Gothic Cathedrals: A Guide to the History, Places, Art, and Symbolism (2015)



“Solomon, I Have Surpassed You”

The myths and realities of sacred architecture and the building crafts, stonemasonry, and guilds, have a powerful connection in the East as well as in Europe. It is to this theme that we will now turn, recalling a statement by Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis. Credited with spearheading the fledging Gothic movement in medieval France, the Abbot was known to have once famously proclaimed, “Solomon, I have surpassed you.”

The countries and regions comprising the Holy Land and beyond to India, China, and other distant lands have a long, active history and were important in late medieval times as well. The spice trade networks flourished between East and West. Art, cultural, literary and religious exchanges were continuous. The medieval period also witnesssed a huge increase in religious and secular pilgrimage to the Holy Land and countries further afield. And, of course, the end of the eleventh century saw the opening of the Crusades period, a two hundred year military campaign that forever changed both Eastern and Western cultures.

One of the most commonly-asked questions today is whether the medieval Order of the Temple, the Knights Templar, built the Gothic cathedrals. If not, what role, if any, did they play in the Gothic movement? The military/monastic Orders were part of a complex tapestry with many strands, during one of the most powerful periods in European history—the High Middle Ages. Let us now examine this issue.

The Order of the Temple

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Cistercian monastic Order became connected with the Knights Templar through their powerful Abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux. He was a highly influential and persuasive figure who was instrumental in assisting the fledging Templar Order obtain the necessary papal approval at the Council of Troyes in 1128/9. Bernard, a fervent devotee of the Virgin Mary, intriguingly wrote that God was “length, width, height and depth.” (1)

The period of the Templar Order (1119–1312) was roughly contemporary with the building of many of the major Gothic cathedrals. There is no direct evidence proving that the Order of the Temple had a direct role in actually building any of the Gothic cathedrals. But details about how some of the cathedrals were financed remain elusive due to the scarcity of surviving documents in many areas. Most records that have survived show a pattern of wealthy noble patrons and royal supporters making donations to various cathedral building projects, thus enabling the work to be completed.

Although some have suggested that the wealthy Templar Order may have assisted with the financing of the Gothic cathedrals—certainly a plausible possibility—there has been no surviving historical documentation toconfirm this as of this writing. However, one must factor in the relative scarcity of Templar accounting documents that managed to survive the nearly complete destruction of the Order in the first and second decades of the fourteenth century.

Although Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians, as well as the Cluniac Order, were heavily involved in supporting what can only be described as an extraordinary boom in the new Gothic architectural style concurrent with the Templar era, it does not mean that the Templars themselves built the Gothic cathedrals. As a number of historians have pointed out, they would have been far too busy building their own much-needed fortresses, castles, chapels, and other buildings in Europe and the Holy Land, let alone handling the logistics and finances of a 200-year life and death campaign against the Saracens.

On the other hand, a number of the medieval guilds who built the cathedrals invariably had interactions with the major religious Orders of the day, the Templars included. The primary guild involved in building the Gothic cathedrals, of course, was that of the medieval stonemasons, who taught much of their tradition orally, as we have seen. The Templar Order did have its own mason brothers, as section 325 of their Rule confirms. Although the Templar masons were members of the Order, it is important to note they were not considered to be full Knights. The actual number of full knights within the Templar Order was approximately ten to fifteen percent. (2) Like the majority of Templars, the mason brothers were highly valued as talented, skilled associates. (3) For instance, we learn from the Templar Rule that the mason brothers were the only Templars allowed to wear leather gloves, except for the chaplains. As members of the Order, they were bound to the Templar Rule and their oaths. Templar mason brothers were not the same as members of the medieval stonemasons guilds.

Unfortunately, the key part of the central Templar archive is believed to have been destroyed by the Turks in 1571, if not earlier, on the island of Cyprus. There are thus few surviving Templar records and no specific cathedral building expenditure records regarding the Templars. Some historians remain hopeful that more documents may be found in the future to clarify this and many other issues relating to Templar financial affairs—including their possible contributions to building projects such as Gothic cathedrals.

