Chartres Cathedral

Transformative Sanctuaries

"Visible things are images of invisible things;
phenomenal beauties become
images of invisible beauty."

Dionysius the Areopagite

Norman D. Livergood

     Throughout recorded history, humans have found that certain sites, buildings, and shrines possess the potency to enable 1 heightened states of consciousness. They have designated these as sanctuaries, consecrated places of power and transformation.

Delphi      When an original locus of power has been found, humans often build a shrine, temple, or cathedral at this site. Or they sanctify a particular area by constructing a building or consecrating an area with special meaning. Very often they place in these sacred areas statues or other commanding artifacts, to endow the site with power. Thus we have the ruins of ancient shrines at such places as Delphi and Athens.

The Sanctuary at Delphi

Temple of Apollo      Tradition and myth claimed that the site at Delphi, originally called Pytho, was first sacred to Poseidon and Ge (Mother Earth) and that an oracle presided near a cave inhabited by Python, the serpent son of Ge.The ancient Greeks considered the sanctuary of Delphi the center of the world. The shrine complex was located in a dramatic setting on the southern slopes of Mt. Parnassos. The fame of the Delphic oracle extended beyond the borders of the Greek world in the eighth and seventh centuries, B.C.E., giving the sanctuary an international standing, whereas the rival sanctuary of Olympia had a more national Greek character.

Temple of Apollo       A sacred passageway led through the site to the altar and temple of Apollo. On the Delphic site was also a theater, a stadium, the sacred Corycian Cave, and the Castalian Spring (said to have been created when the winged-horse Pegasus struck the ground with his hoof) and fountainhouse where visitors purified themselves. The Pythian Games, one of the four great athletic and drama festivals of ancient Greece, was held every 4 years.

Castalian Spring       Women priestesses, considered more sensitive than men to the oracular powers of the site, would first bathe in the waters of the nearby sacred Castalian spring, drink from the sacred Kassotis spring, inhale the fumes of burning laurel leaves and finally, sitting in meditation near the omphalos stone, would enter into a visionary trance state. A number of ancient accounts about Delphi indicate that the oracular priestesses sat upon a chair located over a fissure in the earth from which emanated trance-inducing vapors. Plutarch, a Greek philosopher who served as a priest at Delphi, and Strabo, an ancient geographer each reported that geologic fumes (Greek pneuma), inspired divine frenzies, while Plutarch noted that the gases had a sweet smell. 2

The Parthenon at Athens

The Acropolis as it would have appeared in 5th century Athens      The Acropolis of Athens is a steep-sided hill on which were built several temples and other noteworthy structures. Archaeological evidence indicates it had been associated since Neolithic times with female power, as numerous female artifacts found there suggest.

the Parthenon      Although sometimes used also as a defensible place of battle since the Bronze Age, the Acroposis appears nonetheless to have been a sacred site at all times. Earlier temples built on the Acroposis had been destroyed by the Persians. During the Classical period of 5th century B.C.E. Athens, the Greek general and statesman Pericles (c. 500-429 B.C.E.), initiated a vast rebuilding campagin for the Acropolis.  statue of Athena in the Parthenon The Propylaea (gateway)and the Parthenon were completed during his lifetime, while work on the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheum was begun after his death.

     The principal temple on the Acropolis, the Parthenon, was designed by the architects Iktinus and Kallikrates. Completed in 438 B.C.E. as a temple dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, the Parthenon celebrates her in her aspect as a virgin goddess. Parthenos, the Greek term for virgin, one of Athena's epithets.

     All sculpture, both inside and outside the Parthenon, was the work of Phidias. The Parthenon itself is a work of art and is regarded by some as the most perfect structure ever built. The horizontal lines of the temple that appear straight in actuality curve upward creating a shallow dome.  the Parthenon as it would have looked in fifth century Athens The reason for this is because a long straight line will appear to sag in the center. The four outside columns are thicker around than the rest, and lean slightly inward. There is also less space between the outside columns and the columns next to them. The reason for these singularities is because an outside column is surrounded in light, and will appear thinner than the rest of the columns if it is the same width. The Parthenon is a sanctified site because of the manner in which its architecture affects the viewer.

