Was l’art du trait the real Holy Grail?
For much of the last millenium, speculation about the nature of the Holy Grail has been continuous. Christ’s chalice? Secret offspring spirited away to Europe? The list of possibilities is extensive and I would like to add another, l’art du trait.
L’art du trait is a method of combining elevation and plan view drawings that allows the craftsman to create any segment of or whole work piece with complete confidence as to its correctness. In short, these were working drawings created by carpenters and masons that allowed them to build the soaring cathedrals of the Gothic period. L’art du trait is a subset or extension of what we now refer to as stereotomy, which is, essentially an applied geometry that relies on graphic presentation as opposed to formulaic calculation, geometry without calculus (corrected from mathematics – see comments for reasoning). However, the art of stereotomy has become associated almost exclusively with the craft of the stone mason and today it has been displaced by computer based descriptive and projective geometry.
The methods of L’art du trait were highly guarded secrets and shared only with those young craftsmen who had been found acceptable to masters of the craft. This knowledge, jealously guarded as it was, gave masons and carpenters tremendous standing within their communities. Architects (acting more as project developers and managers) were completely reliant on the knowledge and skill of the craftsmen. And, this was the case until as late as the middle of the nineteenth century, when architects, engineers began to use descriptive geometry and, in short order, assumed the “mantle of authority” that had been worn by masons and carpenters for centuries. Sadly, due to the power of commercial and governmental interests, master craftsmen were reduced to the rank of mere workmen.
But the tradition of l’art du trait is still alive and being learned and practiced by a small group of dedicated carpenters in northern Europe, primarily France and Germany. And, although it has been displaced by modern technology, l’art du trait is considered so important that it has been recognized as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” by UNESCO.
It is interesting that the period in which the construction of the great Gothic cathedrals of northern Europe began was contemporaneous to the rise in power of the Knights Templar. The Knights have been credited with the creation of modern banking and logistical methods that are still the basis of much of today’s international business community. Most of these practices grew from the requirements of supporting a large military force at distances hitherto unknown. And, of course, for a millenium there has been speculation about the Temple treasures supposedly discovered by the Knights, discovered and removed to some other part of the world, presumably somewhere in Europe (or Nova Scotia, Minnesota or a host of other tempting possibilities). Part priest, part warrior, the Knights were above all pragmatic, energetic adventurers seeking to profit from any and all of their activities. As Knights (and crusaders in general) were expected to be self supporting, many were the “second sons” of aristocratic families, or the sons of merchants and guildsmen who were capable of insuring the young Knight’s maintenance.
Prior to the crusades, most churches and other public buildings throughout Europe were in the Romanesque style. It is a style based on Roman military engineering methods, using brick and concrete. It is straightforward and most examples of this type of building clearly send the message that they have been built to provide fortification as well as worshiping the Almighty. These were heavy structures with little interior light and decoration. And then, as if someone had simply turned a page, came the soaring Cathedrals of the Gothic period. Light and decoration everywhere, witnessing the glory of God.
But did this just happen through some divine revelation? Europe had gone through a six hundred year period, commonly called the “Dark Ages” in which most or all of classical knowledge had been lost and/or forgotten. Forgotten in Europe, but still alive in the Middle East. Enter the Crusaders, with the Knights Templar guarding the Temple, the very center of the Crusader Kingdom, where most of the knowledge lost to Europeans remained, undiminished.
It is generally concluded that Hellenistic and Persian craftsmen practiced some form of stereotomic drawing. We know that the Knights and other Crusading Orders returned to Europe with renewed understanding of mathematics, philosophy and science. Could it be that part of the intellectual treasure discovered by the Knights Templar included what was to become the basis of l’art du trait. And was this knowledge, kept secret, only revealed to the initiated, part and parcel of Freemasonry? One can only speculate. But the question must be put forward, was this the knowledge that allowed for the construction of the magnificent Gothic structures, dedicated solely to the power of the Almighty. Could this knowledge be the true Holy Grail?
If you would like to know more about the practice of l’art du trait, here are some interesting links. But fair warning, prepare yourself to be challenged and intrigued.
Musee du Compagnonage de Tours – Museum of Guilds, their history and their works
Sterotomy – some interesting information about the drawing process
The Carpentry Way – Chris Hall’s excellent blog – a lot of information about drawing methodology
Take one step, then another. We never know where the journey may take us.