St. Bernard and Abbot Suger—medieval rivals, medieval friends

In his younger years, the devout-but-austere St. Bernard was known to strongly resist much of what Abbot Suger was doing at St-Denis. Bernard decried what he felt to be the ostentatious, even gaudy, decorations of many of the Cluny Order's buildings. The two men are often portrayed as great rivals. However, this rather limited view may need to be questioned, as it appears to be largely based on a few letters that Bernard wrote. The two churchmen were, perhaps, in the final analysis, more alike than different. As especially dedicated fellow Christians at the time of the Crusades, when push came to shove, although they disagreed on the details, they undoubtedly felt united in wanting to build the greatest “Temples to God” in all of western Europe.

They sought to rival or even surpass the famous Eastern church—the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople (now Istanbul). Everyone at the time continually raved about the Hagia Sophia and its extraordinary beauty, form, and aesthetic sense. No wonder that Abbot Suger was so interested in this building and its design, and that he wanted to surpass it—to show that the West could produce something equally exquisite. Bernard of Clairvaux also studied and wrote about the Hagia Sophia, as did other philosophers and theologians at that time in Paris.


St. Bernard, a man with a unique vision, was one of the most powerful European figures of the 12th century. (The Life and Teaching of St. Bernard, Andrew J. Luddy)

Yes, there were the usual petty rivalries between Bernard and Suger, just like there have been in many religious Orders, churches, spiritual organizations, or universities from time immemorial. Yet, as the highly-regarded Courtauld Institute scholar Dr. Lindy Grant states in her authoritative book on Abbot Suger, “Given the widely art-historical view that Suger's new shrine-choir is in effect a riposte to the aesthetic strictures of St. Bernard, it is interesting to note that Bernard himself was present at the consecration of the new choir of St-Denis on 11th June 1144.” (4)

Far from being bitter rivals of a lifetime, there seems to have been a genuine bond between Suger and Bernard—especially during their later years. As Abbot Suger lay dying, an elderly Bernard wrote to him, attempting to rally his spirit, sending him a small, special handkerchief as a token of support. In medieval times, this was an important symbolic gesture, and, in this case, one sincerely made. The letter Suger wrote in reply to Bernard isalso quite telling about their overall relationship as colleagues, challenging the usual assumption of their perennial antagonism. The dying Abbot, indeed, was said to have clung tightly to Bernard's handkerchief at his end. (5)

Clearly, the two leading churchmen respected each other, and, to a degree, worked together, on occasion, as religious and political colleagues. They certainly both knew the French Master of the Knights Templar. Some believe they may have even planned the financing and/or building of certain cathedrals, together with clergymen from the various other churches and monastic orders. There was something of an interlocking network of Christian-based organizations, across both Western and Eastern territories. So although it is assumed that the Order of the Temple itself did not build the cathedrals, it was inevitably a part of a larger network of “fellow religious organizations.” Even as major building projects are almost always highly cooperative efforts today, it was no different in the late Middle Ages. Practically put, a major building project simply could not be done without vital cooperation on various levels between diverse parties. The question is, if this occurred, to what degree?


Abbot Suger, in addition to his architectural vision, he was one of the foremost historians of his day. (Portraits des grands hommes, femmes illustres, et sujets memorables de France, 1787–92)

In addition, it is highly doubtful and rather obvious that any one organization could never have done it all. So great was the overall expense, time, required knowledge, needed manpower over many territories and countries, that significant energies were needed for construction of cathedrals. It involved interactions between royal, religious, guild, and civic bodies and authorities, as well as the general populace. As the community, guilds, stonemasons, patrons, and others could participate in the long-term task of building, the construction of a cathedral could well be described as “For builders are we all”—a variation on the famous phrase in the English medieval poem Piers the Plowman, “For pilgrims are we all.”

“Solomon, I have surpassed you”: a possible Eastern connection?

