The Chartres School

The Chartres School

Three entrance archways in the western façade of Chartres Cathedral: More important than even the cornerstone, it is the keystone that holds up the arch–making the gothic arch possible: If integument and exemplarism are represented by two of these, then the third represents the World Soul.4

The Platonically inspired Chartrians (Thierry of Chartres (died c.1150), William of Conches (c. 1090 – after 1154), Bernard of Chartres (d. after 1124), Bernardus Silvestris (d. after 1124) extending to their students and other contemporaries – Adelard of Bath, Peter Abelard and even Hildegard of Bingen) – flourished only for a brief historical period, through the 12th Century.

By the following 13th century, Europe was swamped by Aristotelian logic leading to the kind of scholasticism as promulgated by Thomas Aquinas.

Drawing upon the earlier Greek dialogue, the Chartrians saw Platonism as a means through which God spoke truth to the pre-Christian Pagan thinkers. Moreover, they explored nature and the created cosmos as a way of approaching and understanding God. Plato’s Demiurge – Opifex: the three coeternal principles of God, form and matter – would come to mould and exemplify for them the workings of the Christian Trinity, in terms of the World Soul.

Upon the cathedral façade, there was likewise a move from monstrous symbolic bestiaries to the works of naturalistic artists. They were now awakened by perceptions of the world around them to create small sculpted scenes of animal and human life.3

Absalom, abbot of Saint-Victor (fl. 1198), would later denounce this trend as prying into the composition of the globe, the nature of the elements, the location of the stars, the nature of animals, the violence of the wind, the life-processes of plants and of roots.3

The Chartrian approach also seemed to run counter-intuitive to other Neoplatonic influences that, in their own mien, were likewise trying to approach and understand God. Essentially, although Thierry drew heavily upon the Hermetic Corpus, he ignored Eriugena’s (John Scotus, 735–804) attempts to reconcile themes such as Via Negativa (Apophatic Way). This latter ran through Eriugena’s translations of the writings of pseudo-Dionysius (the Areopagite, fl. 500).4

The Areopagite wrote that God Is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding… It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, quality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immoveable, moving or at rest. It does not live, nor is it life. It is not substance, nor is it eternity or time… there is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth – it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial.3

Incidentally, Chenu (1957) holds a candle to the term Universitas (something composed of one or more than one unit that is treated as an indivisible whole). It was coined by Eriugena in respect to systematic descriptions. For the Chartrians, the universitas diverged into contemporaneous meanings. We could infer, for instance, that the Chartrians – in what could be seen to be an holistic interpretation in our modern sense – might have understood it to mean: the one universe conceived as a complete living being, whereby the whole penetrates each of its parts and that its intelligible Model is itself a Whole.3

Even if Aristotle’s Metaphysics hadn’t been translated and was therefore not available to the Chartrian School, their knowledge of his Four Causes was obtained through the Neo-Platonic lens of Boethius (c. 477–524 AD). Whereas the Holy Trinity had become ever more divorced from the Creation, the Chartrians were able to re-marry the Trinity with the Cosmos through utilizing the four causes.4

Here is a simplified explanation of Aristotle’s Four Causes as pertain to making a sauce:

The Causa materialis (material cause) of the sauce is in the ingredients; either ready-made powder or pre-conceived ingredients tailored for the type of dish. Causa formalis (formal cause) is the idea resulting in the form or shape the material or matter enters. This may include the original idea of making the bowl that contains the sauce, through to the selection of ingredients to match the type of sauce with the dish. The Causa efficiens (efficient cause) would be the act of adding the water, heating and stirring to the effect that brings about the finished result. Causa finalis (final cause) is the end purpose of adding flavor, moisture, and visual appeal to a dish. N.b. Since the phenomenologist philosopher Martin Heidegger pointed out that each of the four causes are “equally co-responsible” for producing a craft item, in the way of “bringing forth” the thing into existence,11 the modes of overlap within the sauce example can be deduced with a little contemplation.