The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral

 Crusaders       We have to remember that Jerusalem had been captured by the "Christian" Crusaders on July 15, 1099, after a five week siege. True to their natures, the Christian victors proceeded to massacre the city's Muslims and Jews. After 460 years of Muslim rule, the Crusaders had restored Jerusalem to Christian hands, and declared the city the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

      As we speak of these "warrior-victors," we must constantly keep in mind the quotation marks around the word Christian, because these were anything but true Christians. But a new kind of genuine Christian was now to appear in Jerusalem.

 Knights Templar      In 1118 C.E., nine French nights traveled to Palestine and presented themselves to the Christian king of Jerusalem Baldwin II, explaining that they planned to form themselves into an order to protect pilgrims from robbers and murderers and to police the public highways. The king received them courteously and accepted their proposal. He gave them a lodging house in a wing of his palace, on the site of the old Temple of Solomon, in the Masjid-el-Aksa.

      Because of the house they occupied on the site of Solomon's Temple they were given the name of Knights of the Temple or Templars.  Knights Templar Their order was based on the three vows of chastity, obedience, and non-possession of personal property. The charter for the Templar order was in part created by Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux. This order of the Knights Templar was a curious one. They were not crusaders, not pilgrim-knights come to draw the sword in the name of God. They took part no part in any warlike activity whatsoever. They did not reside permanently in the Holy Land; otherwise King Baldwin II would not have afforded them temporary lodging.

     The Knights Templar appear to have been singularly connected to Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, the most remarkable religious personality of the West. Bernard's father was a knight as were his brothers.Clairvaux was one of the Cistercian monasteries, known for their architectural skill and their immersion in mystical teaching.

Templar medallion      The head of the Templars was Hugues de Payns, Bernard's cousin and a near neighbour to the Cistercian Abbey of Clairvaux. André de Montbard, third in command, was the uncle of Bernard, brother to his mother. Aleth corresponded with Bernard, addressing him as his direct superior. In 1125, the suzerain of Clairvaux, donor of abbey lands, Hugues de Champagne, joined the other nine Templars in the Holy Land.

 Mosque of El Aqsa       In Jerusalem, the Templars were given access to the underground area of the old Temple of Solomon. The Templars enlarged the el-Aqsa Mosque (pictured right), building a refectory with three long halls there. They used the vaults supporting the Temple Mount structures as stables, as described by John of Wurtzburg (1160-1170):

 Temple Mount stables

"When you descend to the main street, there is a great gate through which one may enter the great courtyard of the Temple. On the right side, toward the south, is the palace which they say that Solomon built. Within it are stables, so huge that they can hold more than two thousand horses or 1,500 camels, and near this palace the Templar knights have many great houses and there are also the foundations of a great new church which is not yet finished. This order has enormous property and endless revenues in this region and in other places."
     While in Palestine, the Templars came in contact with Perennialist sources, especially Sufi mysticism, Neo-Platonism, and Sufi-influenced Islamic architecture, such as the mosque of Masjid-el-Aksa

 Temple Mount      Why were the Templars interested in the underground areas of the Temple Mount? The Jewish Old Testament indicates that the Ark of the Covenant remained in Jerusalem for centuries after King Solomon. The Ark is mentioned repeatedly throughout the Old Testament up to the time of the invasion by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, when it was hidden by Hilkiah, the High Priest, before the Temple was destroyed around 586 BC.

      As the Babylonians were invading Jerusalem, Hilkiah instructed Jeremiah and the Temple Guard to hide the great treasures of Jerusalem—the Ark, the Anointing Stone, and other mysterious objects. We usually think of Jeremiah as a prophet, yet here he is involved in hiding sacred objects from an invading horde. Jeremiah's own son was the Captain of the Temple Guard. The Ark and the other sacred objects were secreted in tunnels beneath the Temple and a record kept of their location.

