At the heart of symbolism

The stained-glass window in the Gothic Cathedral

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The colours of the stained-glass window

As the Temple, the Gothic cathedral was constructed on the basis of sacred geometry. It is divided in three spaces in relation with the macrocosm (or cosmic world) as well as the microcosm (or individual world):

  • The nave representing Earth (macrocosm) and the human body (microcosm);
  • The transept describing the Atmosphere (macrocosm) and human soul (microcosm);
  • The choir and the apse symbolizing Heaven (macrocosm) and Spirit (microcosm).

The round form of the apse and the rectangular one of the nave are respectively representative of Heaven and Earth. The Gothic cathedral is an image of the Cosmos reflecting the harmony between the human creation and divine One.

When the faithful enters the cathedral, he is facing east and new light. Wanting to be in harmony with the divine Creation, he will go through the structure following the diurnal cycle of the sun or its annual and seasonal cycle:

  • He will start with the obscure, dark world related to north and the nocturnal or hibernal blue colour;
  • He will carry on with the new light, the world of sunrise linked to east and the morning or spring green colour;
  • He will continue with the world of the full light, the noon sun in liaison with south and the zenithal or summer yellow colour;
  • He will finish with the crepuscular world, the sunset attached to west and the vesperal or autumnal red colour.

The faithful does not finish where he started. He ends a cycle before undertaking another one or dies to the current being's state before reemerging into a new one. Doing that, he goes through the colours of the rainbow spectrum from the “bottom” to the “top”, sign of his progression. These colours blend in with a unique colour, white, symbol of the unified state that the faithful tries to attain. Rejoining the unified state means to reach the Centre, God.

Henceforth, it is not astonishing that these five colours (blue, green, yellow, red and white) constitute the basis of the palette of the glass-masters who mostly developed subtle nuances. Thus, it is customary within the 12th century to use very luminous glasses (notably a pale blue, the famous “blue of Chartres”) that will make room for darker chromatic nuances in the following century.

The tree of Jesse

Tree of JesseThe tree of Jesse constituted a very prized theme of the glass-masters of the 12th and 13th centuries. The subject is based at once on a prophecy of Isaiah (11, 1: “a branch will come out from the trunk of Jesse, a surgeon will sprout from its roots”) and ancestry of Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Jesse was the father of David, first King of Judah, one of the two kingdoms of Palestine formed after the death of King Salomon. The Bible commentators saw there the image of a family line according to a genealogical tree, which from Jesse to Joseph, spouse of Mary, led to Jesus.

The stained-glass windows represent most often a sleeping Jesse seeing himself dreaming. From his body emanates a tree, the branches and stems of which are animated by a light bottom movement coming from below. The tree contains in its central part the symbolic portraits of the line of Kings and in the lateral parts the prophets and patriarchs. Right at the top stands Christ in all his majesty.

Through its roots planted in earth and its branches erected towards the sky, the tree is the link par excellence between the worlds down below and beyond. It symbolizes the vertical Axis that unifies Earth and Heaven, temporal power and spiritual authority. The genealogical tree related to Jesse's descent corresponds to the Tree of (eternal) Life, the ascending path linking the different being's states from the most temporal to the most spiritual. These states are spread over seven or eight levels:

  1. At the inferior level, the horizontal posture of Jesse suggests the terrestrial plan topped by the vertical;
  2. At the intermediary levels, the different Kings represent the centres associated to different being's states. They characterize the being who has overcome antagonisms related to a given state and found the unity within it;
  3. At the superior level, Christ not only symbolizes the being centred in the different intermediary states, but centred at the top of the Axis symbolizing the World Centre. He is high up in the Heavens

While going back up the different levels and successively identifying himself to the centre of each of them; the being follows the return path that will bring him back to the primeval state he comes from, to the totally integrated state where duality in all its forms gives way to Unity.

The Zodiac

As the envelope of the Cosmos, the Zodiac is depicted by twelve signs related to twelve constellations which allow us to locate the astral bodies in the sky.

The cathedral of Chartres presents, in the south part of its ambulatory, a stained-glass window linking the signs of Zodiac and the agricultural activities throughout the year.


Above the Zodiac and the agricultural activities sits the blessing Christ, the God Saviour.

Christ, Savour God

Christ is associated with fish for, in Greek language, Ichthus is the anagram of Iesous (Jesus) Christos (Messiah) Theou (of God) Uios (Son) Soter (Saviour). Moreover, as the figure of fish, Christ is also the Regulator of the seasonal cycles.

