So much has been written about the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and so
little is actually known about it. One who has never tried to find out
anything about it for himself, or to make something out of the material
available, would never believe how little in fact is known about the
building of the cathedral. It took many years to build; the dates when it
was begun and when it was finished are known; the bishops who, in one
way or another, contributed to this construction are also known, and so are
the popes and kings of that time. But nothing has remained concerning the
builders themselves with the exception of names, and even that seldom.1
And no facts have remained concerning the schools which stood behind
all that was created by that strange period which began about the year one
thousand and lasted for about four centuries.
It is known that there existed Schools of Builders. Of course they had
to exist, for every master worked and ordinarily lived with his pupils. In
this way painters worked, in this way sculptors worked. In this way,
naturally, architects worked. But behind these individual schools stood
other institutions of very complex origin. And these were not merely
architectural schools or schools of masons. The building of cathedrals was
part of a colossal and cleverly devised plan which permitted the existence
of entirely free philosophical and psychological schools in the rude,
absurd, cruel, superstitious, bigoted and scholastic Middle Ages. These
schools have left us an immense heritage, almost all of which we have
already wasted without understanding its meaning and value.
1 " In the voluminous records of the church of Notre Dame, which go back
beyond the 12th century, there is not a single word about the actual work of the
construction of the cathedral. According to the chronicles of the period before the
Gothic the libraries of monasteries were foil of descriptions of the construction of
their buildings and of the biographies and praises of their builders. But with the
coming of the Gothic period suddenly all became silent. Until the 12th century
there is no mention of any of the architects." (From a book by Viollet-le-Duc.)
These schools, which built the " Gothic " cathedrals, concealed themselves so
well that traces of them can now be found only by those who already know that such
schools must have existed. Certainly the Catholic Church of the 11th and 12th
centuries, which already used the torture and the stake for heretics and stifled all free
thought, did not build Notre Dame. There is not the slightest doubt that for a time
the Church was made an instrument for the preservation and propagation of the
ideas of true Christianity, that is, of true religion or true knowledge, which were
absolutely foreign to it.
And there is nothing improbable in the fact that the whole scheme of the
building of cathedrals and of the organisation of schools under cover of this building
activity was created because of the growing "heretic-mania" in the Catholic Church
and because the Church was rapidly losing those qualities which had made it a
refuge for knowledge.
By the end of the first thousand years of the Christian era the monasteries had
gathered all the science, all the knowledge, of that time. But the legalisation of the
hunting and prosecution of heretics, and the approach of the Inquisition, made it
impossible for knowledge to reside in monasteries.
There was then found or, to speak more accurately, created, for this knowledge
a new and convenient refuge. Knowledge left the monasteries and passed into
Schools of Builders, Schools of Masons. The style later called " Gothic " and at the
time known as the " new" or " modern", of which the characteristic feature was the
pointed arch, was accepted as the distinctive sign of the schools. The schools within
presented a complex organisation and were divided into different degrees; this
means that in every " school of masons " where all the sciences necessary for
architects were taught there were inner schools in which the true meaning of
religious allegories and symbols was explained and in which was studied " esoteric
philosophy " or the science of the relations between God, man and the universe, that
is, the very " magic ", for a mere thought of which people were put on the rack and
burnt at the stake. The schools lasted up to the Renaissance, when the existence of "
secular science " became possible. The new science, carried away by the novelty of
free thought and free investigation, very soon forgot its origin and beginning, and
forgot also the role of the " Gothic" cathedrals in the preservation and successive
transmission of knowledge.
But Notre Dame has remained, and to this day guards and shows us the ideas of
the schools and the ideas of the true " freemasons ".
It is known that Notre Dame, at least in its exterior, is at present
nearer to what it was originally than it has been during the past three centuries.
After an incalculable number of ignorant pious alterations, after the storm of
revolution which destroyed what had survived these alterations, Notre Dame was
restored in the second part of the 19th century by a man who had deep
understanding of its idea. But what has remained of the really old and what is new it
is difficult to say, not for lack of historical data, but because the " new " is often in
fact the " old ".
