The culmination of an era can rarely be traced to a single work of greatness, as is the case with the cathedrals of the Gothic period. While these buildings were great achievements, their beauty lies not in the towering masses of stone and graceful arches, but in the splendor of their windows. Stained glass is a living art form, one that embodies divinity and holds captive the spirit of mankind. Within these windows, we see the culmination of Medieval symbolism, geometry and design. The Middle Ages saw a striving for divine perfection, a way to illuminate the minds of mankind in such a way that they could not help but see God. There is no doubt that the pinnacle of this perfection is the rose window, a portal created by man through which to view heaven.
No other art-form in history has come close to revealing the nature of the divine than the Rose window. Our perception of grace, harmony, love and purity can all be seen in the play of light through the perfect sphere of the rose. Other artworks of a religious nature lack the living quality of light. The great alter piece of Jan van Eyck is a splendor of vivid color and symbolism, amazingly detailed and inspiring. Yet as large as the piece is, it cannot hope to contain within its frames the same subtle mystery of the cathedral window. The images that adorn the walls of the Sistine Chapel are truly wonderful, but they are two dimensional. The images do not come off the walls to greet you and draw you closer. Each of these beautiful works depicts biblical themes and characters, however, there is something more to the stained glass window, as if the pictures are imbued with creation and are living works. They appear to have been given depth and form beyond what art is capable of attaining on its own.
The rose window is often the focal point of the nave, sending showers of glowing light upon the alter and the worshipers. It is this light that brings a unique harmony to the cathedral. When viewers walk through its doors, they are surrounded and covered in shimmering light. It binds them to their surroundings and glows within each object placed within its touch. This light streams from the windows as if liquid gold changing the face of the interior, animating it as the sun changes position throughout the day. The refraction of light over all the surfaces, including the air within the cathedral, blends until everything is illuminated by color.
This harmony of enfolding light was seen as spiritual transcendence, this was where one came to see heavenly Jerusalem on earth. The Medieval perception of truth was tied to the light. The windows were created to not only illuminate the worship service, but to illuminate the mortal mind. The beauty was to be so pure that any soul viewing it would be struck by the wonder and power of God. When Abbot Suger set about to create his masterpiece at Saint Denis, he held to the belief that beauty would bring mankind into a closer relationship with God. He saw light as being of divine origin and strove to allow as much of it as possible into his cathedral. Great importance was also placed on the images enclosed in the windows, many telling stories of the scriptures and pointing to the various themes and acts of worship. While each of these windows tell stories in great detail, viewers would not have been able to see the actual story far above their heads. However, the overall work of color and light was considered powerful enough to bring to mind heavenly thought.
During the Middle Ages, geometry held great importance in religious art. Mathematics were seen as immutable, their perfection was undisputed and universal. Geometry was seen as a shadow of heavenly completeness and used extensively in the religious buildings and works of art of the Middle Ages. The circular pattern of the rose lends its own symbolism. A circle is the ultimate geometric symbol, representing unity, completeness and harmony; the unending line of its edge denotes infinity. The rose window is the culmination of this geometric fascination, it also offers us a glimpse at the importance of numerology in the Middle Ages.
The rose window starts in the center with a picture of a divine event or figure , then radiates out with further symbolism. Combinations of four are often seen in these windows, with a connection made to the four evangelist and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Eight is often used in combination with four to create the number twelve, often used to represent the twelve apostles of Christ or the Twelve kings of the Old Testament - forunners of Christ (Calter unit 8). The window of Chartres offers a perfect example of this numerology, surrounding the center amulet of the virgin and child are twelve petals holding four doves and eight angels. Outside of this we see twelve diamonds holding visages of the twelve Kings of the Old Testament. Along the outer rim are twelve smaller circles, with the twelve Old Testament prophets, the forerunners of the twelve apostles. Each layer of the rose adds both beauty and meaning.
There are unique variance in the window patterns from country to country. In France, the shades of blue and red were favored and the rose window given a place of
prominence in the nave, as well as the transepts. It has been noted that in England lighter shades of yellow, blue and green were prized (Rose) and the great rose was often relegated to the transepts alone (Kriehn par. 2). Great care was taken in the placement of color within the walls. Due to the position of the cathedral, the light would refract through the various walls differently. Morning sun and evening sun are also different, offering a variety of new patterns to the window’s light. These concerns were taken into account and warmer colors were often used in the east and south walls, while the cooler shades were used in the north and west windows (Little par. 3).
