Though he was contradictory and even condescending in his handling of Chartres and Mary, I still found myself, as I read the selections from Henry Adams, connecting with some element of his description of Chartres in relation with Mar that was aided, I am sure, but the elegance of his writing, but not explained by it. Perhaps my biases as someone who is herself religious and who finds religion, for all its foibles, to be deeply beautiful, but when he spoke lovingly of Chartres and Mary, I felt I was hearing something authentic, something that was being covered up in the infantilizing and dismissiveness. There is a category in which a few things fall that are deemed by most to be beyond the ability of words to describe—they are somehow transcendent. Art and love both fall in this category. Religion also often does for those who take it seriously as a category of experience; in modernity, however, religion had no place in this category. Religion in modernism was understandable, reducible, and dismissible. It was the pre-scientific way of trying to understand and interact with the world; it was an earlier step in development that was perhaps useful at the time, but now, has been utterly surpassed. And just as adults can no longer fully understand and appreciate their childish worldview now that they have grown beyond it and have developed a rational mind, so too can people in modernity experience religion as those who lived before this supposed development of rationality. Adams believed this so completely that he even saw science as replacing religion as a moral force. As we see now, from our postmodern perspective in a world in which religion did not die at the feet of science and science has not proved to have limitless explanatory power, the reductionist approach of modernity is not satisfying, not complete—religion cannot be so easily explained away. In my reading of Adams, he experienced this shortcoming of modernity in Chartres.
Standing under its vaulted ceilings, Adams felt something, something that was not reducible to science, and he did not know what to do with it, did not have the religious vocabulary or background to respond to it as an encounter with the divine.* He lived in a world that, from his thoroughly modernistic mindset, did not give him space to respond to religion as something beautiful and transcendent. He could, however, relate to that transcendence in other ways—Adams’ Chartres is both an artistic masterpiece and a love letter. Not only is Chartres, in all its splendor and beauty, a work of art, but it is also a work of art with a scientific bent. Though Adams insulted the architects and builders instead of praising them for their ingenuity, he obviously, behind his infantilizing, had a deep and sincere appreciation for the mechanics of it. As he discusses light, it is with a sense of awe—on page 96 he speaks of them pushing architecture to its limits to “take all the light there was to take.” Perhaps imprudent and impractical to Adams, it was still a marvel. He further speaks of the mechanics of the creation of space and convenience. These all have a scientific element—though Adams may not acknowledge them, careful calculations had to be made, detailed plans drawn, and innovative building techniques used. As The Education of Henry Adams so clearly shows in his descriptions of the motors, he sees deep beauty in mechanical and scientific grace. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the artistry so appeals to him—it is in some ways comprehensible to his scientific mind, but in others, like all great art, transcendent and elusive, giving him a means of facing what he was feeling.
Additionally, as he talks about the tender relationship between the builders and Mary, their loving desire to please her and their delight in doing so, it called to mind ideas of romantic love. Throughout “The Virgin of Chartres,” I pictured Mary as a queen from any number of period films I have seen, regal and royal in a beautifully appointed palace surrounded by people who both wanted to please her and who wanted something of her. As Adams described the builders of the cathedral, I could picture princes and courtiers courting our queen, bringing her back the most beautiful things they found in their travels, the most exquisite art they could commission with the hope of pleasing our queen, of bringing to her something that she delights in, and having her show favor on them. Perhaps I watch too many movies. It seems that again, this description of their love for Mary gives Adams room to talk about something he was experiencing that was beyond the scope of science and rationality, something that he did not quite know how to express, but was none-the-less undeniably real to him.
*Perhaps what Adams was connecting with was not the divine, but was no more than the artistic beauty. I do not want to impose on him an interpretation that is not authentic to his experience. Instead, I want to suggest that if he did encounter the divinity of Mary in Chartres, he would have difficulty understanding and expressing it as such. Such an experience would not only be alien and unfamiliar to him, and would likely be derided by his peers, who, from the excerpt of his Education that we read, sound to be thoroughly scientific and modernist.