Early in the second millennium, the Chartres school was a center for healing, arts, the honoring of the earth and the Divine Feminine Principle, as well as for the use of alchemy as a tool for personal transformation, and for the revolutionary perspectives of world citizenship and interconnectedness. As author Jim Garrison writes, our work in the present age is “to reclaim our wholeness and to reconnect with those great educators of the past who understood that art is as important as logic, that personal transformation is as important as belief, and that feeling one with the cosmos is as important as having dominion over nature.” The school at Chartres thus is both a precursor and an inspiration for Seven Pillars House of Wisdom.
Two years ago marked the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the mystery school in Chartres, France that imagined and built the great Chartres Cathedral, called the “Mother Cathedral.” In the year 1006, Fulbert, a major mystic, doctor and builder of his time and known as “Father Socrates” by his students, became Bishop of Chartres Cathedral and consolidated the curriculum of his mystery school. He established the Chartres School out of both a deep spiritual commitment of his own and through extensive interactions with Druidic, Jewish, Sufi and, according to some scholars, Hindu masters. His school continued for two centuries, reconstructed the Cathedral, and served as one of the precursors to the Renaissance.
Fulbert did not establish his school nor did he initiate building the cathedral in Chartres by accident. Chartres has been a focal point for the mysteries of healing and birth as well as a center where the divine feminine has been reverenced since the Druids first consecrated the site over 3,000 years ago as a place for the adoration of the Black Madonna. In fact, Chartres is derived from the Celtic word cairn, which means “place of the altar.”
By the time of Fulbert and his School two thousand years later, Chartres was a recognized locus of powerful healing, artistic and creative energies, and the adoration of the feminine and the earth. The Cathedral stands unsurpassed in its beauty and grace. It is, if you will, the Taj Mahal of the West, and the great mythologist Joseph Campbell called Chartres the “womb of the world.”
Commemorating this great achievement might seem counterintuitive in an age such as ours that often relegates history to the non-essential, and the mysteries to the realm of superstition, believing, as many do, that we are at a unique historical juncture, never encountered by the human race before, and that therefore we are in a time of evolutionary enlightenment, a great leap forward when spirituality itself is changing. This view might turn out to be a bit hasty.
Reaching back in time in order to move forward in time is actually the beginning of the wisdom we seek. It is the great Plato who reminds us that all philosophy is, in the end, an act of remembering. That is in fact the essential meaning of the word religion. It comes from the Latin word religare, meaning “to re-link,” “to reconnect.” Honoring the Chartres School is thus an opportunity for re-linking, as a process in and through which wisdom teachers and wisdom seekers can refresh themselves with ancient understandings, initiate themselves in the deeper mysteries, and better understand the spiritual depth out of which we all come. As Bernard of Chartres said, “We are dwarfs carried on the shoulders of giants.”
Liberal Arts Education
What many imagine to be a modern term “Liberal Arts” was first used by the founders of the original Chartres School a thousand years ago. In a time of crisis in education the world over, it might be salutary to go back and revisit the original meanings and intentions of such a term. The Liberal Arts actually find their origin in ancient Egypt and early Greece, where they were cultivated as preliminary stages for learning and initiation. They were kept very secret and were given only to initiates who vowed secrecy on not only the arts themselves but the rites and initiations that accompanied their delivery and learning.
It was during the fourth century that a mystic named Martianus Capella, born in North Africa and steeped in the Egyptian and Greco-Roman mystery traditions, articulated the first description of the Liberal Arts that has come down to us. He described them imaginatively through an allegorical wedding between Mercury and Philologia, in which the arts are described as seven majestic female spiritualized beings, each one representing in turn grammar, rhetoric, dialectic (called the Trivium) and arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy (called the Quadrivium). While this description of the Liberal Arts is virtually unknown to us today, it was the basis of learning throughout antiquity and it was well known in the Middle Ages. It was this notion and this curriculum that was brought together and formalized into a curriculum at Chartres a thousand years ago.