As often in religious structures, the stained-glass window has to be watched bottom up.


Pisces signSituated at the bottom of the stained-glass window, the Pisces sign matches the peasant warming up close to the fire.

The sign naturally refers to the ordinary fish considered under its spiritual aspects of “life principle” and “fertility”. Now, within a number of traditions, Water and Fire constitute the primeval elements and must confer to the drawing of both fish a meaning beyond the ordinary one.

Linked by a cord indicating their deep association, both fish are doubly reversed in comparison with two axes:

  • A horizontal axis assimilated to the water surface that separates the worlds beyond and below, the “Upper Waters” and the “Lower Waters”. Therefore, all what is above the water surface is reflected in reverse under the water surface. Superior becomes inferior, over becomes under etc.
  • A vertical axis linking the right and left worlds, the Zodiac and the agricultural activities. In other words, what belongs to the cosmic order is literally reflected into human activities.

Pisces establish in fact a double association between:

  • The worlds beyond and below, i.e. the spiritual and the temporal
  • The Zodiac and human activities, i.e. the Cosmos and beings.

The stained-glass window as a whole advocates the harmony of the being with the cosmic and beyond worlds.


Below the Pisces sign, Aquarius is attached to the representation of the Roman God Janus with three faces.

Janus with three faces

The two lateral faces are turned towards the human activities and Zodiac signs while the central one (normally invisible) is facing the spectator. This third face invites us to overcome the dualism of the lateral views, to follow the axial way and raise one's eyes towards Christ. He is sitting on the throne above the human activities and the Cosmos. Christ symbolizes the world beyond, the One depicted by the junction point of both edges of the stained-glass window in form of lancet arches.

The Aquarius sign as such represents a man, probably a wise man, holding a jug in his hands from which water is flowing out. This liquid can quench the physical being and/or fulfil the spiritual being. The satisfaction of the body and the blossoming of the spirit correspond to two paths symbolized by both lateral faces of the God Janus.


Capricorn signThe ascending path is linked to the Capricorn sign, corresponding to the time of winter celebrations.

Situated nearer Christ, the sign is represented by a half-goat, half-fish being. This creature, half-marine, half-mountainous, symbolizes at once the dive into the depths and the elevation towards the heights. Opening with the winter solstice, it corresponds to the end of the descending phase of the sun towards the south celestial pole and the beginning of its ascending phase towards the north celestial pole (for more details on this point, see the description of the celestial sphere). As the winter solstice, the Capricorn sign symbolizes the end of the descent towards darkness, synonymous with ignorance, and the beginning of the ascent towards Light, the divine Knowledge.


Cancer signThe descending path is related to the Cancer sign, diametrically opposed to the Capricorn sign, and linked to the haymaking in anticipation of winter.

The sign is represented by a crab, a half-marine, half-terrestrial creature. It follows the summer solstice and marks the end of the ascending phase of the sun towards the north celestial pole and the beginning of the descending phase towards the south celestial pole. It corresponds to a descent from light towards darkness.

The zodiacal Capricorn and Cancer signs open onto the gates of winter and summer solstices. In the Christian tradition, these gates are respectively called Janua Coeli and Janua Inferni, one opening into light, the other into darkness.

The Capricorn and Cancer signs, associated with the solstices, are related to the Aries and Libra signs associated with the equinoxes. The latter mark the middle of both ascending and descending phases of the sun during its annual apparent cycle.


Aries signThe Aries sign has the activity of pruning the vine as its counterpart.

The pruning of the vine consists in cutting the old branches to enable new shoots to develop.

The horns (from the Latin “cornu”) coming out of the crown (from the Latin “corona”) of the ram's head evoke the sun and its radiance, the renewal of spring. That makes Aries a solar symbol just as Leo and Sagittarius.

In addition, the horns shaped as a spiral form suggests the idea of development or manifestation from a certain state and envelopment or return from that manifested state towards its original state. This double movement between Heaven and Earth, between higher and lower states testifies the power of gods or some men. Thus, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, horns of fire came out of his head and disappeared.


Libra signThe Libra sign is associated with the grape harvest and to their pressing.

The pips contained in the bunches of grapes are a symbol of the germ, of the origin of things. It follows that the juice extracted from grapes embodies the drink of gods, the beverage of immortality.

