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Chartres Stained Glass

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The North Rose Window at Chartres & Its Intricate Stained Glass Story that Depicts the Importance of Christ’s Heritage from the Old Testament

Although it may seem an outdated medium, stained glass is one of the most striking and intricate forms of expression. Stained glass has been one of the most powerful sources of storytelling during its extended history, especially in telling the history of Christianity in churches, cathedrals and similar notable buildings. However stained glass hadn’t been the method of communication in Christianity before the Gothic style. “The elimination of solid mural surfaces and the transformation of the Gothic building into a skeletal frame led to the ascendancy of stained glass during the twelfth century” (Bleiberg.) Not only does stained glass serve to tell remarkable stories, but it is also a significant part of the architecture. It is unlikely to find original stained glass windows that are still intact, and so it is not surprising that Chartres Cathedral, 50 miles southwest of Paris, is renowned for its well-preserved stained glass. Chartres began construction in 1194 and continued to assemble until 1250, and so the Rayonnant style remains somewhat cohesive throughout the cathedral. Chartres has three rose windows, created around 1235, which show some of the most stunning examples of high gothic intricacy and tracery. The north rose window depicts the glorification of the Virgin, and through its incredible complexity and striking painted glass, it shows the viewer a fragment of history. The north rose window of Chartres captures the attention of the viewer through its bold colors and elaborate story of the Virgin that explores the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
There are five large lancet windows below the rose window. When the viewer looks up, these are the windows seen as the eye travels up, and so one could infer that the story begins here. From left to right, the lancet panels depict King Melchizedek, King David, St. Anne with the young Virgin, King Solomon, and Aaron. Beside Anne’s window, the rest of the windows depict some of Christ’s ancestors from the Old Testament. The three center windows have background colors of bright red, while the outer two panels are predominantly blue. These colors, the colors of royalty, are apparent throughout these lancets and the rose window above. Underneath each of these panels is a sacrilegious figure. King Melchizedek’s panel depicts him holding a chalice, while underneath this panel is Nebuchadnezzar praying to a pagan idol. The next window shows King David with his harp. Underneath David is an image of Saul stabbing himself with his sword. The third window shows Anne holding the child Mary, placed in the center for its focus on the Virgin. Underneath this panel is another panel showing the arms of the royal house of France. This is significant because this shows a sign of French pride and importance in Christian history. The next Panel depicts King Solomon, as he appears to be holding a necklace of some sort. Under Solomon, Jeroboam is shown worshipping the horses Dan and Bethel as idols. Last, Aaron is shown holding foliage. Under Aaron, Pharaoh is seen falling from his horse. Both the depiction of Anne and the depiction of the Old Testament ancestors of Christ are showing a segment of Christ’s history and how it relates to the New Testament. Just above the five large lancet windows are eight minor lancet windows that line the bottom of either side of the rose. The lancets create a pattern, switching off from blue and yellow windows and red and yellow windows. The blue and yellow windows have a blue background with images of the yellow Fleur-de-lis, or “the lily flower,” which is the great symbol of France. The Virgin Mary is always seen holding a fleur-de-lis in her Annunciation scene. The red and yellow windows have a red background and show multiple yellow castles. The yellow castle on the red background is the symbol of Castille. Queen Blanche of Castille was the patron for this window and the yellow castle was a known sign of the Castille house. The rose window is the main attraction of the north transept. It’s radiating circular patterns and 43-inch diameter keep the eye moving in a continuous loop. On the first outer layer, semicircular shapes line the edge of the major panel of the rose. These panels depict the prophets; beginning clockwise at “one o’clock;” the Prophets Amos, Jonah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Zacharias, Malachi, Haggai, Habakkuk, Micah, Obadiah, Joel, and Hosea. These make up the twelve minor prophets of the Old Testament. The prophets are depicted with their name written behind them, so the viewer can understand which prophet is which. Within each semicircular panel, another circle contains the prophet within and brings the viewer’s eye straight to the prophet. The colors of the prophets’ dress vary from prophet to prophet, but all are wearing brown, green, and white. This color scheme contrasts the intricate design of a checkerboard of red and blue hues in the background. Five smaller semicircles line the outside of each one larger semicircle, creating more intricacy and an interesting element of design. Each of these prophet’s books leads to Christ in some way, and embraces the element of the Old Testament prophets and shows how they relate to the New Testament. The next layer of panels depicts an element that adds to the aesthetic of the design. There are twelve quatrefoil panels that help create a transition to the next panels. Inside the quatrefoils are several fleurs-de-lis. The contrast of the yellow fleur-de-lis and the blue background creates for an artistically beautiful part of the window. The next layer of diamond-shaped panels displays the Kings of Judea. The diamonds are placed so that one of the corners points toward the center of the window, emphasizing the importance of the midpoint of the rose. The background of the diamond-shaped panels reveals a bright red color with a tiled blue border around the outside. Surrounding the blue border is a white/gray border, which creates a stark contrast to the dark background of the whole window. Starting again at “one o’clock,” clockwise the panels display Kings Solomon, Abijah, Jehoshaphat, Josiah, Ahaz, Manasseh, Hezekiah, Jotham, Jehoram, Asa, Rehoboam, and David. Each of the kings is depicted wearing a crown and holding a scepter. The viewer is able to distinguish among the kings because each king shows an element of personality. Also, like the prophets, the kings’ names are written behind them in white. Unlike the prophets, however, the kings are sitting rather than standing. King David sits at the top of all the kings, and beside him sits King Solomon. According to the New Testament, David and Solomon are ancestors of Christ. “David and Solomon…these are the royal ancestors of Christ. Isaiah (11:1-3) had prophesized that the Messiah would come from the family of the patriarch Jesse, father of David. The genealogical ‘tree of Jesse’ is a familiar motif in medieval art” (Gardner, 370.) David, especially, plays a crucial role in Christ’s ancestry and shows Christ’s strong ties to the Old Testament. The third set of panels shows the doves and angels that surround the Virgin in the center. There are four doves and eight angels that surround the Virgin and child, which add up to twelve in total. According to, “Of the innermost ring of panels surround the central oculus, the top four show the ‘Four Gifts of the Holy Spirit,’ manifested as doves with cruciform nimbi.” The other eight panels are filled with angels, each depicted with winged bodies and in different positions. The dove and angel panels, like much of the rest of the window, are painted in red and blue. These panels form an arrow-like shape, though rounded at the point, but which all direct the eye to the center oculus. At the center of the entire window sits the Virgin and Christ enthroned. Everything inside the rose widow, including the prophets, kings, doves and angels, have in some way pointed to this center scene or helped the viewer move to the center. The whole being of the window is shown at the center, and this is where the story is complete. The Virgin is shown wearing both a crown, a halo and holding a scepter, showing her true importance and sense of royalty. She holds Christ as child in her arm, and Christ also wears a halo. While the rest of the panels show a combination of a blue and red background, the background color center oculus is a deep and striking red. A thin blue border around the circle contrasts the red background. This enhances the middle scene of the Virgin and Child, and brings the viewer’s eye straight to the center of the rose. The grouping of windows, including the large lancets, the smaller lancets, and the rose window, all refers to the importance of Christ’s heritage. The intricacy of the window allows for the great detail to show how the New Testament has been built from the Old Testament. The reoccurring red and blue colors symbolize royalty and therefore the importance of the Virgin and Christ in Christian history. The beautiful and delicate stained glass rose of the north transept serves as just one window in Chartres, and just tells one story out of a thousands stories.

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