The Chartres Roses


I have spent my life and career with art and with nature, and as an art critic, many times I’ve been asked, “What’s your favorite art?”

Favorite changes, of course, with time. Hundreds of paintings, sculptures and buildings have taken their turn as my favorite, just as my favorite corner of nature changes depending on where I am. But if asked the more precise question, “What is the most beautiful human-made thing you have ever seen?,” my answer is unequivocal: The north Rose Window at Chartres cathedral in France.

All rose windows are beautiful; at least, I’ve never seen one that didn’t leave me transported. But the north window at Chartres is special, even in that transcendent rank.

The first time I visited, I sat and stared into each for at least 20 minutes. I’ve been back many times, and can always sit and stare for endless time and times. First, the west window, which I have always thought peculiar, heavy and stoney, with a low proportion of glass.

But as I looked — meditated — today, I could see the beauty in its heavy tracery and porthole glass. There is a central circle surrounded by 12 teardrop panels, like the petals of a sunflower. But outside that, there are 12 more little round windows — miniature rose windows themselves — that float like snowflakes. And beyond that, the final outer circle of miniature dots, 12 of them, also, and less like part of the window design itself, and more like an optical afterimage, phantoms of the retina.

I looked and the light glowed in the glass like the fading glow of the coals in a woodfire, when most of the wood has gone to charcoal and only fleeting lines of incandescent red show through the interstices.

The West rose window corruscated the same way, like the fading coals of inspiration that Shelley wrote about.

And what is more, the fact that the tracery grows increasingly thick as you widen from the center, it looks almost as if the whole ball is expanding, like Hubble’s universe: It is a metaphor of fragmentation. Tight in the center, spinning away at the edges, with those tiny studs of light at the periphery like quasars, so distant you cannot name the distance.

The south rose window makes a different effect.

It’s tracery is more delicate and its design more coherent.

The axle in the middle is surrounded by 12 teardrop shapes — more like coffin shapes really – that radiate from the center, surrounded by 12 circles, larger and more tightly packed than in the west window, and finally, the half-circles of 12 more larger circles cut off by the perimeter of the enclosing circle, so that the overall design is one of larger circles on the outside and ever smaller ones on the inside. It gives the appearance of depth, as if you are looking into a tunnel.

But the north window is the prodigy of Chartres.

Unlike the south window, where the delicate tracery disappears as mere background for the glass, the tracery of the north window is a design and pattern in itself. If there were no glass and no color, the design of the stonework would still describe a giant dahlia, a circular flower with ray petals arrayed around a center.

Place upon that pattern the pattern of the glass panels, with the smaller round panel at the center, surrounded by 12 elongated diamond windows, splayed out like petals, surrounded by a magical circle of tumbling squares, with another ring of smaller tumbling squares around that, and the 12 large half-moons, flat side outward to make the periphery.

It is a multiple image effect. Look one way, and you see one thing, rub your eyes and look again, and it is something else. It is layered imagery.

Both the west and south windows are simple in their plan. The north is complex.

The tumbling boxes, around the circle look like they move, but in fact each one is merely 45 degrees turned from its neighbor, so that every two squares are 90 degrees twisted. With them arranged as a wreath, you cannot see them simply as each square oriented as a diamond with its point toward the center of the rose, but must see them as tumbling over and over as they spin around the wheel. It is a miracle of implied motion.

Layer that over the absolutely still dahlia, and you recognize what genius went into this window.

What is more, this implied motion, and the tunnel of the south window, and the fragmentation of the west window, all create mandalas that scintillate like the light show near the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is a light show, of a kind and nobility hardly to be credited.

I sat on the church chair staring, with tears streaming down my cheeks. This is visionary art, and you don’t have to believe in the dogma to understand the metaphor: This is the Great Mystery. The magnum misterium. You could be looking at photographs from the Hubble telescope. You could be looking at the visions of a peyote dream. You could be looking at the eye of god.

  1. Donna said:

    Loved this article. You make me want to go there and see it for myself!

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