 Templars and the Temple Mount      This record was retained within the Order of the Temple Guard. Seventeen hundred years later, after the First Crusade, the Temple Guard was reconstituted from French and Flemish knights and given the new title of Knights Templar. This new order established its base in the El Aqsa Mosque on the old Temple site, and began excavating underground to bring up the ancient treasures. They knew exactly what they were looking for, and where to look.

     Interestingly, the relics of the Knights Templar were discovered by later generations. In 1867, a team of Royal Engineer re-excavated the area and uncovered tunnels extending vertically, from the Al Aqsa mosque, for some 25 metres before fanning out under the Dome of the Rock which is generally thought to be the site of King Solomon's temple. In 1894, from beneath the Temple of Jerusalem foundations, British military engineers brought up eleventh and twelfth century Templar swords, crosses and various items from below the El Aqsa Mosque. So there is no doubt that the Templars were excavating in that area. The patron of the Knights Templar, Bernard de Clairvaux, recorded their homecoming in 1127. They were protected en route, he said, by a military guard to safeguard them from papal interference. They surely must have been bringing back very valuable knowledge and objects to warrant such caution.

 Templar      Having returned to France, the Templars became the most powerful organization known to the world at that time. They were active both politically and financially, establishing the Western banking system on the Islamic model. They became bankers to almost every royal court in Europe and, in time, developed the concept of insurance companies throughout Europe, including Scotland. In political terms, they became the primary ambassadors to the Middle East.

"During the thirteenth century the Order may have had as many as 7,000 knights, sergeants and serving brothers, and priests, while its associate members, pensioners, officials, and subjects numbered many times that figure. By about 1300 it had built a network of at least 870 castles, preceptories, and subsidiary houses, examples of which could be found in almost every country in western Christendom."

Malcolm Barber, The New Knighthood
 Chartres' crossed ogives      After ten years of study of the Temple of Solomon and other architectural wonders in Palestine, the Knights Templars had returned to Europe with a special form of knowledge. Within a few years after their return, there arose in Europe an entirely new phenomenon, never before known in the West: gothic architecture and the use of this new architecture to achieve a higher state of consciousness. The Templars, guided by Bernard, appear to have been the initiating force behind the dozens of Gothic cathedrals and schools built in Europe at this time.

     What was this higher knowledge that Bernard and the Templars possessed, with which they were able to build the vast network of special European cathedrals and initiated aspirants into the secrets of these sanctuaries? Bernard of Clairvaux had many connections with both the Cathedral and School at Chartres. The initiatory School of Chartres studied deeply the Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Pythagorean philosophy and blended it with Christianity. From examining Bernard's many sermons on the Song of Songs,  Bernard of Clairvaux it becomes likely that Bernard had studied the Sufi conception of love which allows new forms of unity between a believer and God, seeing the literature of love as iconographic, in that it lets us see through our words to the living God whom they represent.

     There are many aspects to the higher knowledge that Bernard and the Templars possessed. In examining their construction of sanctuaries as sites of power and portals to higher consciousness, we'll concentrate on two dimensions:

  • the use of stone, glass, and space to create a field of power

  • the use of stone, glass, and space to create a field of light

Sanctuaries of Power

 Chartres' dazzling light

     What Bernard and the Templars knew and taught was the esoteric knowledge of how we can apprehend representations of sacred reality with our senses and our emotions in a special manner. Through initiatory training, we can experience a Cathedral (or other sacred place) as a reality on the threshold of the spiritual dimension through which we can gain access to an actual experience of ultimate reality.

     While it was known and practiced by ancient and medieval cathedral builders, only a few modern architects have understood that, as Geoffrey Scott says, "the art of architecture studies not structure in itself, but the effect of structure on the human spirit." 3


"To enclose a space is the object of building; when we build we do but detach a convenient quantity of space, seclude it and protect it, and all architecture springs from that necessity. But aesthetically space is even more supreme. The architect models in space as a sculptur in clay. He designs his space as a work of art; that is, he attempts through its means to excite a certain mood in those who enter it." 4

     What Bernard and the Templars taught was the use of sanctuaries as portals through which to enter a higher consciousness.

