The Proper Study of Mankind?

Would it surprise anyone to learn that the answer is woman? Henry Adams, author of Mount-Saint-Michel and Chartres, certainly thought so. Although not much read nowadays, it is a richly informed piece of work, filled with wonders about a vanished world that had already been dead 700 years by the time he discovered it more than a century ago in 1904.

The most striking feature in the entire medieval landscape, declared Adams, who made a very close study of it, was the figure of Mary, through whom that whole world came beautifully to light. She exemplified for him the two loftiest vocations of woman, that of virgin and mother. “The study of Our Lady,” he wrote, “as shown by the art of Chartres, leads back directly to Eve, and lays bare the whole subject of sex.”

In the purity of her response to grace, she becomes the New Eve, her obedience having put to flight the grief following upon the disobedience of the First Woman. Meanwhile, for all the cumulative pain and sorrow unleashed upon the world by that first fall, it is only after she and Adam are forced to leave the Garden that God, reaching deep down into her tragic predicament, bestows upon her the title “Mother of all the living.” The mystery of woman thus remains intact, undisturbed by the very upheaval of which she had been the cause. Despite her sin, God does not regret the awful proximity to which she stands in relation to the mystery; her very being remains inscribed with the power to receive and nurture new life.

If it be the role of man to represent that which he cannot embody, the dignity of paternity not being his to possess, but only to reflect in a secondary way (only God can be perfect Father), the honor of woman is that she represents the creature at the apogee of its vocation, i.e., in her very openness to life, she embodies a meaning that in nine months will need a name. The perfect Mother, in other words, is Mary, a woman, who is yet at the same time a creature.

And all the steam in the world, Adams would insist, could not, like the Virgin Mother of God, have built Chartres Cathedral. If the flowering of the gothic, whose splendors would cover France in a single century with so many hundreds of churches dedicated to Mary and the saints, was the happy result of piety harnessed to geometry, then it was clear to Adams who furnished the catalyst. “The superiority of the Woman was not fancy,’ he insisted, “it was a fact.”

What drove Adams to draw so stunning an inference? It could hardly have been the heritage of a man whose singular distinction was the name he bore. What could possibly possess an Adams to stand in awe of the Virgin Mother of God? Few attachments were as unseemly to a New England deist as that expressed by Adams in the homage he pays to Mary. Yet, for all the New England ice in his soul, he lavishes her with a warmth of praise as effusive as anything to be found in the celebrated Abbot of Clairvaux, St. Bernard, to whom Dante turns in the Paradiso for the favor of obtaining her powerful intercession before the Throne of Heaven. So sublimely did she elevate our human nature, he tells Dante, that God himself did not disdain to become his own making.

The thing that drove Adams to so startling a conclusion, in the teeth of the conventional wisdom of his time, was the realization he came to regarding two contradictory forces struggling to define and give shape to the world he knew. (A thesis, incidentally, set out in his classic work, The Education of Henry Adams, published three years after Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.) On one side, there was the undeniable fascination of the Virgin, whose image appeared amid the stained glass and statuary of Chartres. “The greatest force the Western world ever felt,” observed Adams, “she had drawn man’s activities to herself more strongly than any other power, natural or supernatural, had ever done…” Four-fifths of the noblest monuments of Art were inspired by her. And the other? The Dynamo, which threatened precisely to unravel the unity of that vision. To Adams, who first stumbled upon “the great gallery of machines,” while wandering through the Paris Exposition of 1900 with its triumphant show of the New, “the dynamo became a symbol of infinity…The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s length at some vertiginous speed…” Before such immensity, one might almost be tempted to bow down and worship—”Before the end,” he confesses, “one began to pray to it.”

And while not so human a symbol as some, allowed Adams, “among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy…it was the most expressive.”