Chartres Cathedral's North Rose window

To a modern viewer Medieval stained glass windows are a beautiful aspect of churches but to the Medieval viewer, stained glass windows were like books in Gothic Cathedrals, each pane told a story and each window was like a book of stories, usually pertaining to the bible.  Though there were also often references to history, past and current rulers, saints, the seasons or local stories as well.

Rose windows in cathedrals were beautiful examples of this.  These were called rose windows as the panes of glass radiated outwards in a circular pattern like a rose, rose windows are found in most Gothic Cathedrals.  Several years ago I was fortunate enough to visit the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral in Chartres, which is in central France and had a tour by renowned Gothic scholar Malcolm Miller.  Each tour he gives focuses on a different part of the cathedral and tour I went on focused on both the Northern Rose Window and the North Porch which is on the exterior side of the cathedral.  Both had a very similar iconography; that of the prophets telling of the birth of Christ, and of Mary.

North Rose Window at Notre Dame Cathedral, Chartres, France, c-1235
photo- © Guillaume Piolle / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In the very center of the window the Virgin Mary holds the baby Jesus  She is surrounded immediately by doves and angels.  The 12 major prophets encircle them in diamond shaped windows.  Then there are 12 quatrefoil (4 1/2 circles) windows with the symbol of France the fleur-de-lis.  The fleur-de-lis is literally "the lily flower" the flower that the Virgin Mary is always seen holding in an Annunciation scene.  The lily was for centuries a symbol used to indicate purity and the deep color blue is the color of the Mary and also a symbol for purity.

The exterior half lunette shapes each contain one of the minor prophets.  The small lancet (long, thin windows) windows at either side of the main rose window would indicate who the patron was, in this case Queen Blanche of Castille who was originally from the Castillian region of Spain before marrying into the French royal family and becoming the mother of St. Louis.  She ruled at the regent of France from 1226-1236.  The fleur-de-lis being the symbol of France and the gold castle on a red background being the symbol of Castille.  Anyone seeing this would have recognized right away that these were the joint symbols of Blanche of Castille.

North Rose Window, detail of center, Chartres, France, c-1235
photo- ©  Mossot / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It is important to keep in mind when viewing medieval art that as much of the population was illiterate, there was a greater significance placed on symbols.  Specific numbers, colors and objects all told stories to the viewer.  When we look at this Rose window we notice that we have five concentric circles which all contain 12 small windows: the center has 12 small circles, then 12 windows radiate out from that, there are 12 diamond shapes, 12 quatrefoil shapes and finally 12 half lunettes.

Everything is planned in medieval art, the number 12 was important for several reasons.  Three was of course the number of the trinity and four was the number of man.  Man had four limbs, life cycles and seasons. The Cross on which Christ was crucified also had four arms.  Therefore 12 (3 x 4) was a joining of the divine with mankind, which is also why the number 7 (3 + 4) was important symbolically.  Each color was significant as well, as mentioned earlier blue was a symbol of the Virgin, also red was a symbol for the Blood and Passion of Christ.

King David, St. Anne with the young Virgin and King Solomon
North Rose Window, detail of lower lancets, Chartres, France, c-1235
photo- © Amanda Harmonia/ public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Below the rose there are five larger lancet windows showing from left to right: King Melchizedek, King David, St. Anne with the young Virgin, King Solomon and Aaron.  Each of the four Old Testament figures is on top of a heretical figure such as King Saul committing suicide or Jeoboam praying to golden idols of calves.

The cathedral has three rose windows and nearly two hundred other stained glass windows, most made in the early 13th century by artists whose names are lost to us.   However the beauty and messages of these windows live on.

North Rose Window, detail, Chartres, France, c-1235
photo- © Amanda Harmonia/ public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 Note: Malcolm Miller has also written several books on Chartres Cathedral.  I bought one while I was there but you can also find them online, they are published by Pitkin Guides

If you visit make sure to go on one of the twice daily tours he offers.

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