"The over-riding purpose was the need to have gateways through which contact with spirit could be achieved. In the ancient world there were certain people who knew how to work with the physical world in order to create access to the spiritual." 5
Chartres      What the Templars likely re-discovered in their excavations in Jerusalem and their study of Perennialist material (including buildings) throughout the Middle-East, was presiely this knowledge of how to work with objects--especially buildings--in the physical world to enable access to the spiritual dimension.

     That appears to have been what the Ark of the Covenant was all about. We know from the Old Testament that the Ark was made of acacia wood and lined inside and out with gold. What we have here is two conductors separated by an insulator. That is a capacitor: an accumulator and an amplifier. According to Maurice Denis-Papin, descendant of the famous inventor, the Ark of the Covenant was a sort of electric capacitor capable of producing an electrical charge of 500 to 700 volts. On either side of the Ark were garlands which may have served as condensers.

"The men who built Chartres . . . built the cathedral because they thought it would be useful in a special sense. The relations of length, breadth and height result from a necessity they couldn't escape. The ogive, for instance, proceeds from a necessity that is less architectural than physiological; so do the windows. All is designed to work on mankind. And it was brought about by men who somehow knew how to poise the largest known Gothic vault and one of the highest. And why did they set up just here a temple that raises its towers into aerial currents, and is rooted in terrestial influences? They were shaping a crucible for the transmutation of mankind. . .

dolmen:  a prehistoric monument of two or more upright stones supporting a horizontal stone slab "The crypt or grotto beneath the cathedral is a dolmenic chamber. A dolmen is found at a spot where the telluric current exercises its action. It is a stone table, resting on supports, that acts like an accumulator and it is capable of vibration, so that it acts as an amplifier as well; it is a drum. Thus, it is in the domenic chamber that man seeks Earth's gift. It seems probable that the cathedral stands over a point where a particular current surfaces, a current that may awaken a man to the spiritual life in him. That is why among all the churches in France that are named for Notre Dame, Chartres is the only one in which no king, cardinal or bishop is interred. The Mound must remain inviolate.

"The cathedral, then, is an instrument of high initiation. To be initiated is to be integrated with the play of natural forces and to be penetrated with spirit." 6

Chartres      The Greek word ark, meaning "gathering box", is arc in English and arche in French. The Oxford Word Library defines the word ark as an obsolete form of the modern English word arc. It was equivalent to the Latin arca, a "chest", "box" or "coffer". Sanctuary archaeology involves a quest for the Ark. Storage places are called archives. Ancient mysteries are called arcane. Ark-based construction, as used by the Templars, became known as architecture, from which we also get arch, architrave, etc.

     The last historical record of the Ark is at Chartres Cathedral, where a relief inscription on an entrance pillar says, "The Ark of the Covenant was yielded from here". There is no record of it ever having left Chartres. It was not buried there, taken from there or sent anywhere from there. The word used is "yielded", which means "given up" or "let go".

 Chartres' crossed ogives      Bernard and the Templars had learned the secret of constructing a cathedral with which to collect and transmit extraordinary energy and power. Part of the secret of this accumulation and dispersion of energy appears to reside in several aspects of Gothic architecture: crossed ogives and the dolmen effect.

      Even today, architects are in awe of the extensive, unsupported roof spans. Many still claim that in theory they are impossible. One of the most powerful aspects of Gothic art is what is known as the crossed ogive (a diagonal arch across a Gothic vault).

Sanctuaries of Light

 Chartres' crossed ogives      Another aspect of the gothic cathedral was its quantum leap in dealing with the use of light. This development in the history of architecture is of notable importance. Some have even characterized it as being a development way ahead of its time. The gothic architecture provided opportunities for more light and for more diverse uses of light.

     To realize that extra-dimensional light is still the active force in a cathedral such as Chartres, we can follow the experience of Gordon Strachan at Chartres in 2002.