Symbolism was common place during the middle ages; from art to writings, allegory and icons were used to portray truths of all kinds. Worked in amongst the figures of the stained glass windows one will often find flames, lilies, lambs and doves used symbolically. Various colors were used because they held their own language. Dante's writings help give clues to the symbolism found in color. The predominate colors of French windows are blue and red. Red is noted as being the symbol of divine love, and blue the symbol of God’s wisdom and the light of heaven (Connick). Each layer of symbolism gives deeper meaning to the panes of stained glass.
Each window and work of art within the cathedral was to focus the worshiper’s attention on God. Through the use of allegory and symbolism the medieval viewer could
see the basic concepts of his faith. Today much of this symbolism is lost to us. We do not
have the same reference point as the viewer of the Gothic Period. However, the beauty and inspiration of these windows has not been diminished. Along with being valued for their historic and religious significance, the stained glass of the great cathedrals has been an inspiration to some of the worlds greatest artists. Dante’s Paridiso portrays heaven as a rose built out from the center in layers much like the rose window (Calter unit 10), and Monet painted more than twenty views of the great cathedral of Rouen. Today artists are still fascinated by the variances and play of light through these windows.
Could these windows exist without the church? They could, but would we view them in the same manner, with such fascination and devotion? The inspiration for their design was religious in nature; and without the financial resources and organization of the church, there would not have been the centuries of cathedral building to house them. Glorious windows were created and displayed outside the church, in palaces and universities, but the entire population did not view their splendor. Their impact was not the same as those housed in religious sanctuaries. The tie between inspiration and the stained glass windows has as much to do with their beauty as with their placement within the church. It is religion that offers the windows much of their mystery, drawing millions
of visitors each year since their creation.
Religion and the windows seem bound together; they feed each other. The need to come closer to the divine created the windows of stained glass, and the beauty of the windows has for centuries inspired people to view the divine in a new way. Pope John Paul II states this quite eloquently in his letter to artists:
“These forms portray not only the genius of an artist but the soul of a people. In the play of light and shadow, in forms at times massive, at times delicate, structural considerations certainly come into play, but so too do the tensions peculiar to the experience of God, the mystery both ‘awesome’ and ‘alluring‘.” He goes on to state that, “Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God.”(John Paul II 8,16)
The mysteries of the scriptures intertwine within the beauty of the Gothic windows. The fact that we have lost some of the symbolic meaning is regrettable, but in no way diminishes the power of standing bathed in the glow of ethereal light. If anything, the lack of knowledge only stirs the viewer more in the sense of mystery that has always surrounded religious beliefs. The fascination and utter awe of standing before beauty of this magnitude is, in part, the knowledge that they have survived and touched lives for centuries. It is impossible to enter the portals of the great cathedrals and not be in a state
of awe and wonder at the grandeur of the building. Yet it is more than just the building; more than the precise measurements of stone and the millions of pieces of glass. It is the
completeness and intrinsic beauty of the whole, permeated with luminescent rays that binds these scenes permanently to ones memory. The light passing through the pane is an echo, a tremor of feeling that the light has some how reached this place from heaven’s
own realm. That this light, which plays upon the walls and upon the viewers very skin, is likened to the touch of God. The Gospels are full of references to the church being the light of the world; the stained glass of the cathedral embodies this fully, placing here on earth a tremendous symbol of Christian beliefs.
Calter, Paul. Squaring the Circle Geometry in Art and Architecture. Feb 2003
Connick, Charles J. The Language of Stained Glass. Advance, 1944. Color Symbolism of stained Glass. Armstrong Browning Library of Windows. Feb. 2003 http://www.browninglibrary.org/stglcolor.htm
John Paul II, Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists 1999. Vatican. Feb. 2003 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/letters/documents/hf_jp- ii_let_23041999_artists_en.html
Kriehn, G., “Rose window.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Feb 2003 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15653a.htm
A little About History of Stained Glass. Architecture and Stained Glass - Witraze s.c. Feb 2003 http://free.polbox.pl/w/witraze/english/historia.html
Rose Windows. Ed. Nicole Blackford. Feb. 2003 Earthlore Cultural Resources. 2001.