The glories of the Hagia Sophia and the city of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire, had spread far and wide by the twelfth century. It is not surprising that some medieval European religious leaders would have a growing curiosity about that sophisticated culture and seek greater interaction with it. In fact, there were many stimulating connections between East and West, among various secular, spiritual, and religious networks. These included commercial dealings involving trade in such valuable commodities as incenses, spices, and teas, as well as in art objects and religious-related artifacts.

In the fourth century, the Roman Empire had been divided between Rome and Byzantium (modern Istanbul). This ancient city was renamed Constantinople and served as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Medieval Eastern culture was one of the most sophisticated and advanced of the era. On the whole, Westerners today are not taught much about the Eastern Orthodox Church, nor about The Great Schism of 1054—when the Western Roman Catholic Church finally split with the Eastern Byzantine Orthodox Church over several longstanding issues and doctrinal disputes. Christianity was, and remains, divided into the Orthodox and Roman churches. During the Crusades, Western and Eastern Christians interacted with each other—sometimes as diplomatic and military allies, at other times as fierce enemies.

We must consider the seventh century Byzantine style of architecture as a possible source of inspiration for the later Gothic style. Its pointed arches occur in the early twelfth century in southwest France in building described as “Byzantine Romanesque”—a likely influence on the Gothic style.

New designs and interpretations of geometry and number may have been a combination of Byzantine and Islamic influences. The wealthy Byzantine culture was influenced by its many contacts with the architecture and civilization of the Middle East—in particular Syria. Both cultures played a part in the development of western Europe via the Crusades. Western exposure to Byzantine civilization and the Middle East through the Crusades—and the Moorish conquest of Spain in the eighth century—deeply influenced Europe. Experts are still examining these historical patterns. Contact between cultures was bound to influence the people involved.

Some maintain that the great palace of the Byzantine emperors in Istanbul has pointed arches in the substructures of the so-called “paved way.” Experts believe these may be dated to as early as the sixth century. Other Byzantine buildings with pointed arches included the Seyh Sulyman Camii. Professor of Byzantine Architectural History Robert Ousterhout adds that, “although slightly pointed arches had appeared already in the sixth century, at Qasr Ibn Wardan [western Syria] ... and in the eighth-century reconstruction of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they were not used in the later periods.” (6) Eastern Christians had long contact with Islamic builders and designers.

Pointed arches appear in the narthex of the St. John Studion monastery in Istanbul, and have been dated to the seventh century. The British Museum architectural expert Professor Keith Creswell commented some years ago that there were already slightly pointed arches on several buildings in western Syria as early as the eighth century. (7) It is likely then that this trend was a stylistic influence on Abbot Suger, who sought to surpass the Byzantines. The twelfth century competition between East and West helped fan the flames of enthusiasm for the ambitious Gothic design.

Various Patriarchs of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem married Byzantine princesses. For example, when Hugh de Payns and his nine Templar knights made their official emergence in 1118, the Patriarch Warmund of Picquigny was married to a Byzantine princess. There was also a great deal of interaction between the Christian crusaders, including military religious orders like the Knights Templar, the Saracens (Muslims) and other Eastern contacts in the Holy Land, such as the Sufis. This contact extended and increased during the two centuries of the Crusades. Jacques de Molay, the last Templar Grand Master, for instance, had his own Saracen scribe. It is believed by a number of architectural historians that Islamic architects assisted in the design of the famous medieval Templar “Castle Atlit” (dubbed “Castle Pilgrim”), the most advanced Crusader fortress in the Holy Land and a well-known medieval pilgrimage destination. Even today, interested visitors to London make it a point to visit All Hallows Church by the Tower, whose “14th century undercroft chapel High Altar has below it altar stones brought back to England from the Templars' famous Castle Pilgrim at Atlit in the Holy Land. During the Fifth Crusade, the Templars built this extraordinary fortress; it was named in honor of the many pilgrims who helped the Templars build this stronghold.” (8) See chapter 9 for more on this.