Thierry of Chartres wrote:

There are four causes of the subsistence of the world: the efficient cause, or God; the formal cause, or the wisdom of God; the final cause, or His kindness; and the material cause, or the four elements…. Therefore if anyone considers the construction of the world, he recognizes its efficient cause to be God, its formal cause to be the wisdom of God, its final cause to be His kindness, and its material cause to be the four elements, which the Creator created from nothing in the beginning…

Therefore the highest Trinity works in matter, that is, the four elements, creating this same matter, as the efficient cause; informing and arranging the created matter, as the formal cause; and loving and governing the informed and arranged matter, a the final cause. For the Father is the efficient cause, the Son the formal cause, the Holy Spirit the final cause, and the four elements the material cause. And from these four causes subsists all corporeal substance.7

It is a way of seeing the Creator as continually engaged in and creating the cosmos, rather than something that happened as a one off, long ago, with Genesis.

After all, William of Conches had said, it is not the task of the Bible to teach us the nature of things; this belongs to philosophy.3 And, The Masters of Chartres rejected Augustine’s idealist view that the successive “days” had only a logical significance; the Bible’s historical orientation and Plato’s realistic physics worked against such a view.4

To bring in exemplarism:

God is present exemplaristically in all that is. If God were not present, nothing would exist. Integuments are coverings or envelopes that are placed over truth. They contain within them and beneath them divine meaning…4

The Enfolding of the Cosmos and the Unfolding of God: Thierry of Chartres used these terms to express how unity becomes many and how God, who is simplicity, creates – by being enfolded in and by unfolding – the cosmos. Simplicity is the unity of God – there is one universe that is enfolded in simplicity. This enfolded simplicity in the universe is itself God. God is a unity which in itself enfolds the universe in simplicity. The enfolded cosmos is generated out of the simplicity that is God. However, the universe is also unfolded in that simplicity. Unity unfolds itself and in the act of unfolding creates plurality, that is, the cosmos.4

The potential implications made by the Chartrian School of extending the trinity to incorporate the four elements through the four causes and the modality of exemplarism, may even have repercussions down to the present day: In the expressions of David Bohm and his theory of the Implicate Order; by extension, in mathematical or geometrical representations, such as the Klein bottle model.

From Bohm:

Rather than suggesting a continuous entity that moves “through” time and space, the image of ordered enfoldment–unfoldment allows  for a view of the electron as a perpetually emerging explicate structure, temporarily unfolding from an ordered implicate background, and then rapidly enfolding back into this background, in an ongoing cycle. By extension, the whole of the experience can be understood as a flow of appearances resulting from such a cycle of  enfoldment and unfoldment.2

If only blog space would permit, there could be much more potential for discussion, including how exemplaristic ideas relate to the divine mind and, at the same time, have phenomenal existence; how the Chartrians perceived the World Soul in terms of final cause, or Holy Spirit (n.b. St Augustine had left this question open ended); The problems caused for the Chartrians by accusations of heresy (whereby they kept being forced to recant and reformulate their ideas as metaphors, or state that they were only meant metaphorically) or, that they were raising further unanswerable questions: i.e. Questions relating to the problems of sin, the existence of evil, the Fall etc. E.g. If God is said to be imminent within creation, then how can sin or evil exist?4

To tackle it in part: Chenu considers Neoplatonism through the medieval lens of disengagement whereby, the psychological reality of grace and of free will, of the two liberties, God’s and man’s, which the Pelagian controversy established for good in the West, could not easily be fitted into the closed system of action required by the hierarchical destiny of created beings.3 

The problem the Chartrians had with the Church Fathers of the time (included Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of St Victor and William of St. Thierry), was their literal or linear fashion of material thinking in areas of metaphysical dialogue where the cognitive imagination and intuition was needed to grasp the concepts.4

What could equally apply to Chartrian methodology, was to be conceived [pseudo-Dionysius] as an ascent that began from the lowest material level, on which the mind of man found its co-natural objects – objects whose value for knowledge, for sacred knowledge, lay not in their own course material natures but in their symbolic capacity, their “anogogy.” This was different to that anogogy used for scriptural interpretation and the Augustinian “Image” that the later Cistercians and Victorines employed.3

An example of the Augustinian “Image” is emphasized here by King (2008):

Thus he [Augustine] compares the Trinity to the lover, what is loved, and loving; to the mind, its knowledge of itself, and its love of itself; to memory, understanding, and will; to the psychological elements involved in an act of seeing or in an act of remembering; and so on, each comparison aiming to shed light on the inner nature of the Trinity.6

Metaphors used by the Chartrians might include:

Imagery of water in revealing that, just as separate drops of water when they are contained in a single source are all joined into a single whole, so too the divine ideas exist as a single unity that is God.


