Book of Cathedrales

Ms. Fr. 19093 - Bibliothèque nationale de France (Paris, France)

Alternate Titles:

Buch der Kathedralen, El Libro de las Catedrales

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Codiology

Alternate Titles

Buch der Kathedralen
El Libro de las Catedrales

Type
Extent / Format

66 pages / 23.2 x 15.2 cm

Origin
Date
Around 1220
Style
Genre
Content

The Book of Cathedrales is an encyclopedic text that covers masonry, architecture, surveying, carpentry, geometry, zoology, and contemporary mechanical devices related to the exciting and mysterious art of cathedral construction.

Language
Artist / School

Villard de Honnecourt

Illustrations

Over 250 great illustrations in the categories: masonry, architecture, carpentry, geometry, zoology and mechanical devices of the time
in connection with the exciting and mysterious art of building cathedrals.

Short description

This mysterious fragment of a 13th century manuscript represents the most important architectural treatise of the High Middle Ages. El Libro de las Catedrales is an encyclopedic text that covers masonry, architecture, surveying, carpentry, geometry, zoology, and contemporary mechanical devices related to the exciting and mysterious art of cathedrals construction. Almost nothing is known about the text or its author, Villard de Honnecourt, other than that, judging by his name and dialect of Old French, he likely originated from France’s Picardy region. Nonetheless, this is considered to be one of the most important manuscripts to survive the 13th century, and Honnecourt has even been considered to be a forerunner to the Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci.

Facsimile editions available

Description

Villard de Honnecourt: The Book of Cathedrales

"Villard de Honnecourt greets you and recommends to all those who use the instructions given in this book to pray for their souls and remember them, because in this book you will find useful help for the magnificent art of construction and some carpentry arts and also the art of portraiture and its components as required and taught the art of geometry."

So begins this unique 13th century manuscript, the most important architectural treatise of the High Middle Ages. El Libro de las Catedrales is an encyclopedic text that covers masonry, architecture, surveying, carpentry, geometry, zoology, and contemporary mechanical devices related to the exciting and mysterious art of cathedral construction. These subjects are illustrated by 250 diagrams across 66 pages and the character of the architectures depicted indicate that Honnecourt visited cathedrals in France, Switzerland, and Hungary inter alia. All this is found in a comprehensive document that is only a fragment of a manuscript that originated ca. 1225-35 and was rediscovered in the 19th century. Today, it is housed among the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and is considered to be one of the most important written works to survive the 13th century.

A Mysterious High Medieval Polymath

Villard de Honnecourt is an enigmatic medieval polymath considered by many to be a forerunner of the great Leonardo da Vinci. That being said, little is known about this medieval personality, in fact, this is the only document attesting to his existence. His name has appeared as both “Villars” and “Vilars”, and his surname and the dialect of Old French he uses indicate that he was from Picardy in France, specifically from an area known as Honnecourt-sur-Escaut that evolved around a Benedictine abbey. He depicts himself both as a soldier and as a master builder, so it may be that his designs for military equipment were inspired by practical experience in war. In the High Middle Ages, sieges were the defining feature of war, overcoming stone fortifications required either a great deal of patience – starving out the defenders – or innovative machines ranging from siege towers to trebuchets to undermining walls. As such, the high medieval theater of war was far more technical than we think of today and would have provided plenty of demand for proto-engineers like Honnecourt. That being said, it is unlikely that he was active as an architect due to inaccuracies and misunderstandings in his work that one would not expect from a professional architect. Therefore, Honnecourt was likely an amateur architect who worked in a related profession that would have required some knowledge of arithmetic and geometry, but of course all of this is speculation because so little is known about both the work and its author.

Innovative Machinery

Honnecourt was the first European to devise a perpetual motion machine. In a time without electricity and other forms of power, such a devise would have been a miracle for the medieval construction site. However, Leonardo da Vinci was already skeptical of such devices during the Renaissance, and we know today that perpetual motion machines are impossible because they violate the first two laws of thermodynamics. Nevertheless, they continue to be a source of fascination today. He also designed automata, pseudo-robots that were popular in the Middle Ages both as curiosities and demonstrations of wealth and sophistication. The most famous examples thereof were in Constantinople: the throne room of the Byzantine emperors had gilded automata such as a tree full of singing birds, roaring lions, and a throne that could be raised and lowered – all to impress visitors of their status as the heirs of the Roman Empire. Honnecourt also designed other, more practical devices for construction and siege warfare. His manuscript contains diagrams of lifting devices, water-driven saws, a trebuchet, and other engines of war that appear to be practical, even if their diagrams are simplistic and sometimes inaccurate. It may be that the diagrams were kept simple in order to make them only accessible to those initiated in the secrets of architecture and engineering, but again, this is only speculation.

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