The Old and New Testaments

Here is a series of remarkable windows from Chartres Cathedral in northern France. Please click on the image to enlarge it and have a closer look at its design.

These five lancets sit below the South Rose Window, and at first glance it is a very odd arrangement of figures.  The central one is relatively conventional, showing the Virgin Mary with the Christ child, but the two windows flanking on each side are quite bizarre, in that they depict four smaller men sitting on the shoulders of four larger men. The ones above are holding on to the heads of the ones below, with their legs wrapped around their supporters’ necks, like some troupe of performing acrobats.

But this is not an entertainment, it is important symbolism, and it is quite an effective metaphor, once you understand who the characters represent.  The four men below are the major prophets of the Old Testament, from left to right, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.  Sitting on their shoulders, with haloes indicating that they are saints, are the four evangelists, the writers of the New Testament Gospels, again from left to right, St Luke, St Matthew, St John, and St Mark.

Symbolically, these figures are showing that the evangelical Gospels of the New Testament were built on top of the prophetic pillars of the Old Testament.  The New did not supersede the Old, but together they define the law, linked by the pivotal figures of the Virgin Mother and the Christ child.

The evangelists Luke, Matthew, John, and Mark, sitting on the shoulders of the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, with the Madonna and Child in the centre panel.

The evangelists Luke, Matthew, John, and Mark, sitting on the shoulders of the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, with the Madonna and Child in the centre panel.

This beautiful set of windows date from about 1255, and they were paid for by the Duke of Brittany.  The Duke’s blue and yellow check heraldry colours are at the bottom of the central lancet, below the Madonna and child, while the Duke himself and his wife and two children are depicted below the other four pairs of prophets and saints.

Not only did the Duke’s money and power achieve a form of immortality for himself and his family, this major donation probably earned them all some papal indulgencies as well, substantially shortening their post-mortem sojourn in purgatory.

Nowadays, of course, papal indulgencies can be acquired just by following the Pope’s tweets on Twitter.  I’m not kidding.

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Another of THE Great Cathedrals?

Chartres Cathedral, about an hour’s train ride south of Paris, is on most people’s list of great cathedrals of the world.  Top ten.  Maybe even top five.  But not mine.

I don’t mind the fact that its spires don’t match.  That lopsidedness is even slightly endearing, and gives it some quirky character.  And it’s not terribly surprising considering the spires were built around 400 years apart.  The simple one on the right was one of the first parts of the cathedral to be built in the 12th century, and the other, more ornate one on the left wasn’t added until the 15th century.

The spire on the right of the front of Chartres Cathedral was built in the 12thC, but the other one wasn't added until 400 years later.

The spire on the right of the front of Chartres Cathedral was built in the 12thC, but the other one wasn’t added until 400 years later.

It’s more the fact that the rest of the cathedral – outside at least – is as mismatched and wonky as the front of it, but without the charm.  Even the first simpler spire has blind and misaligned windows and doors on its south side. They might not have always been bricked up, but they’ve always been out of alignment.

The windows and doors on the side of the oldest spire have never been in alignment with each other.

The windows and doors on the side of the oldest spire have never been in alignment with each other.

And when you walk right round the back of this very large building it looks like there was no cohesive plan.  It looks like they made it up as they went along.  The fact that it’s still standing says that the structural bits are doing their job, but it doesn’t look like it.

Unlike with most great gothic cathedrals, the functions of the external features of the building aren't always obvious.

Unlike with most great gothic cathedrals, the functions of the external features of the building aren’t always obvious.

The exterior of Chartres cathedral is a curious mismatch of styles and features.

The exterior of Chartres cathedral is a curious mismatch of styles and features.

The strangely jumbled exterior of Chartres cathedral might make sense to an architect, but it leaves a lay-person scratching their head in puzzlement.

The strangely jumbled exterior of Chartres cathedral might make sense to an architect, but it leaves a lay-person scratching their head in puzzlement.

Inside, too, is a bit of a hotchpotch.  I couldn’t make up my mind whether this section at the altar end of the nave was the result of a clumsy renovation, or an overenthusiastic cleaning.  There was no sign that it was a work in progress, so it just looked glaringly wrong.

The two bays at the altar end of the cathedral are completely different than the rest of the knave.  Why would they do that, and leave it like that?

The two bays at the altar end of the cathedral are completely different than the rest of the nave. Why would they do that, and leave it like that?

There are some wonderful things about Chartres, but as a whole I thought it was a disappointment, and did not live up to its reputation.  It certainly doesn’t have the beautiful proportions and integrity and the sense of completeness that Notre Dame in Paris has.

Christ’s ‘Bris’

Around the outside of the choir stalls in Chartres Cathedral is a sculpted frieze containing depictions of several dozen events in the life of Jesus Christ.  The eleventh scene is this one, which shows Christ’s ritual circumcision – in Hebrew, his ‘Brit Milah’ or ‘Bris’.   Joseph holds the baby Jesus up for the mohel – the circumcising rabbi – who is slicing off the tip of Christ’s penis.  Mary kneels holding up a cloth, presumably to bandage the wound, and an attendant next to the mohel holds a pitcher of water to wash away the blood.

Sculpture from Chartres Cathedral showing the ritual circumcision of the Jewish baby Jesus

Sculpture from Chartres Cathedral showing the ritual circumcision of the Jewish baby Jesus

Antisemitism within Christianity was well-entrenched by the time Chartres Cathedral was built. Jews were demonised as ‘Christ-killers’, and accused of the most barbaric rituals, including drinking the blood of Christian babies.  By the time the monumental screen around the choir stalls was completed in the early 18th century, the cult of the sainted Virgin Mary had become even more central to Catholicism, and cultural and economic antisemitism had reduced the general status of Jews in Europe still further. Periodic persecutions, both religious and political, sometimes involving massacres of entire Jewish communities, were common.

This sculpture is therefore something of a curiosity.  It is the most explicit acknowledgement that I have ever seen inside a Christian church that the key figures in Christianity were not actually Christians, but Jews.  That may seem self-evident when you think about it, but Christian congregations were not usually so explicitly reminded that both Jesus Christ himself, and his holy mother, Mary, were both otherwise hated Jews.

 

Chartres Cathedral Rose Window

Here’s a good place to start this blog.

Round windows in churches that were divided into segments with stone mullions and tracery radiating from a central point are sometimes known as ‘wheel windows’, or ‘Catherine windows’ (because Saint Catherine was supposedly executed on a spiked wheel), but in more recent times are generally known as ‘Rose windows’.

The South Transept rose window in Chartres Cathedral, made c.1225

The South Transept rose window in Chartres Cathedral, made c.1225

This gorgeous example is one of three rose windows in Chartres Cathedral, south of Paris, France.  This one is the south transept window, and it shows Christ Pantocrator (Lord of all) in the centre, surrounded by angels and apostles.  It’s very hard to see the actual detail of this from the floor of the church, unless you have exceptional visual acuity, so what you get when you’re standing there looking up at it is mainly the beautiful colourfulness of it.

It’s been there nearly 700 years, and isn’t it pretty?