In seeking to explain the relationship of the ideas to the divine mind, William [of Conches] makes use of the image of the fountain:  “In the divine mind, which is the archetypal world, is contained the classes of intelligible animals, that is, the thought of the kinds of diverse animals. And, it is like a kind of fountain, and as a stream is to a fountain, all things are from the divine mind.4

There is an affinity here with the latter, in the kind of imagery expressed in Jacob Boheme’s Aurora:

For all qualities in nature are one in another as one quality, in that manner as God is all, and as all things descend and come forth from him: For God is the heart or fountain of nature, from him cometh all.1

In contrast, although Augustine certainly drew upon Platonic concepts, his mens (mind) was not the same as nous in the Timaeus. He put the former to work in the service of grace, in such a way deeming natural objects as incidental to a personal encounter between God and man. Rather than objects of divine interpretation, natural objects became as a matter of enrichment in a more free interplay of divine relationship.3

Ellard (2007) writes that there are further problems concerned where Platonic concepts might lean towards an emanational description of divine creation.4 Indeed, Hardy (2015) shows how the fine line between creation Ex Deo (out of God) and emanationism originate in the Neoplatonic doctrines of Plotinus and Origen.5 Albeit, the same Augustinian dilemma comes back full circle, again leaving little room for free will and/or grace within a closed system.

Furthermore, concerning creation ex nihilio (creation out of nothing) and in disagreement with Thierry:

William [of Conches] was against not only the idea of preexistent chaos, but also of a created and still unformed or unordered state of existence. The former is abhorrent because God created everything ex nihilo.4

Howbeit, Boethius of whom the Chartrians drew heavily, said in favour of creation ab aeterno (of infinite duration), that “nothing comes of nothing.”

For that nothing comes from nothing is a true opinion, which none of the ancients ever contested, but they laid it as it were as a foundation of all arguments about nature, though they applied it not to the creative principle but to the material subject to it.12

Moreover, where Thierry’s Hexaemeron7 went on to explore the pre-existent chaos of Genesis in evolutionary terms, his exegesis does correlate in some way to R. Steiner’s concepts of Earth evolution, through Saturn, Sun and Moon phases, as given in his (1909) book Occult Science.9


Thierry’s view held that the elements occupied the place where they are now but not in the same way. The earth was covered by the waters but was denser than it is now and occupied a large part of the air. The air was in turn denser than it is now and darker because there was no sun nor moon, nor the stars from which it could be illuminated. As Genesis says, “the earth was a shapeless and empty mass, and the darkness was on the surface of the abyss”…

What Platonists call chaos and Genesis calls “a shapeless and empty mass” refers to the very early stages of the cosmic unfolding. The cosmos was, in effect, in a developmental stage that was evolving.4

To summarise Chartrian philosophy with particular emphasis on what is lacking in today’s mechanistic and reductionist world view, Ellard finally introduces the term Panentheism (as is distinguished from Pantheism).

To illustrate this he quotes from Elizabeth Johnson’s (1993) “Women, Earth and Creator Spirit”:

 Since the spirit is also transcendent over the world, divine indwelling circles round to embrace the whole world [cosmos], which thereby dwells with the sphere of the divine. Technically, this is known as panentheism, or the existence of all things in God. Distinct from the classical theism which separates God and the world, and also different from Pantheism which merges God and world, panentheism holds that the universe, both matter and spirit, is encompassed by the matrix of the living God in an encircling that generates freedom, self transcendence, and the future, all in the context of the interconnecting whole.4

Another of Ellard’s Panentheisms is from Thomas Berry’s (2002) The Dream of the Earth, where,

Berry writes that what he calls an ecological-age consciousness “fosters the deep awareness of the sacred presence within each reality of the universe. There is an awe and reverence due to the stars in the heavens, the sun, and all heavenly bodies; to the seas and the continents; to all living forms of trees and flowers; to the myriad expressions of life in the seas, to the animals of the forests and the birds of the air. To wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice.4

Incidentally, Panentheism was used in the development of Charles Hartshorne’s Process Theology.10 It is a feature of American Unitarian or Universalist denominations such as the Creation Spirituality of the somewhat controversial (in Catholic circles at least) ex-Dominician Priest, Matthew Fox.