LEFT: The ancient “Walled Obelisk,” that was at the Hippodrome at Constantinople. (Gryffindor, WMC)

RIGHT: The now-famous “Serpents column” that used to be located at the center of the Hippodrome. Originally it had three heads. It came from Delphi in Greece; one of its three surviving heads is in an Istanbul museum today. (Gryffindor, WMC)

We also know that some of the house and holding “marks,” similar to mason's marks, were derived from Byzantine monograms and sigils. The glories of Constantinople were known far and wide. For some, there were lingering memories of its even more ancient past. These included the remnants of what is now dubbed the “serpent column” which had originally come from Delphi, and the “walled obelisk” of the Hippodrome, a circus that was the entertainment, social events, and sporting center of Constantinople in ages past. Today, it is a square named Sultanahmet Meydani (Sultan Ahmet Square).


Constantine offering the Hagia Sophia to the Virgin Mary. (Myrabella, WMC)

The Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia is now a museum. It remains a modern treasure of architectural history. So what is this famous cathedral and who built it? Its name means “Holy Wisdom.” It was the major center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The first church on this ancient site was built by Constantine the Great in the fourth century, but it was burned down during the Nika riots of 532 CE. (9) The modern building assumed its final form in 537 CE under the Emperor Justinian I. Built on a rectangular base and topped with an enormous dome thirty-two meters across, it would have towered above the city, visible even to ships far out at sea.


An 11th century Outremer generic crusader's pendant cross found in the east. (Eran Bauer)

Along with Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, Constantinople was one of the five major cities of importance in the medieval Christian world. Each of their bishops carried the title of “Patriarch.” Constantinople was regarded as enjoying the special protection of the Virgin Mary. It was an important destination for pilgrims traveling through the area on their way to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. And it housed many important relics until its destruction by Latin Christians in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. Such relics included two sections of the True Cross; the Mandylion of Edessa (an image of the face of Christ imprinted on a cloth); a tunic Christ was said to have worn at the time of his passion; the Crown of Thorns; the Lance which pierced his side; a small phial that contained some of his blood; a part of the robe of the Virgin Mary; and the head of St. John the Baptist—in short, quite an assortment!

The Hagia Sophia was built in honor of the glory of the Temple of Solomon. The Hagia Sophia building and its famed exquisite mosaics and decorated interior were so incredibly beautiful and ornate that the emperor Justinian was also reputed to have said “Solomon, I have surpassed you!”—as if in anticipation of Abbot Suger's boast centuries later.

The Temple of Solomon was also seen as the epitome of divine proportion, believed to be a key to the true wisdom of Solomon—number, geometry, and measure. A key component of this concept was the cosmic cube.

The “celestial Jerusalem” as a cosmic cube

As theological experts acknowledge, the shape of the New Jerusalem as described in the New Testament is a perfect cube. For John says in The Book of Revelation, “The city lies foursquare ... its length and breadth and height are equal.” (Rev. 21:16) Many scholars and translators have puzzled over exactly what may have been meant by this allegorical geometric concept. Some, but not all, have offered a possible explanation: the cube and its associated geometric and numerical philosophy may have been rooted in Pythagorean philosophy. (10)


A mid-thirteenth century (1250) generic crusader's pendant cross. (Eran Bauer)

Pythagoras was one of the greatest philosophers in the ancient world. Traditionally, he has often been considered as a “founding father” of Western philosophy and science. His contributions to mathematics are familiar to every school child. Perhaps less known are his contributions to music, medicine, and health. Some maintain that Pythagoras may have been espousing elements of a far more ancient philosophy and cosmology involving number and geometry than was originally supposed; others disagree. He traveled widely through the ancient world of the sixth century BCE, including Egypt. Some conjecture he was initiated into its wisdom tradition.