The sign itself shows a person holding a balanced scale in one hand. Most often, the scale allows you to assess the gravity of terrestrial things or the lightness of heavenly ones. Above all however, it can assess the balance between the so-called antagonist things: good and evil, just and unjust, day and night, cold and hot, heaven and hell etc. Indeed, the antinomies are opposed in our eyes only. In reality, they complement each other to provide balance and harmony in the world. Even evil contributes to this balance. The scale considers the happy medium of things, it does not judge them.

Note that the signs associated with the solstices on the one hand and equinoxes on the other hand are aligned along two perpendicular axes. These axes divide the zodiacal circle into four zones related to the four seasons.


The Gemini sign shows two apparently identical beings giving each other the right hand. The sign is placed next to a standing knight, ready to straddle his mount.

Gemini sign

Gemini represent the duality of opposites or their complementarity within unity. They are only apparently similar. The manifestation does not reproduce the identical, it produces diversity. Gemini symbolize the inner harmony obtained while returning from the plural manifestation to the original unity.

The image of the true knight was related to the one who fought for a noble cause and/or undertook a spiritual journey in search of the Holy Grail, of the unified state beyond the duality.


Taurus signThe Aries and Taurus signs have distinct natures. The first is solar, the second lunar as reflected by the horns of the animal shaped as a crescent. Note that the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph (ℵ), means bull and represents the moon symbol.

As the lion, the bull suggests power and strength. However, the lion is mainly related to the celestial sun and symbolizes the higher being's states. The bull, on the contrary, is connected to the moon, to the dark world and lower states. Moreover, he characterizes the potential states of fecundity, fertility preceding the primeval manifestation. Besides, the annual work associated with the sign shows a man holding a blossoming plant (or a wheat grain in its envelop) in his right hand and a faded one (or the wheat grain envelop alone) in his left hand. The first corresponds to the flowering of the seeds produced by the second. Does this man not put forward the promise of planting ?

The complementarity of Leo and Taurus signs is part of the vision of Ezekiel (1 1-14) unveiling the four figures of bull, man, lion and eagle (tetramorph). These four figures symbolize the various states of the being: potential or lower states (bull), human states (man), higher states (lion) and totally unified state (eagle).


Solar symbol par excellence, the Leo sign is connected to the harvest work.

A man is harvesting wheat with a sickle; he reaps what he has sown. The wheat grain had to die into earth to revive a hundredfold. It symbolizes the initiation process. The man must die to a certain state of being to revive in (generally) higher states.

Leo sign

With its mane encircling its head, the lion symbolizes the terrestrial manifestation of the celestial sun:

  • When he shows his claws, he has the boldness and the power of the fighter, the warrior. As such, he is not only the king of animals; more generally, he embodies the royal power. Many kings have taken him as emblem.
  • He can also draw in his claws and only show the quiet strength, the serenity proper to the authority of the Wise. Is Christ not called the “Lion of Judah ('s tribe)” ?

However, fortified by his power, the lion can also personify the abuse of power and reign as a tyrant. The ambivalence of the sign is made in the image of its place within the zodiac cycle. Associated with the period considered as the hottest of the year (in the northern hemisphere ), the Leo sign is nevertheless on the descending path towards the Capricorn sign.


Virgo signThe Virgo sign is represented by a woman surrounded by flowers and holding one in each hand. The sign is related to the threshing of wheat ears with the help of a scourge.

The flower symbolizes the receptacle, the female principle waiting to be fertilized by the male principle. It depicts the latent state, not revealed (yet), not manifested (yet). It is represented by the Earth awaiting for the wheat grain, to make it germinate and see its revival in the form of an ear. This resurrection symbol describes the different steps of the being during his successive passages from a state to another (presumed higher), before reaching the ultimate one.


The Scorpio sign is linked to the work of wine-making from grape juice.

Scorpio sign

The juice requires a long period of maturation in a barrel before becoming a drink bearing truth. Has Pliny the Elder not declared: In vino veritas ? It is not a question of human origin truth here. The real Truth is for all times and all places. The Truth in its essence is identical to the Principle at the source of everything, the original Unity, God. We can only know it after a long quest.

The sting of the scorpion can be fatal and the insect has often been used to describe the demonic powers. Nevertheless, let us observe that the tail of the scorpion of the same sign does not end with a stinger, but a dog's head. Now, the dog has often served as psychopomp to pass from this world into the other. The sign shows here the final death to the lower states before being not only re-born in higher states, but into the supreme state at the source of Truth. A status only accessible after a long initiation process, leading to the gate of the Capricorn sign.


