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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Lent / Tarot / Genius / The Three of Coins

The visual language of a Tarot deck is the language of a medieval European village. The three of coins is the genius card. It depicts an artist creating art in a medieval cathedral as his patrons look on and compare his work to their plans.

When I was young and foolish, I traveled the world. I wanted to see the Taj Mahal, the Elgin Marbles, the Parthenon, Pagan in Burma, Bethlehem … and I did. All were very nice.

Nothing that I saw, nothing, was anything like Chartres Cathedral. I spent six hours inside Chartres Cathedral. I did not want to leave. I have always yearned to return. Of all the places I've been to, Chartres Cathedral is the one place I want to go back to before I die.

You must go to Chartres Cathedral.

A few years back I decided that I'd scratch my Chartres itch by reading a book about Chartres. I had already watched enough documentaries.

I went to Amazon and picked the most popular book, Philip Ball's "Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Invention of the Gothic." The book, praising Christianity's greatest artistic achievements, began with a repugnant, gratuitous description of the shameful Crusader sake of Byzantium in 1204.

I get it. Praising anything Christian is not hot in academia, journalism or pop culture. If you are going to publish a book offering Chartres Cathedral every earned swoon, every deserved superlative, every embrace and celebration, the only way you can get away with it is to insult Christians and Christianity on your very first page.

The self-titled Enlightened ones of the French Revolution attempted to destroy Chartres Cathedral with explosives, so the story goes. A stonemason saved the cathedral by pointing out that it would take years to clear away the rubble.

The Cathedral did not escape completely unscathed: "In 1793, destructive assaults due to the French Revolution, led to the desecration of the Virgin's Tunic, and the burning of the 16th century statue of the Virgin Mary in front of the Church. During the Revolution, Chartres, like Notre-Dame in Paris, was used as a Temple to the Goddess of Reason."

When I teach my class on folklore, I try to get my students to see the pyramids and the Parthenon as if they have never seen them before. I say, "Imagine that there are no written records. You've stumbled across these buildings. What can you conclude about the civilizations that created them?"

They rapidly recognize that the pyramids reflect a hierarchical society with one man, the pharaoh, at the top, and millions of slaves beneath him, building his tomb.

They also rapidly recognize that the Parthenon is something utterly other than the pyramids. It is a building you can enter and use as part of the life of the city. It is a flamboyant declaration of the value of reason, and its columns are reflective of the polis – each column is like a citizen holding up the edifice of the great Greek invention, democracy.

What does Chartres say about the medieval world? I'm not qualified to say. I know it was created by geniuses, like the one in the three of coins, and I know that most creators were anonymous, and their anonymity is peculiar in such edifices to Western Civilization, given that Western Civilization is all about the individual. "While the creator is unknown, we still react to his creation as an unalterable expression of his artistic act: one would not consider, for example, replacing an imperfectly shaped ear or nose of a medieval Madonna with one of a more pleasing form," writes Heinz Kohut in "The Analysis of the Self."

It's a core Christian paradox. Jesus tells us that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. He tells us that the seed must die to fruit. He tells us, in the Ash Wednesday Bible readings, that the left hand should not know what the right hand is doing – but he also tells us to invest our ten talents, that no bushel basket should ever hide our light – no – it must shine for everyone in the house.

The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas says, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

Bring forth. Shine. Create. And be ready to be anonymous.

Orson Welles famously reflected on Chartres and its anonymous geniuses.

"And this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole Western world, and it's without a signature: Chartres. A celebration to God's glory and to the dignity of man.

All that's left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked radish. There aren't any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable.

You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand, choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish.

Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We're going to die. 'Be of good heart,' cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced — but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much."

You can hear Welles speak this salute to Chartres at the youtube link below.

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