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23.5 Degrees: The Chant of the Canted Companions
"A music of symbols silently coordinates these vast encyclopedias of stone"-Henri Focillon
By Stella Maris
July 12, 2008
© M.C. Escher (c) Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands
As it was already quite late by the time Soph and I checked into Le Grand Monarque Hotel in Chartres, we decided to stay in and order up room service while we consulted the small library of books on Chartres Cathedral that we had brought with us. Our plan was to spend the next morning looking at property for MemoryMap's office, and then use the rest of the weekend to tour the cathedral and the Chartres environs.
We suspected that one could spend a lifetime studying the cathedral's world-famous sculptures and stained glass windows alone. But what actually fascinated us most about Notre Dame de Chartres was that, rather than being built in accordance with the usual celestial and terrestrial temple mirroring that we were used to seeing by this time, Chartres had a subterranean element, as well. It had three layers, rather than two.
And, being relative neophytes at this philosophical pilgrimage business, we weren't quite sure what to do with an underground alignment yet, but we certainly intended to find out.
According to some of the books we had brought with us, the cathedral was originally built on an ancient Druid grotto dedicated to the worship of a sacred underground well, which was still preserved in the crypt beneath the cathedral. As if to drive the point home, Notre Dame de Chartres was unique in having two ancient madonnas for pilgrims to venerate--a gilt one in the nave called Notre Dame du Pilier, or Pillar, and a Black Madonna overseeing the sacred well in the crypt called Notre Dame de Sous-Terre, meaning Our Lady Underground.
But, in addition to this, the construction of Chartres cathedral incorporated some interesting celestial alignments, too.
There is a popular French tradition that the earthly location of Notre Dame de Chartres corresponded to the heavenly position of a star in the constellation of Virgo, The Virgin. With a bit of digging, we discovered that the celestial body that Chartres cathedral supposedly mirrors is a binary star system named Porrima (Gamma Virginis), after a Roman goddess of the Future. The other Virgo star correspondences were said to be located at Notre Dame cathedrals in Reims, Amiens, Bayeux, and Evreux.
But there was another celestial feature at Chartres that we found even more fascinating. Every year on the Summer Solstice, a beam of sunlight was focused through a lens in a stained-glass window dedicated to Saint Appollonaire, the Christianized version of the Roman Sun God Apollo. And, at noon on the Summer Solstice, this beam of light illuminated a particular flagstone in the transept of the cathedral, in exactly the same way that the gnomon operated at Saint Sulpice in Paris.
Soph and I bristled with excitement at this coincidental piece of information. Pushing aside our chocolate mousses, we rummaged relentlessly through our collection of books, looking for some kind of explanation for the seemingly random siting of the Chartres gnomon.
Our favorite book was written by someone called Louis Charpentier, who--like the master alchemist, Fulcanelli--we strongly suspected didn't actually exist. But, we were amused by his pseudonym because it reminded us simultaneously of Louis the Sun King and also of Aux Charpentiers, our favorite restaurant around the corner from Saint Sulpice in Paris. In fact, the story that Louis Charpentier related in his book, The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, was very similar to the story of the ancient carpenters guild that the restaurant was named after.
According to Charpentier, the cathedrals of France were built by specialist guilds of initiated craftsmen called Companions. Some authors romantically claimed that these guilds were related to the Knights Templar, but Soph and I weren't entirely convinced of a direct connection. However, these guilds did seem to form the original "operative" prototype of the Freemasonic societies that still exist today.
But what intrigued Soph and I most about the Companions’ story is that Charpentier claimed that the guilds who operated in the Chartres area of France called themselves The Children of Solomon... which conveniently fit in with the Temple of Solomon metaphor of the solar system and local star constellations that we were looking for.
Which was all very interesting, but we still couldn't get to the bottom of this blasted sunbeam on the Summer Solstice that kept niggling at the back of our minds.
So, we went back and forced ourselves to work through Charpentier's convoluted explanations of sacred geometry and alchemy and the marriage of fire and water and the squaring of the circle, blah, blah, blah that was all mystically incorporated into the sacerdotal art of cathedral building, which I won't torture you with because it will only drive you mad.
The short version is, while working through the process of how the cathedral was constructed we discovered, almost in passing, that rather than the usual east-west alignment that Catholic churches were normally built around, Chartres was canted at an angle of 47 degrees. Furthermore, it was due to this 47 degree cant that our intrepid sunbeam was aligned to fall on a certain flagstone in the cathedral on the Summer Solstice.
Now, if you have been following along here in 23.5 Degrees, you will immediately understand why Soph and I got excited by this obscure detail…
Newton Coordinate: The Feast Day of Saint Veronica of the Veil, July 12th, on the Greenwich Meridian.