Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Notre-Dame de Chartres: A Cosmological Reading

Notre-Dame de Chartres: A Cosmological Reading

Sacred imagery within a church is meant to serve as the bible for the illiterate, illustrating not only religious iconography, but the Medieval cosmological opinion. These depictions were universally understood in both the scholarly and non-academic communities. This analysis is a cosmological discussion on the characteristics of the Notre-Dame de Chartres West Rose window and Labyrinth, allowing for both a cultural and scientific explanation of each feature.

The West rose window depicts the second coming of Christ, with Christ the judge sitting in the centre of a quatrefoil or cross with His five bleeding wounds. Christ is encircled by three rings of twelve. Each of the encircling rings build upon the story of the second coming. The inner ring, in what Chartres historian Malcolm Miller calls the ‘tips’ of the elliptical forms, depicts ‘eight angels placed in pairs between the four apocalyptic animals, representing the four evangelists,’ conveniently placed in the four cardinal directions.[1] The larger circles within the ellipses are Christ’s twelve apostles who are helping Christ judge of the twelve tribes.[2] The outer most ring consist of several illustrations, including angels carrying the instruments of Christ’s Passion, angels blowing trumpets to announce Judgement Day, and six scenes of resurrected souls waiting to be judged.[3] The numerological qualities of the window enhance the iconographic illustrations put in place by the Chartres artists. The numbers in the pattern have adopted Christian meaning through the religious imagery displayed in each of the ‘petals’ of the rose, but cosmological interpretation must also be deliberated, especially when considering the numbers twelve and five. The numbers twelve and five are used to allude to the twelve apostles and Christ’s five wounds. The number twelve is representative of the months of the year, measured in astrological observations. Five is relatable to Aristotle’s five elements, including the impermeable aether. Considering the wounds of Christ and the elements as one in same is rather intriguing, perhaps making Christ the human representation of the world with a range of features (or elements) making Him a vision of perfection and balance.

Of the geometric forms, one of the most domineering shapes of the rose window is the star. This is vital because it is physical evidence of shared cosmological depiction between East and West, as the star is a common shape at locations like Dome of the Rock.[4] The pentacle is a commonly used star figure, representing ‘the Pythagorean symbol of healing, the Crucifixion, and Man, as drawn by Leonardo da Vinci.’[6] Regardless of the number of points on the star, the star is used a symbol of guidance in rose window design.[7] The star represents a beacon of light in the night sky, as was the case in the journey of the Magi in the story of Christ’s birth. The guidance of the stars was also essential in navigation in these early eras, thus representing the guiding of the heavens through stormy seas. The West rose window is conveniently placed over the floor labyrinth. The light from the star of the window may also be intended to light the visitor’s way through the labyrinth, which represents the journey of life. 

The labyrinth, like the window, also allows for multiple interpretations. The interpretation of the journey of life is the most prominent of the options, embracing the Christian journey to salvation. This idea is supported by the title of the pattern, called ‘la lieue’ or the ‘league,’ alluding to the length of the path.[5] The designation ‘the league’ allows for further cosmological meaning, referring to the path or orbit of a planet. Being that the labyrinth takes more of an elliptical shape verses a circular also hints to the idea of the actual elliptical travel of the planets.[6]  This quality makes the labyrinth more cosmological although it maintains its Christian elucidations.[7] The Chartres pattern represents the vernal equinox that predicts the date of Easter.[8] In celebration of the resurrection, early Christians would dance around the pattern.[9] They believed that Christ, before returning to earth, journeyed through the labyrinth to purgatory and hell.[10] Easter, calculated through astronomical events, again binds together the studies of science and religion. Additional scientific meaning is ascribed to the pattern when connecting the use of circles to Pythagorean teachings on the harmony of cosmological spheres.[11]

The Notre-Dame de Chartres’ rose windows and labyrinth represent the French dedication to Christianity and the journey to finding salvation. Their path was lit by the West rose window, featuring Christ as judge. Each visitor is watched as they face the twists and turns of the labyrinth that lies just beyond the gaze of Christ. The religious interpretation of these architectural features is complimented with the cosmological ideals of the era, tying together the natural occurrences of the earth to the power of God. The intertwining of religion and science allowed for a harmonious rule of the church and continuation of scientific inquiry in the thirteenth century. The great piety of the time perhaps overshadows any cosmological intent in the design, but what should be questioned is whether or not it was possible that the common man made scientific inferences upon his visit to the church. If these architectural features are the books of the illiterate, what exactly was the medieval man reading in his viewing of the rose window and labyrinth? As a 21st century viewer, I am open to both religious and scientific intentions, but what was envisioned by the Chartres artists and what was viewed by medieval visitors remains in question.


[1] Miller, 92.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid. Image: West Rose Window, 2012, Chartres Cathedral, World Heritage, accessed July 26, 2012, http://www.cathedrale-chartres.org.
[4] Oleg Grabar, The Dome of the Rock (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), pg. 76. Image: Creswell’s Dome of the Rock floor plan. West Rose Window picture provided by: West Rose Window, 2012, Chartres Cathedral, World Heritage, accessed July 26, 2012, http://www.cathedrale-chartres.org. Geometric pattern added by the author. Do note that the geometric forms of the Chartres image are not fully accurate due to the angle of the photograph.
[5] Hermann Kern, Through the Labyrinth: Designs and Meanings over 5.000 Years (New York: Prestel, 2000), pg. 153.
[6] This idea was suggested in the Classical Greek era, but not confirmed until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Brahe and Kepler. See Aughton, 85.
[7] Kern, 110.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid. See also Kern, 146.
[11] Ibid. Images: Left, Chartres Labyrinth, 2012, Chartres Cathedral, World Heritage, Chartres, http://www.cathedrale-chartres.org/. Right: Kern,