At the heart of symbolism

The stained-glass window in the Gothic Cathedral



Making way for light

From the descent towards the ascent way

Known for a long time, the glass embedded into “trellis” was probably used as model for stained-glass windows in the Middle Ages. Texts from 5th to 7th century mention the existence of coloured stained-glass windows. The first stained-glass windows realized from glass plates joined with lead are mentioned in texts dating back to 9th century. A number of them appeared nevertheless in the 12th century and attained their apogee in the 13th with the rise of Gothic. This has nothing to do with chance.

The advent of the Gothic style is essentially related to the evolution of the spiritual vision. In contrast to generally accepted ideas, the techniques used existed at the time of the master-builders of cathedrals and only served to make the new vision real. The later modified from top to bottom the perception of Heaven and Earth and the role of man in the Romanesque and Gothic eras:

  1. The first stained-glass windows appeared with the Romanesque art and correspond to a metaphysical vision of the world i.e. to a descending movement from Heaven towards Earth, from the celestial Principle towards its terrestrial manifestation. This movement from the spiritual to the temporal results in a descent from the celestial lightness to the terrestrial gravity. Therefore, the relatively massive structure of the Romanesque buildings where the square or rectangular openings representative of the terrestrial world are more often than not topped by round or semi-circular arches symbolizing the celestial world. As a creature of God, man of the Romanesque era was appealing the divine goodness to free himself from the weight of the world.
  2. This metaphysical vision was progressively supplanted by a cosmological vision associated to a momentum from Earth towards Heaven, to a rising movement from the manifested world towards its original Principle. This ascending movement from the temporal to the spiritual was represented by the height, structure, walls, openings and arches of buildings. From the technical point of view, that notably resulted in the substitution of the lancet for the round arch and the introduction of the flying buttress. Elected by God, man of the Gothic era rose towards Him.

From the outer towards the inner vision

The static Romanesque architecture principally leaning on weights made room for the Gothic dynamic architecture based on the effect of weights and lateral pressures. The lancet arch allowed the architect to lighten the construction for a given height and consequently to reduce weights on pillars; the flying buttress channelled the lateral pressures towards the outer buttresses.

Originally, Gothic designated a world opposed to the classical conception and akin to the Barbarians, the Goth destroyers of the old Roman Empire. If the Romanesque art knew its most classical developments in the southern part of France, where the Romanesque print was deep, the Gothic art appeared and bloomed in the northern part of France and England. The Romanesque art had affinities with the Mediterranean world, the Gothic art with the northern spirit. Therefore, the importance attached to vegetable reproductions representative of the natural world in contrast with the civilized world, of the country in comparison with the urban world 1.

When the abbot Suger (1081-1151) was elected at the head of the abbey of Saint Denis, he decided to rebuild the damaged church according to his theological ideal: “God is light and it is in His light that man finds the truth”. It was necessary that daylight, image of the divine clarity, flooded into the inner structure. To this end, the Gothic art tried to reduce the wall surface area and multiply the openings designed for windows. The stained-glass window was destined to play a preeminent role in cathedrals for light not only illuminates it, but crosses it to form one body with the colouring. The calm clarity of the inner light of the Gothic cathedral owes it all to the finely shaded colours of its stained-glass windows. The Gothic architecture differs from the Romanesque one by the unprecedented place given to light. Stained-glass and Gothic style are to tell truth almost synonymous.

Basilica of Saint Denis The abbot Suger

The abbey of Saint Denis was the guardian of the relics of the saint and martyr Denys that, according to the legend, converts Gaul to Christianity in the 3rd century. The saint was revered as the patron of the royal house. His church became the place of the coronation of Charlemagne and the necropolis of the kings of France. At the time of its reconstruction, the ribbed vault, the elevation on three levels and the buttressing by means of flying buttresses were for the first time practiced on a large scale. With its great arcades, its opened triforium and its high windows, this light cathedral could only reflect the world beyond here below. The effigies of the kings of France echo the terrestrial horizontal world that contrasts with the vertical stained-glass window rising towards the celestial heights. The stained-glass windows were destined to illuminate the faithful, to transmit light to them and raise their soul to the Heavens. They encouraged them to take their eyes off the donors represented at the bottom of the windows and to raise them towards the majestic representation situated at the top. The conservation of the oldest stained-glass windows of Saint Denis shows that they must have diffused the light the abbot was fond of.

The outer light reveals the obscurity of the stained-glass window; the inner obscurity transmits all its light

In the Middle Ages, a material, a number, a colour, a gesture, a person, an animal or a vegetable often took on a symbolic meaning beyond the appearance. The divine nature was reflected in human nature and nature as a whole. Throughout the medieval period and more particularly Gothic, representations appearing on stained-glass windows leaned on a correspondence between what is apparent and what is hidden, between the visible and the invisible. Remember that stained-glass windows, invisible from the outside, are visible from the inside. This correspondence between the outer and the inner, the manifested and the non manifested is put in a preeminent place through examples borrowed from the three human, animal and vegetable kingdoms, which are strongly inter related, notably through the use of colour.

1 back The split between north and south part of France is nothing new and still endures today.

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