"Among those I have met visiting these cathedrals, I have discovered a commitment to a specifically spiritual quest which, while including the historical and the cultural, also considers a visit to these cathedrals to be more like a pilgrimage.

"This has particularly the case at Chartres where, on a recent visit, I encountered a couple from East Anglia. Since I have been there before and they were there for the first time, I agreed to help show them round. Inside the nave, I began to point out aspects of the architectural design and the stained glass windows, but it soon became apparent that the wife, Lois, was not particularly interested in what I was saying. We fell silent and walked on into the South Transept where she suddenly stopped, put her head in her hands and began to cry. Her husband, Danny, took me aside and explained that she had wanted to come to Chartres for years but had been frightened to do so, because she had had an intuition that it might upset her. After a few minutes she composed herself and turned to me and said, 'It's about darkness, isn't it? It's about darkness.' I said, 'Yes, it is.' Her husband nodded. After a little while we all walked slowly and silently out of the south door.

"It is difficult to assess the effect which Lois' experience had on me, but two things became very clear. Firstly, that Chartres is still a sacred space which, without any religious service taking place, can deeply affect those who visit, so that it is possible to say that the building itself can produce a spiritual experience; and secondly, that the spiritual power of the place is somehow connected to the fact that it is dark. As I reflected on what I had shared with Lois and Danny, all that I remembered having read about the divine darkness in the mystical theology of Dionysius, came flooding back to me. It seemed as though I had only read about it, but that Lois had experienced it. I began to realize that this might have been reason why the original builders wanted to build such a huge mysterious building in the first place. Yet I still doubted whether this was the primary reason for building, because I thought that it it was, then there would have been some symbolic indication that Dionysius, St. Denis and/or his writings had been important to the builders. I did not think there were any such indications because I had not noticed any. However, when I started to look, I found them. "I found St. Denis himself among the statues of saints and martyrs in the South Porch. . . I found numerous types of angels, all nine hierarchies of them, flying around the ceiling of the central arch of the South Port, above the seated figure of Christ. I discovered that according to the original plan, the cathedral was meant to have had, incredibly, a total of nine spires, only two of which were actually built, but presumably, like the nine doors, it was also in honor of the nine celestial hierarchies.

"Most significantly, I discovered one of the huge windows, high up on the east side of the South Transept, devoted to Dionysius, dressed as Bishop of Paris, giving the Oriflamme, the old flag of France, said to have been originally made from the shed blood of the martyr himself, to a Templar knight.

"Above and beyond all these confirmations of Dionysian influence, I heard Lois' voice repeating, 'It's about darkness' It was this that ultimately convinced me that, even more than in the Abbey of St. Denis itself, Chartres embodies the most profound expression of the Dionysian divine darkness that the world has, or probably ever will see. For Chartres, even in summer is always dark, and yet its darkness is by no means ordinary, for it has a jewelled darkness. It mediates a dappled, jewelled light which comes through countless windows of the most beautiful and priceless stained glass. Quite apart from the biblical stories depicted in them, or the huge biblical characters who look down as from on high, the colours of the glass itself, the deep reds and blues, create a light which is mystical, which transforms the vast emptiness of the building to a sacred space, as if by some alchemical magic.

"It was my experience with Lois and Danny that convinced me that the primary reason why pilgrims still flock to Chartres, consciously or unconsciously, is to experience the beauty of this dark alchemical light. It also convinced me that quite apart from the historical, political, economic, social and ecclesiastic reasons for its original erection, the primary reason for building it architecturally in the way we see it today, was to express and embody the mystical theology of Dionysius, and to increase the possibility of experiencing the darkness of God as on the mystic journey--through the vibrations, the aura, the subtle body of the building itself, with our without the liturgy of the mass.

