Building Heaven On Earth
Below is a great documentary from the BBC, which details the process and spiritual symbolism of the operative stone masons. These same understandings are what came to be the foundation of the Freemasons and speculative masonry.
Building usually started at the east end, where mass was celebrated. When that was finished the church could be consecrated and put to use. followed by the transepts running north to south, the nave and the side aisles would follow. From foundations to finish might take less than 60 years or as many as 200 if the money ran out. It’s a bit of a myth that the medieval cathedrals somehow design themselves in a great communal outburst of religious energy without the help of what we would call architect. in fact he may not have been called an architect but to create a structure of this ambition you need a man with skill, vision, and expertise. A man who knew what he was doing.
Those men were called Master Masons. They learned everything they knew one site, progressing from apprentice to stone carver. They travelled and made sketches at what they saw, adapting them for their own designs to put to the Bishop. Very few medieval mason’s plans or notebooks survive. Those that do show they knew geometry. Not the theory that we understand today, but a geometry based on the complex manipulation of squares, circles and triangles to produce shapes and patterns in regular proportions.
Some of these patterns can seem pretty sophisticated. The ratio of one to the square root of two for example crops up in lots cathedrals. It’s a formula that suggests some pretty sophisticated mathematics. in fact it’s very easy to generate using some basic geometry. Simply draw a square and draw a diagonal across it and the relationship between the diagonal and the side of the square will be in the proportion of one to the square root of two.
If you take the ground plan or footprint of a cathedral like Norwich for example. the cloister is a square draw a diagonal across it and you get the length of the naive. create a square from that length, on a diagonal across that square gives you the length of the entire church, right up to the high altar.
Proportion, ratio, symmetry. To the medieval mind these were spiritual qualities. they reflected the harmony of creation and the medieval mason’s cared passionately about them. Some have claimed to spot mysterious messages and codes in the dimensions of medieval cathedrals. The number 144 for example, which refers to the number of those who will be saved in the book of Revelation. All kinds of numbers that occurr in the Bible pop up from time to time in Cathedral architecture. These are mostly the ideas and churchmen. Much more common are the basic geometrical principles followed by the master masons with the a square, a circle and a diagonal you can generate an entire cathedral.