“At one time, Notre Dame de Paris raised its majesty on top of flight of eleven steps. Standing isolated just from a narrow churchyard, from the wooden houses, from the sharp pinions arranged in overhanging planes, it gained in boldness and elegance what it lost in mass. Today instead, it seems more massive because is more detached from the other buildings, with the porticos, the pillars and the buttresses resting directly on the ground; the subsequent embankments, gradually have filled the gap and ended up absorbing it until the last step.”
This is how Fulcanelli, an alchemist whose identity remains a matter of debate, described Paris’s Notre Dame in 1926, stressing that 11 steps and only a small square separated the medieval cathedral from the surrounding buildings. The cathedral was hemmed in by neighbouring structures and needed its towers to rise above the village.
Considered the last of the alchemists, Fulcanelli emphasis on number 11 stems from alchemical symbology in which 11 is the fifth prime number, derived from adding 6 and 5. The number 5 is the ‘Man's number’ — five fingers of a hand, the five senses and, in Bible, five wounds of the Christ on the cross. The number 5 symbolises a microcosm, humans as miniature embodiments of the universe. The number 6 is the figure of the Biblical Hexameron, the number of creation — the world was created in six days. The two numbers together represent the union of microcosm and the macrocosm.
In Christianity, 11 is also the number of apostles left after the resurrection of Jesus. The number symbolises the beginning of a new order, change, a renewal or even a reversal.
So what does a gothic cathedral have to do with alchemy, which the Church banned after labelling it as heresy and witchcraft? Everything.
Gothic art and alchemy
Work on Notre Dame began in 1163, which coincided with the rise of the Knights Templar, who built and financed dozens of cathedrals. Gothic art and architecture flourished across Europe during the mid-12th century and early 13th century on the back of the success of crusades led by the Templars, an order inspired by Saint Bernard and the Cistercian monastic rule.
Alchemy, too, gained ground. Some say the Templars brought the idea of turning lead into gold from the Sufis they met during crusades. But, it had a deeper meaning too—turning the rough into the perfect, shunning impurities, communion with divinity. It gave an astrological dimension to alchemy, one that explores a man’s relationship with the cosmos.
So, gothic cathedrals are not intended to be simply a church, a place of worship. They are alchemical books, written in stone and showing the way to the perfect, the end goal.
These cathedrals are energy centres, built on ancient Celtic places of worship, where the telluric energy is the highest. Telluric currents are natural electric currents that flow on and beneath the earth’s surface, and are affected by the sun and other planets of the solar system. High telluric energy is believed to affect a human’s electromagnetic field, heightening the sense of awareness. Gothic cathedrals are meant to elevate the energy level of those who entered the space, without their knowledge, or to serve as initiatory paths for those who knew. In the esoteric spiritual context, the initiatory path is an inevitable process of change.The person, the group or the text that determines the initiation is the repository of a secret knowledge that is transferred at the end of an alchemical journey. The initiatory path is almost always related to the idea of simultaneous death and rebirth, to a process where the beginning of the path also determines the end of an earlier existence. This inevitable "death" is the only way that allows the ascend or entry to a new, unknown level of reality.
The Templars, like Saint Bernard, were under the protection of the Virgin Mary, devoted to the mother of God. But, unlike Saint Bernard, they were also alchemists. If one were to connect on a map of France the cathedrals of Amiens, Bayeux, Chartres, Coutances, Evreux, Laon, Noyon, Reims, Rouen, Senlis and Paris, they form what is known as the Constellation of the Virgin. All these cathedrals are dedicated to the Notre Dame, to the Virgin, and in particular the Black Virgin or the Black Madonna.
Over the years, the Catholic Church has whitewashed the Black Virgins, simply making them disappear. The Virgin venerated by the Templars is not the Mother of Jesus. The Black Virgin is an alchemical symbol, representing the raw material, the “virgin” matter. The ultimate goal of alchemy is magnum opus, or the Great Work, and has four phases: black (nigredo), white (albedo), yellow (citrinitas) and the red (rubedo).
Roughly, the four stages represent the cycle of death to rebirth, perfection of human soul and its representation can be found in a gothic cathedral: materials, metals, gargoyles and labyrinths, they all allude to this process.
Laying it out
A representation of the cosmic order, a gothic cathedral is always planned in the shape of a cross. The horizontal arm corresponds to the equinoxes and the solstices, while the vertical arm represents the poles. At the centre of the cross, where the horizontal and vertical arms intersect, is the altar that connects man to his being.
The axis of the nave, the central part meant for the congregation, is not in line with the choir, the space reserved for clergy. This deviation is not a design error, but is intended, symbolising the invisible border between rational knowledge, one that can be questioned, as represented by the nave, and the choir, the place of absolute knowledge.
Symmetry is death, dissymmetry is life, affirming the Pythagorean teachings. The deviation of the axis is one of the clearest manifestations of a creative dissymmetry that deviates from the straight line of reason.
The cathedrals, like other sacred buildings, are rigidly oriented with the apse facing east, where the sun rises.
In the north, where apparently there is nothing but darkness, there is always a portal full of symbols leading to the initiatory path. To the west, there are bas-reliefs of the last judgment and to the south, a large rose window that makes the sunlight shine through in all its force.
From the top of the towers, we see the whole world. The north-west tower represents the sun, the masculine principle and the south-west the moon, the feminine principle.
The nave is architecturally an upturned ship, a symbol of Noah’s Ark, a journey towards light. Close to the nave is the labyrinth, also known as the Jerusalem Path, a means of meditation and a walk that brings one closer to the divine. Almost all of them have been destroyed, but in Amiens and Chartres they remain witness that the initiatory path can connect us to our being.
The rosettes, unparalleled masterpieces of glass art, represents the action of the alchemical fire. The choir is comparable to the Holy of Holies. The bishop’s chair is placed in the choir, to the east where the sun rises and the light is born. Nothing is done for aesthetics—everything has a practical and precise purpose. The cathedral that has its base on earth and rises to the sky is the living symbol of the unity of creation.
For Templars, the cathedral makes the universe perceptible, it is not an administrative building, but a living body of "speaking stones". Stones that continue and will continue to speak through the centuries, despite fire and destruction.
(Francesca Marino is a journalist and a South Asia expert who has written Apocalypse Pakistan with B Natale)
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