"I can no longer doubt that the initial twelfth century impulse to build it the way it came from a profound knowledge and experience of this mystical spirituality, which remains as hugely effective and affective today as it was for devout Catholic pilgrims seven hundred years ago. Whether you enter as a Catholic, a Protestant, an agnostic, an atheist or a member of another faith, the call of Dionysian mysticism still comes silently to all through the beauty of the stained glass, which bathes the carefully crafted and finely tuned sacred space in mystical light. No one can be entirely free from the possibility that their soul will be touched by this beauty, which speaks of the darkness and of the light of God together; of light in the darkness, of the light behind the darkness. For it intimates and invokes, in an 'anagogical manner,' the 'dazzling rays' which come to us as if from the nine celestial hierarchies, through the darkness of unknowing. The alchemy of the stained glass mediates 'the glittering display of the divine glory,' and we are encouraged, like Lois, to free ourselves from outer distractions and to enter the depth of our own being. The darkness of the sanctuary still has the power to lead us through the negation of outer, normal, busy-ness and inner confusions to the place-that-is and is-not, at the still point. this is the journey towards the darkness of God in which, paradoxically, we eventually find ourselves nearer to the transfiguring light of his presence. . ."

"The simple, absolute and immutable mysteries of divine Truth are hidden in the super-luminous darkness of that silence which revealeth in secret. For this darkness, though of deepest obscurity, is yet radiantly clear; and, though beyond touch and sight, it more than fills our unseeing minds with splendours of transcendent beauty. . . .

"We long exceedingly to dwell in this translucent darkness and, through not seeing and not knowing, to see Him who is beyond both vision and knowledge--by the very fact of neither seeing Him nor knowing Him.

"For this is truly to see and to know and, through the abandonment of all things, to praise Him who is beyond and above all things. For this is not unlike the art of those who carve a life-like image from stone; removing from around it all that impedes clear vision of the latent form, revealing its hidden beauty solely by taking away. For it is, as I believe, more fitting to praise Him by taking away than by ascription; for we ascribe attributes to Him, when we start from universals and come down through the intermediate to the particulars. But here we take away all things from Him going up from particulars to universals, that we may know openly the unknowable, which is hidden in and under all things that may be known. And we behold that darkness beyond being, concealed under all natural light."

Dionysius the Areopagite 7


1 These sanctuaries are enabling, not automatically productive of heightened states of conscsiousness. The person travelling to these sanctuaries must have prepared himself to achieve higher consciousness.

2 During the late 1990's, a geologist, an archaeologist, a chemist and a toxicologist teamed up to produce a wealth of evidence suggesting that the ancient legends had in fact been accurate. The region's underlying rocks turn out to be composed of oily limestone fractured by two hidden faults that cross exactly under the ruined temple, creating a path by which petrochemical fumes (methane, ethane and ethylene) could rise to the surface to help induce visions. In particular, the scientists found that the women communing with the oracle probably came under the influence of ethylene - a sweet-smelling but psychoactively potent gas once used as an anesthetic. In light doses, ethylene produces feelings of disembodied euphoria and visionary insight.

3 Geoffrey Scott, The Architecture of Humanism: A Study in the History of Taste

4 Ibid.

5 Paul Devereux, Places of Power: Measuring the Secret Energy of Ancient Sites, 1999

6 Sir Ronald Fraser, The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral

7 Dionysius the Areopagite was the disciple of Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34. His writings had the status of apostolic authority until the 19th century when presumptuous scholastics tried to show that the writings bearing his name were "forgeries," written about 500 C.E. Their only basis for this theory was that the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite appeared to have been influenced by the Athenian Neoplatonic school of Proclus (they evidently never considered that Proclus could have been influenced by Dionysius the Areopagite). The writings of Dionysius the Areopagite were introduced into the West in the sixth Century C.E. Pope St. Martin honored him at the synod of the Lateran, in 649, and his writings came to be venerated as sacred. In the course of time, Dionysius was associated with St. Denis, the founder of the Gallic Church. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Gregory, and finally John Scotus believed the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite to be those of the contemporary of Paul. These scholars were highly intelligent and brought the teachings of Dionysius the Areopagive officially into European Christianity .

The same kind of scholastic nonsense was perpetrated on the Hermetic corpus, trying to make it appear that the Hermic writings were second or third century Neo-Platonist creations. See my discussion of this fraud in my book The Perennialist Tradition.