Divine Construction: Parallels between the Chartres Cathedral and the Mosque of Cordoba
These two medieval buildings are some of history’s most majestic examples of religious art.
The Cathedral of Chartres and the Mosque of Cordoba are two of most beautiful and mystical buildings of Medieval architecture. Although they come from different religions, the two buildings have some fascinating similarities.
Rising into the sky above the French countryside are the tall towers of the Cathedral Our Lady of Chartres. The Cathedral’s elegant symphony of glass and stone establish a symbolic and literal bridge between the earth and the sky.
A little more than 1500 kilometers to the south, in the white streets of Cordoba, Spain, sits the imposing form of the Mosque of Cordoba. Unlike the Cathedral of Chartres, the majesty of the Mosque is not in its verticality. Rather, the Mosque extends horizontally (with the exception of its minaret) evoking something like infinity in its many arcs, domes and columns all decorated in rhythmic arabesques.
But despite the obvious differences, the two buildings were inspired by the same creative impulse, serving both political and religious purposes. As Islam and Christianity both stem from the Patriarch of Abraham, both Chartres and Cordoba were heavily influenced by Roman art. The two buildings are some of the best examples of man’s attempt to represent the divinity in architecture, ideas taken from the contemporaneous philosophy of Neo-Platonism, in which the image (the abstraction of the Islamic God and the Trinity of the Christian God) is the door to the kingdom of purity.
Neo-Platonism, an important philosophy during the Middle Ages in Europe and the Middle East, argued that art had not only aesthetic but also religious significance. When a person experiences beauty, according to Neo-Platonists, the virtues of divinity are reflected in their souls: physical beauty being a reflection of spiritual beauty.
One of the key elements of Neo-Platonism was light. Light was considered a manifestation of divine creativity, the most pure form and the noblest material which must be taken into account in art. Sunlight in Cordoba floods directly into the Mosque and seems to become something almost tactile, whose presence and absence in certain parts of the mosque corresponds to religious experience. In Chartres, however, light doesn’t directly enter the Cathedral until it is filtered through colorful stained glass, creating a stimulating and subtle example of the transmutation of nature into spirit.
Both Cordoba and Chartres invite the visitor to contemplate infinity, a metaphor present in both places. In Cordoba this metaphor is represented in a forest of arches, harmonically breaking up space into light and shadow. In Chartres, with every element pointing upwards, infinity is implied by the insistent vertical movement of the building towards the sky. The verticality in Chartres also represents the history of the world, starting with the Old Testament, passing through contemporary religious life and pointing towards the future of the Final Judgment. On the inside walls, we read a series of images reflecting the progression of the soul on its way toward salvation, connecting the universal history of architecture to the individual story of the soul.
Cordoba, however, seems to represent a more timeless space, suspending the visitor in a state of contemplation, enraptured with the presence of the divine. While Chartres, with its vital energy, implies an act of ascendance, Cordoba, with its internal silence, implies an opening of the heart.
Though the Cathedral of Chartres is dedicated to the Divine Female, the Virgin Mary, perhaps the building also evokes Mother God, a figure from an older, pagan philosophy. The roses along the windows of the Cathedral, sculpted in nearly perfect geometric symmetry, seem to reflect the cosmic Mother God. Curiously, the Mosque of Cordoba would later be changed into a Cathedral as well (Our Lady of Cordoba), also devoted to the Divine Female. In the floral motifs in the Mosque we can see reflections of an eternal form, the mysterious union of opposites.
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