Such, for instance, is the tall, slender, pierced spire over the eastern part of the
cathedral, from which the twelve Apostles, preceded by the apocalyptic beasts, are
descending to the four comers of the world. The old spire was demolished in 1787.
What we now see is a structure of the 19th century and is the work of Viollet-le-Duc, the restorer of the cathedral during the Second Empire.
But not even Viollet-le-Duc could create the view from the big towers over the
city including this spire and the Apostles; he could not create the whole scenic effect
which was undoubtedly a part of the builders' design. The spire with the Apostles is
an inseparable part of this view. You stand on the top of one of the big towers and
look towards the east. The city, the houses, the river, the bridges, the tiny,
microscopic people. . . . And not one of these people sees the spire, or sees the
Teachers descending upon the earth preceded by the apocalyptic beasts. This is quite
natural, because from there, from the earth, it is difficult to distinguish them. If you
go there, to the embankment of the Seine, to the bridge, the Apostles will appear
from there almost as small as the people appear from here, and they will merge into
the details of the roof of the cathedral. They can be seen only if one knows of their
existence, like so many other things in the world. But who cares to know?
And the gargoyles? They are regarded either simply as an ornament, or as
individual creations of different artists at different times. In actual fact, however,
they are one of the most important features of the design of the whole building.
This design was very complex. To be more exact, it is not even one design, but
several designs completing one another. The builders wished to put all their
knowledge, all their ideas, into Notre Dame. You find there mathematics,
astronomy; some very strange ideas of biology' or " evolution " in the stone bushes,
on which human heads grow, on the balustrade of the large platform under the flying
The gargoyles and other figures of Notre Dame transmit to us the psychological
ideas of its builders, chiefly the idea of the complexity
of the soul. These figures are the soul of Notre Dame, its different " I "s: pensive,
melancholy, watching, derisive, malignant, absorbed in themselves, devouring
something, looking intensely into a distance invisible to us, as does the strange
woman in the headdress of a nun, which can be seen above the capitals of the
columns of a small turret high up on the south side of the cathedral.
The gargoyles and all the other figures of Notre Dame possess one very strange
property: beside them people cannot be drawn, painted or photographed; beside
them people appear dead, expressionless stone images.
It is difficult to explain these " I "s of Notre Dame; they must be felt, and they
can be felt. But it is necessary to choose the time when Paris becomes quiet. This
happens before daybreak, when it is not yet quite light but when it is already
possible to distinguish some of these strange beings sleeping above.
I remember such a night; it was before the war. I was making a short stay in
Paris on the way to India and was wandering about the town for the last time. It was
already growing light, and the air was becoming cold. The moon moved swiftly
among the clouds. I walked round the whole cathedral. The huge massive towers
stood as though on the alert. But I already understood their secret. And I knew that I
was taking with me a firm conviction, which nothing could shake, that this exists,
that is, that there is another history apart from the history of crime, and that there is
another thought, which created Notre Dame and its figures. I was going to search for
other traces of this thought, and I was sure that I should find them.
Eight years passed before I saw Notre Dame again. These were the years of
almost unprecedented commotion and destruction. And it seemed to me that
something had changed in Notre Dame, as though it was beginning to have a
presentiment of its approaching end. During these years, which have written such
brilliant pages into the history of crime, bombs dropped over Notre Dame, shells
burst, and it was only by accident that Notre Dame did not share the fate of that
wonderful fairy-tale of the twelfth century, Rheims Cathedral, which perished a
victim of progress and civilisation.
And when I went up the tower and again saw the descending Apostles I was
struck by the vainness and almost complete useless-ness of attempts to teach people
something they have no desire whatever to know.
And again, as many times before, I could find only one argument against this,
namely, that perhaps the aim both of the teaching of
the Apostles and of the construction of Notre Dame was not to teach all the people,
but only to transmit certain ideas to a few men through the " space of time ". Modern
science conquers space within the limits of the surface of the small earth. Esoteric
science has conquered time, and it knows methods of transferring its ideas intact and
of establishing communications between schools through hundreds and thousands of
P. D. Ouspensky, A New Model of the Univerese, 1922