Grail image from a mosaic in the east, portraying the geometric motif of the Vesica Piscis. (Simon Brighton)

The most famous and influential disciple of Pythagoras was Plato, whose works were read by many of the early church fathers. In the Timaeus, Plato links the four elements out of which the ancients believed the world to be made to four regular geometric solids. These were the tetrahedron, (fire), the octahedron (air) the icosahedraon (water) and the cube (earth). Plato stated that it was only these four regular solids that are used in practical cosmology. The cube later came to represent the entire cosmos, as well as the earth, because the other three solids were geometrically constructed within the cube. Some believe that the cosmology that Plato got from Pythagoras can be found in temples, ziggurats and pyramids of the ancient world.


Grail and Sacred Geometry: the Grail as symbolic of the cubic Jerusalem.

From the Christian viewpoint, the ancient idea of a “cubic universe” was alluded to in Revelation. It is also an important symbolic construct in the important mystical Jewish document called Sefer Yetzirah or The Book of Creation during the third century CE. This book describes the cosmos as an expanding cube like the celestial Jerusalem. A later variation on this, as some point out, would be Kepler's model of the solar system, which also clearly shows it in cubic form.

So is it any wonder that by the High Middle Ages period, St. Bernard would refer to God in a geometric sense, or that Abbot Suger would especially value a building like the Hagia Sophia? The idea of the New Jerusalem as a cubic component of God's universe, however allegorical, would not have been new to them nor escaped their notice. Both men were simply building on philosophies gleaned from more ancient traditions and concepts that had made their way and been re-worked into Christianity.

Although it is unknown exactly who the stonemasons were that built the Gothic cathedrals, they appear to have had access to knowledge of earlier traditions of some type, and especially valued geometry. Pythagorean principles of geometry and number are self-evident. These principles were also valued and studied in the medieval period by the School of Chartres, the philosophers and theologians of medieval Paris, and others.

The medieval stonemasons and architects of the Gothic style left us an important legacy—written in the language of symbolism. Certainly, not all wisdom and knowledge comes from libraries, dusty old archives, books, manuscripts, or museums. Visual imagery, symbolism, and the higher use of the mind and imagination are at least equally important, if not more so, in terms of their direct impact on the deeper levels of the psyche. Even W.B. Yeats noted that “There is another world, but it is in this one.”

No matter where the initial inspiration came from for the Gothic style, the idea was that when a medieval town had its own cathedral, one did not have to go as far away as Jerusalem, Rome or Santiago, for instance, for a religious experience. The cathedral itself, they believed, was an allegorical symbol of the celestial Jerusalem—“right in your own back yard.” At this particular time in Western history, cathedrals were envisioned both as a beacon of hope for a community and as a symbol radiating a town's power.

East-West exchanges: Islamic and other Eastern interactions

The effects on medieval western Europe of the influx of Arabic knowledge were nothing short of extraordinary. The Islamic theory of architecture rests on the belief that the pointed arch may have come to the West from mosques or other buildings in the East, as discussed. The evidence for this idea initially came primarily from the work of Professor K. A. C. Creswell, the great architectural historian of the Middle East. He noticed that the arches in early Muslim architecture were not as pointed as they became in later centuries. (11) The notebook of the early thirteenth century Master Mason, Villard de Honnecourt, discussed previously, shows a compass drawing of pointed arches. Many have asked why or from where, he may have obtained such a concept.

Proponents of the theory of Islamic influence on European architecture postulate that this knowledge most likely came back via the Crusaders and/or other medieval travelers after the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. Many have asked: did the Crusaders really have Islamic or Sufi contacts? And if so, with what specific groups?

The Inquisition directly accused the medieval Knights Templar of “colluding with the enemy,” a key charge against them. The Nizari Isma'ilis, a religio-political Islamic sect dating from the 11th—13th centuries, also known as the “Assassins,” were a major force in medieval Middle Eastern and Asian history. The Templars (and other Crusaders) not only fought them in battles, but on occasion, simply had to have diplomatic dealings with each other. At times, these negotiations included paying tribute. (12) The point is that there were many more interactions of various types between the Crusaders and the Saracens during the long years of the Crusades period than we may have previously realized. Could, for example, captured Muslim architects and skilled craftsmen from foreign territories have joined the Templars as lay mason-brothers, or entered another religious Order, as some suggest? (13) This is an interesting question and helps us understand why the lack of surviving written records is so frustrating to medieval historians, architecture experts, and art historians.