It might also be pertinent to summarise our own review of how the Platonic School of Chartres existed historically at a time before the mechanistic world view was seeded by the influx of Aristotlean logic of the 13th century. According to R. Steiner, it was a time when a free flow of spiritual ideas still flowed into the souls of mankind:

It is touching to see how the School of Chartres preserves as it were the portraits of the inspiring genii of the Seven Liberal Arts, as they were called: Grammatica, Dialectica, Rhetorica, Arithmetica, Geometría, Astronomía and Musica. Even in the reception of the Spiritual that was contained in the Seven Liberal Arts, they still saw in them the living gifts of the gods, coming to man through spiritual beings. They did not see the mere communication of dead thoughts about dead laws of Nature. And they could see that Europe in the future would no longer be receptive to these things. Hence there was a feeling of evening twilight in the spiritual life…


Philosophia holding book and ladder of The Seven Liberal Arts, from a 1230 manuscript of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. 2

Above all within that spiritual life we find a deep and spiritually penetrated conception of Nature, altogether different from that abstract conception of Nature which was afterwards made so much of, which knows only natural laws expressed in abstract thought. The spiritual stream to which I now refer received something spiritual from Nature into the human soul. So that in all Nature, not only abstract, dead, conceptual natural laws were recognised, but living creative activity…

They who thus looked into the life and movement of the Elements, of Earth, Water, Air and Fire did not see mere natural laws, but behind all this life and movement they saw a great and living Being, the Goddess Natura.8

My own impressions, after researching and writing this piece, involve some hypnagogic imagery gained before falling asleep. The first image was of a group of medieval children, very small and of both sexes, aged about 5 years old, bursting out from the Western door of Chartres Cathedral in a state of innocent joy and laughter that is characteristic only of that age group: They may have been released from a Sunday school class. The next image was of one of those children, now aged about 40, in an elevated position on scaffolds carving sculptures inside a transept of the Cathedral. He was particularly gifted in Arithmetica,with the insight whereby he could reach up into the Platonic realm of Ideas. He had the gift of geometric spatial visualization, in a way that also utilized ‘negative space.’ Granting all this, he was under some strict deadlines by the Abbot to manifest his visualizations into solid stone and as a result, he seemed rather stressed.


  1. Boeheme, Jacob, (1612) The Aurora, Kessinger Publishing (10 Sept. 2010)
  2. Nichol, Lee, The Essential David Bohm, Routledge (1 Jan. 2003)
  3. Chenu, M. D. (1957) Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century: Essays on New Theological Perspectives in the Latin West, University of Toronto Press; 37th Revised ed. Edition (8 Mar. 1997)
  4. Ellard, Peter, (2007) The sacred cosmos: theological, philosophical, and scientific conversations in the twelfth-century school of Chartres, Scranton: University of Scranton Press
  5. Hardy, Dean Emitt, Ex Deo: Plotinus, Origen, and MacDonald’s Doctrine of Creation. A Dissertation, dated: December 2, 2015. (
  6. King, Peter, Augustine’s Trinitarian Examples, University of Toronto (2008). (
  7. Park, Katherine, Thierry of Chartres: Treatise on the Work of the Six Days, (
  8. Steiner, Rudolf, Karmic Relationships: Esoteric Studies – Volume IV, Lecture: S-5931: 14th September, 1924, DornachGA0238
  9. Steiner, Rudolf, (1909) An Outline of Occult Science, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (23 Feb. 2011)
  10.  Viney, Donald Wayne, Process TheismStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (January 28, 2014). 
  11. Waddington, David, A Field Guide to Heidegger: Understanding “The Question Concerning Technology, Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 37, No. 4, 2005. 
  12. Walsh, Peter (Trans. by), Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Oxford World’s Classics (10 July 2008)

Image Source:

  1. Image source from Wiki Commons: Chartres Western Portal:(,_K%C3%B6nigsportal.jpghttps://commons)
  2. Philosophia: (
  3. Klein Bottle: (

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