Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Theology and Metaphysics of the Gothic Cathedral - part 4 & conclusion

Continued from here.


As we have seen, claritas is one of the central qualities of beauty, and it was embodied in the stained glass window, which glowed with colour like precious stones as light shone through it. Abbot Suger considered the beauty of this coloured light to have transported him to “some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven”. His church thus became a bridge between earth and heaven, a veritable porta caeli. Moreover, the great stained glass windows clearly evoked Revelation 21:19, which spoke of the heavenly City as being “garnished with all manner of precious stones”. As such, the stained glass re-iterated that the church building was a symbol of the new Jerusalem.

One element in the Gothic cathedral combines the ‘requirements’ of beauty which we have been discussing thus far. It may be said to be a summation of the medieval architect’s vision, and this is the rose window. The circle is an image of the cosmos – both spiritual and material, thus the rose window alludes to the entire cathedral itself as a model of the ordered arrangement of creation. The circle is also complete, considered by Aristotle to be a symbol of perfection, and thus it has perfect integrity. The rose window was also constructed using a complex combination of geometry and number to produce perfect proportion and harmony. The finest example of this is arguably the north rose window in Chartres. As Cowen writes: “Everything in the window is generated from the properties of the square within the circle… This series of squares can also be related to the Golden Section [and their arrangement on a spiral is] governed by the Fibonacci series (a series in which each term is the sum of the two preceding ones)”. Interestingly, the Fibonacci series had only been published thirty years before this window was made and the series also “governs the system of growth in a number of flowers – notably the sunflower, daisies and in a related but more complex way the rose”. Thus, one sees in this use of geometry something of the natural order that the divine geomancer has written into creation. Finally, the stained glass in the window is aglow with luminous colour and brightness. Therefore, beauty is communicated in the rose window, which is itself a microcosm of the entire cathedral itself which strains upwards towards God and is a symbol of he who is Beauty. Subordinate to this form of beauty in the Gothic cathedral, and so also with the rose window, is the theological scheme of the ‘lights’ in the window which may be read as a biblia pauperum. At Chartres, Christ the divine Logos is at the centre of each of the cathedral’s three rose windows: the Last Judgment is depicted in the west rose, the Parousia is in the southern rose, and the Incarnation in the northern rose. Given that the circular windows are an allusion to the cosmos, that light is a symbol of creation, the rose windows place Jesus Christ at the centre of all creation and the order of the universe. For it is by the divine Logos that the world was made and arranged, and it is also by the Incarnation, death and resurrection of the Word that the world was re-made and order was restored to the chaos introduced by sin. As we saw at the beginning of this essay, then, all these elements which are unified in the rose window and ‘read’ from it are also unified in the Gothic cathedral which is a symbol of the entire cosmos and its past, present and future, governed by Christ and centred on the Eucharist which is, of course, the living heart of the Church.

The medieval cosmology that the Gothic cathedral represents helps us to understand why the medievals built these wonders of Christian civilization. As Günther Binding says, “During the course of the 13th century… a general striving was becoming evident, in all areas [of medieval Europe], to determine the exact place of mankind both in terms of his reason and his nature, within the harmonious, well-proportioned cosmos of creation, in other words in the perfect forms in which God reveals Himself. Efforts were made to understand the secret of the world and to point out the innate divine order within it”. Mâle had noted the medievals’ “passion for order” and this is seen in the intellectual work of the universities and religious orders. However, this same passion was reflected in the Gothic cathedral which stands as a symbol of the medieval vision of the cosmos. These buildings stand as a witness to the truth which the Scholastics perceived and taught. They stand as a symbol of the Church and her revealed truths, and within her walls the saints are taught and fed, and glimpse their heavenly homeland. Their beauty is an eloquent invitation to us today, who no longer perceive the truth as clearly as the medievals did, to rediscover the veritatis splendor which they communicate. As Auguste Rodin once said: “If we could but understand Gothic art, we should be irresistibly led back to truth”.