Scholars of Islamic art and architecture often point out that Muslim building craftsmen generally traveled less frequently than their European counterparts, largely because of the nature of the political and economic systems of the Muslim world. Arab rulers:

monopolized the building trades, their sheer importance as employers having a decisive impact on them. They were the sponsors of most of the religious, military, and commercial buildings, and they alone carried out all infrastructural and military projects. This centralization of the building trades discouraged migration of craftsmen on a large scale... unlike their European counterparts, medieval Arab craftsmen did not manage to form autonomous corporations or guilds to speak for their own professional interests. The rulers could summon or dispatch craftsmen, and in times of war, they deported them as booty. Large-scale migrations of craftsmen occurred only in periods of catastrophe, as in the case of the Mongol invasions or the Spanish Reconquista. (14)

Medieval architectural historian John Harvey believes the Islamic pointed arches were probably originally seen by the Crusaders as they marched through western Syria in 1097 on their way to the Holy Land. As the Turks advanced west, they built new mosques at Diyarkbakir and other sites where Harvey believes “the crusaders would have seen good examples of various types of pointed arches.” (15)

The victorious Crusaders who remained on in Jerusalem lived in close quarters with the Jewish and Muslim communities (at least those whom they had not killed!). They would have had to get to know the leaders of those communities in order to effectively maintain law and order. The most famous Sufi teacher of the day, al-Ghazali, had come to Jerusalem after resigning his professorship in Islamic law in Baghdad. No doubt they would have heard of, or come across, him as well. The Europeans would certainly have been shown around the Temple Mount and learned that it was the site of the ancient Temple of Solomon; later the Temple of Herod, where, it was said, Christ and the Apostles had preached; and now the third most sacred site in Islam after Mecca and Medina.

They must have marveled at the unique architecture of the Dome of the Rock and at the other magnificent building on the Temple Mount, the al-Aqsa mosque. The medieval Templars later built the three central bays in the front of the al-Aqsa mosque—a fact confirmed by Jewish architects as well. The West Portal of Chartes Cathedral, begun in 1145, also uses the “one fifth” arches found in the al-Aqsa mosque. This certainly does not imply that the Templars were behind the building of the Gothic cathedrals in Europe. But it does show that, as often happens in the course of war, over the years important exchanges of some type occurred in the twelfth century between various crusaders and certain Muslim and other Eastern-based groups; in this case, this cultural exchange possibly included some information about Islamic architectural features and geometric principles.

Some of the Western castles in the Holy Land, or their ruins, exhibit designs and structures that continue to impress professional architects. In medieval times, too, visitors to the area remarked about what they saw on the buildings in and around Jerusalem, often with great wonder. The German monk Theoderic, having made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, commented in 1174:

On the other side of the palace [i.e., the al-Aqsa Mosque], the Templars have built a new house whose height, length and breadth, and all its cellars and refectories, staircase and roof, are far beyond the custom of this land. Indeed its roof is so high that, if I were to mention how high it is, those who listen would hardly believe me. (16)


The three central bays built by the Knights Templar at the entrance to the al-Aqsa mosque, Jerusalem. (James Wasserman)

Sadly, the building to which he referred was destroyed by the Muslims in the 1950s during their renovations of the Temple Mount. Theodoric's expression strikes the modern reader as astonished or in awe, as if he were probably seeing something he had never seen before—something quite extraordinary for that time. The monk also commented that all the buildings within the area of the Dome of the Rock were in the possession “of the Templar soldiers,” including the stables for their thousands of horses beneath the Temple Mount. (17)

