth as the center of the Universe came later. Science was fine as long it didn't oppose any dogma. For example the theological idea of dignity of the human body was applied to the medical field, and this particular idea didn't allow dissecting human corpses for anatomical research. Dead animals were dissected instead, specially pigs. Sometimes, rarely, human bodies were dissected also.

Chartres itself had a cathedral school, as often was the case with such buildings: there were also centers of learning, not only part of religious live of communities as today. Chartres was one of such centers, and was among the famous ones. Neo-Platonism was flourishing there, sciences were treated as separated from theology. A number of so called than natural philosophers (philosophers interested in science) came from Chartres. School of Chartres became less influential when universities started to compete with cathedral schools, but this was a case with all cathedral schools.

So, if the clerics of Chartres were so scientifically minded, why such thing as Zodiac in the cathedral?

 Here we need to understand the mind of people who lived before us, and don't project our XXI c. world view on them. The clerics form Chartres were still products of their times, and during their times astrology was science, before the Catholic Church opposed it, and before it was mocked  by the scientists of the Enlightenment era as superstition, not a scinece. Medicine was part of curriculum at Chartres school, and astrology was officially part of medicine also. Here is the illumination dealing with the human body as related to Zodiac.

Anatomical Zodiac Man, Limburg Brothers, Book of Hours of Duke de Berry, illuminated manuscript tempera on vellum, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, thanks to Petrus Berbygere

In addition to proto-scientific reasons, Zodiac was a very popular motive in depictions of passing time. One  was very common:  the labors of the months. Frequently months and Zodiac signs were tied together, and this is often found in medieval churches and religious  manuscripts. Labors of the months showed secular world. Zodiac window at Chartres belongs to this popular category. Here is incomplete list of  zodiacs and labours of months in churches.

 Another example, most famous of this type is the series of illuminations from the mentioned  Book of Hours of Duke de Berry, (the same book from which the illumination above comes from). It is not the only example of this kind, but among the most beautiful ones, if not the most skilfully rendered, so far. Here it is, via Wikipedia article and picture gallery.

The Book of Hours of Duke de Berry is  of the most beautiful examples of book illumination in International Gothic style, and contains a very good example of Gothic blue, specially loved and used in France.

 Art history itself is an interdisciplinary endeavor, and understanding history of science or cultural history can enhance knowledge of art. Art doesn't exist in historical vacuum. It is connected to the world around, it exists in historical contexts. Striping old art form its historical context can give us only partial insight, and lead to some  misunderstanding too, some of them can be quite funny.