For the masters who established the original Chartres School, the purpose of teaching the seven Liberal Arts was to cultivate the mysteries of personal and social transformation. The seven Liberal Arts became transformational when they were expressed through the subtleties of astrology, alchemy and sacred art, sometimes referred to as the erotic sciences. Through astrology, the most ancient of the sciences, originating in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, they knew that the totality of the cosmos was mirrored in each human soul and that all things are interconnected and mutually influential upon one another. Through alchemy, also one of the earliest sciences and universally taught in the earliest of the mystery schools, students were initiated into an understanding that transformation from something lower into something higher was the profoundest spiritual aspiration and journey. And through sacred art, the students were trained that it is through the arts that the highest appreciation of the sacred is expressed.
Birthing the Divine Human Being
The seven Liberal Arts developed by the original Chartres School were essentially an artistic impulse based on the erotic sciences and derived from the ancient mystery schools of Rome, Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia and India. The teaching common to all of them and expressed artistically throughout Chartres Cathedral is that in each and every one of us there is a divine spark that, if nurtured and cultivated, can enable us to develop to our full potential. The Chartres School was dedicated to birthing the divine human through adoration of the divine feminine. This belief was memorialized in stone and glass in the sweeping Gothic architecture of the Cathedral, which they viewed as a form of sacred writing, especially the stained glass windows and the labyrinth carved on the floor near the entrance. No one has ever been buried in the Cathedral. It is completely dedicated to the theme of birthing and renewal. Over 400 images of the feminine grace its walls and windows, almost all depicting some act of birthing.
It is worth noting that it was during the Enlightenment that the erotic sciences, along with an appreciation of the feminine, were stripped away from the notion of Liberal Arts education. What remained was the emphasis on rational discourse, memorization of information and analytical thinking – all masculine capacities. That is what we have inherited today, which is one of the principle reasons why we have more doctorates than ever before and the world is in a greater crisis than ever before. Educational systems the world over, from kindergarten through graduate school, are educating people to use only a fraction of their intelligence to understand the world and make decisions.
World Citizenship and Environmentalism
It is humbling perhaps for us to learn that while we discuss “world citizenship” as if that is something that pertains only to our modern era, the founders of the original Chartres School saw world citizenship as the goal of their Liberal Arts curriculum. It was an essential part of what they understood by “wholeness,” a recognition that while we might like to think of ourselves as the center of creation, in the end, no matter how significant we think we are, we are only a small infinitesimal fractal of a vast inter-dependent whole. We also talk of the environment as if this is something new with us. The old masters of Chartres celebrated the earth and depicted the Green Man in stone sculpted on the walls of the Cathedral. This grounded everything they did in the earth, the ever-fertile mother of all living beings.
Re-linking with the original Chartres School is as important as it is because like our situation now, Europe a thousand years ago was plagued with political and economic turbulence. Religious authorities and political leaders whipped up the populace against Islam. It was the age of the Crusades. Like many of us today, some then stood against the tide of hatred and reached out to dialogue with the other side. Through the Knights Templars and other intermediaries, the founders of the Chartres School and the builders of the Chartres Cathedral established a profound dialogue with the Sufis and other Muslim teachers and scholars. The dialogue was fruitful. It was from Muslim architects that the critical developments necessary for Gothic architecture, embodied in Chartres Cathedral, were derived. It was also from the Sufis that much was learned concerning the erotic sciences so central to the Chartres mystery school.
One of the fundamental purposes of continuing to celebrate the millennial anniversary is thus to reclaim our wholeness and to reconnect with those great educators of the past who understood that art is as important as logic, that personal transformation is as important as belief, and that feeling one with the cosmos is as important as having dominion over nature. Only such a balance will suffice to provide us with the way through our current predicament. Only a return to the original purpose of learning – to find one’s place in the universe, to discover one’s wholeness – will be enough to guide us into the future with hope.
Adapted from an article that appeared in Elixir: Consciousness, Conscience and Culture, No. 3, Autumn 2005. Abridged with permission of the author.
The Organization of which Jim Garrison is chair, “Wisdom University is a global learning community providing unique opportunities to deepen your spiritual and personal development while obtaining academic degrees.”
RELATED READING: Cathedral of the Black Madonna: The Druids and the Mysteries of Chartres, by Jean Markale 2004.
by Jim Garrison
Honoring the Founding of the Chartres School