The crusaders in the Holy Land would have learned, perhaps to their surprise, that the Sufis they encountered not only honored Jesus as one of their seven sages of Islam, but also, that they were thus willing to consider an interfaith and inter-spiritual pluralism. Perhaps—as proponents of this theory believe—some of the crusaders made a conscious decision to interact with, and learn from, these men—even if clandestinely. Obviously, if done openly, this would have put them in a very difficult diplomatic dilemma. As the so-called “Pope's militia,” the Templars in particular could hardly have risked revealing such sentiments openly, further antagonizing the Church. To do so would be highly dangerous, if not deadly. So, proponents maintain, they prudently preferred to simply keep silent.


Of the triple pointed arches on the West Portal of Chartres cathedral, begun In 1145; some believe they are strikingly similar to the three central bays of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. (Karen Ralls)

It is known, however, that the Ile-de-France designers in Paris made extensive use of pointed-arch groin vaults during the 1130s, often in aisles or other subordinate places, and pride of place was usually given to a pointed-arched rib vault, the type soon to become standard in Gothic architecture. The architect of the Durham nave was the “first in Europe to recognize in pointed arches a means of improving rib vaulting.” (18)

Does the use of the pointed arch and other design devices trace to a possible exchange between Crusaders, Muslims, and Jews? At this point, one can only speculate.

Yet, it is known that at least some important cultural exchanges took place between certain more open-minded European Christians and Muslims in Saracen Spain. For example, when a joint mission from Cluny and Chartres went to Spain, it was received with respect and fraternal regard, bringing new knowledge and awareness back to the West regarding topics like logarithms, algebra, and so on. A number of Islamic words also made their way into European languages—for instance, the English word “alcohol” came via the Moors. The brilliant Englishman and translator, Robert of Chester, who, along with others from Europe, studied in Saracen Spain, played a key role in introducing (or at least reintroducing) alchemy—said to have been previously unknown to medieval Christendom. He published a book he finished in 1144—a translation of an Arabic text. (19)


Detail of a miniature of the burning of the Grand Master of the Templars and another emplar. (From the Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis, BL Royal MS 20 C vii f. 48r, WMC)

While further links between East and West are important to consider, they nonetheless must remain tentative. One hopes more information will emerge in the form of documents that will help shed light on the overall situation.

Gothic cathedrals: their role in the stream of history and their contemporary appeal

Gothic cathedrals have often featured as a pivotal scene for major events in history. No wonder, then, that the great scholar and bestselling author Umberto Eco says that even today, we remain interested in the medieval period. This is a great testament to its allure on the human imagination—including the art and beauty of Gothic design. (20)

There are many historical connections with various Gothic cathedrals that continue to reverberate in the public consciousness. Notre Dame provides one example. Among its many glories, it has an unfortunate connection to the Knights Templar and the tragic downfall of the Order. Upon the steps in front of this great, towering Gothic masterpiece, the learned Cardinals, religious scholars, and king's prosecutors read out loud to the assembled crowd the now-infamous charges against the Order on the 13th of October (1307). These accusations shook the stunned French public to its core.

The rest is history.

The great abbeys and cathedrals of Europe—along with a number of Saxon, Norman, and Gothic churches—were often built on ancient sites in the landscape, as we will examine in more detail in the next chapter. Such sites were already long perceived by the populace as powerful places. Many can be shown to exhibit specific geometric patterns in their construction, as an increasing number of serious contemporary researchers are now seeing. (21)

The Gothic experiment itself might be seen as a “tapestry of light” with many strands. Like a path through time, the myriad twists and turns in the tapestry of medieval history still await further discovery, definitive documentation, and clarification.

Yet, on a more personal and intuitive level, history resonates through the centuries via the individual's experience of a Gothic cathedral. The traveler or pilgrim has his or her own view of the site and the transformative energies to be discovered there. Toward this end, let us now turn to the Labyrinth and the inward journey it represents.


Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the medieval Order of the Temple, burned at the stake in Paris on March 18, 1314.