Sagittarius signThe Sagittarius sign is linked to the last seasoning work, the killing of the pig. The animal usually describes the being only limited to the physical desires and appetites. Killing the pig symbolically means surpassing the lower and terrestrial states to access the higher and celestial states.

As for the sign itself, it is represented by a centaur, a creature composed of the head, torso and arms of a man and a body of a horse. This being combines the animal strength with the human capacity to access higher states. The centaur holds three arrows in his right hand and a bow pointing at the sky in his left hand. He knows what target to reach; it is undeniably a solar symbol.

The annual works are mainly linked to the culture of wheat and vine, two plants carrying symbols related to the origin of everything. Closely linked to the Zodiac signs, they let us sense that the traditional astrology had a high initiatory value in the past and was not limited to the art of divination alone as today.

The rose window

The rose was so much revered by its beauty, its form and its perfume that it became the most widely known flower symbol. From a very general point of view, the rose is to the West what the lotus is to the East; they both refer to the symbolism of the wheel. The rose of the Gothic cathedrals and the compass rose illustrate this parallel of the flower symbol with the wheel.

The wheel is composed of a centre linked to a circumference by spikes. The relatively motionless centre symbolizes the immutable Principle at the source of all things and the circumference its manifestation. As the wheel spikes can be run through in both directions, they describe the movement of the Principle towards its manifestation and conversely. Their number can vary according to the point of view adopted.

The centre is characterized by the number One. This number would not be considered as the first odd number. It qualifies in fact the Principle common to all numbers, previous to any distinction, in particular between even and odd numbers:

  • The first even number 2 portrays the Unity polarization, notably between Heaven and Earth. The rose made up of 2, 4, 8, 16 even 32 spikes characterizes the duality of cosmic world;
  • The first odd number 3 depicts the ternary keeping into contact the unity (1) and its polar manifestation (2). The rose composed of 3, 6, 12 and 24 spikes associates the Principle and its cosmic manifestation.

These two types of roses can notably be found in the transept aisles as cathedrals of Notre Dame of Paris and León in the northeast of Spain.

  • The rose with 8, 16 and even 32 spikes is generally oriented towards north, for the dualism is proper to the obscure, dark world, premises of light;
  • The rose with 6, 12 and 24 spikes is traditionally turned towards south, for it corresponds to a descent from the centre or sun towards its manifestation or its diurnal or annual cycle.

It is notable that both types of rose can be dedicated to Christ and the New Testament as well as to Virgin Mary and the Old Testament. The elevation towards Virgin Mary, intercessor and lavish with deeds, is one of the dominant features of the worship of the Gothic period 1. Mary symbolizes the fertilizing Earth, the receptacle of divine influence, the flower chalice, the rose, the blooming of which depicts the realization of all being's possibilities. The cathedral of León offers a beautiful example of flower ornamentation of French inspiration in the roses in the north aisle devoted to Christ and in the south aisle reserved to Virgin Mary.

In the rose of the north aisle, Christ sits in the middle of a circle with 16 lobes. The centre symbolizes the Principle at the source of the duality manifestation represented by pairs of opposite lobes. The figure of Christ is surrounded by a first circle composed of 16 decorative lancets describing the radiance of the centre, its manifestation in its whole multiplicity. A second circle is made up of 16 spherical forms containing crowned beings playing the music of the celestial spheres, symbol of the harmony within the Cosmos. The crown depicts the sovereignty, the prophet's radiance, at once spiritual and temporal, as testified by the lily flower drawn in the lowest sphere. Around, the vegetable forms constituted of stems divided in two other spiral stems, which wonderfully symbolize the development of duality.

In the rose of the south aisle, Virgin Mary in majesty stands in a circle with the child Jesus on her knees. She is surrounded by a first circle of 12 thurifiers or angels playing various trumpets to announce a great cosmic advent. A second circle of 24 lancets is composed of vegetable decorations. Each of them shows two stems parting and crossing each other from a common trunk. The 24 vegetable forms around depict the subdivision of a central stem into two lateral ones. All this expresses nothing but the polarization (2) of the Principle (1).


  • René Guénon:
  • “Symbols of Sacred Science”, Sophia Perennis Publisher 2004;
  • Notably, chapters 9 on symbolic flowers, 22 on some aspects of the fish symbolism and 35 on the solstitial Gates.

1 back In the 12th century, all cathedrals of France were dedicated to Our Lady. This is also the century where the lady begins to be exalted by her knight at the court of the countries of Loire and Poitou. France discovers, in that time, courteous love on the one hand and love of Mary on the other hand.