Look at this, would you? It’s the most beautiful thing in the world today:
The great and glorious rose window on the west portal of the cathedral held on through the inferno! That entrance is known as the Portal of the Last Judgement. The rose window itself is a symbol of the whole of the universe — all of time, and all of human life — centered in perfect harmony around the God-Man and His mother, on whose lap He sits in the very center of the rose: the King of Creation on his throne. (A Yale professor gives some detail about that window in this short video here.)
In the Middle Ages, when Notre Dame de Paris was built, people read the visible universe allegorically. Cathedrals were called “poor people’s books,” because even the illiterate could be taught how to “read” the symbolism in the glass and stones of cathedrals. Medieval people, like most peoples before them, “read” meaning into the created world as well. At its worst, this was augury, the process of divining the future and the will of the gods by ritual — something that the Bible, in fact, forbids. But it is normal, and well within the Biblical worldview, to regard events in the world as potential messages from God. The challenge is to discern both when an event has meaning, and what that meaning is.
I’m thinking this morning about a story I’ve told here before. On the morning of September 11, 2002, I set out from Brooklyn with a friend to walk down to Ground Zero for the one-year commemoration of the 9/11 attack. We lost each other in the crowd on the site. At precisely the moment when the first plane struck a year earlier, a howling wind arose, and buffeted the city for hours. Someone told me later that a network commentator described the force of the wind as “Biblical.” It was. It carried the power of a Sign. The wind was still blowing as I went into Trinity Church Wall Street for a memorial service conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. From inside the church, we could hear when the last name of the dead was read at the adjacent Trade Center site. Is that when the wind stopped? I don’t know, but when I left the church shortly thereafter, there was no longer a wind. It was eerie.
When I returned home, I received a call from my friend, who told me to come to her place and see what had happened. When I arrived, she showed me a small antique American flag from the early 19th century that someone had given her in the past. It was fragile, and she kept it mounted in a sealed frame, and displayed on the wall. The flag had split in two, from top to bottom. I had never been to her apartment, so I didn’t understand what she was showing me. Then, through her visible shock, she said, “That flag was not torn. I’ve been looking at it every day for years on my wall, and it was not torn until this morning.”
That was September 12, 2002. Since then, I’ve had in the back of my mind the possibility that we had seen a Sign in the torn American flag — a sign that prophesied division and downfall in the United States. I have to admit that from the point of view of 2019, a case that indeed we had seen a prophecy about America’s future seems more plausible. But who knows? As Kierkegaard said, the trouble with life is that it has to be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards.
I firmly believe that we moderns have blinded ourselves to the possibility of transcendent meaning emerging from the material world. It is unarguably true that the builders of the Gothic cathedrals intended for the buildings to be charged with meaning. But can stones and glass arranged just so convey meaning beyond the sum of its parts? If you are a trained scholar of Gothic architecture, can the entirely of the information conveyed by the cathedral be written down in a textbook? Or is there more? Is it possible that the eye of a modern scholar is blind in a way the eye of the medieval peasant was not?
When I was 17 years old, and on a coach trip to Europe with a group of elderly American tourists, the first Gothic cathedral I ever saw was Notre Dame de Chartres — a day or two before I saw Notre Dame de Paris, in fact. I did not know what French Gothic was. All I knew was that I was following the leader of the tour group into an old church in France, into which we had arrived earlier that day via hovercraft from England.
Of vaults, spires, and rose windows, I knew not a thing. Even less did I understand the medieval worldview, or the Christian religion beyond Sunday School basics, which I had by then discarded as childish fairy tales. What I knew, standing at the center of the labyrinth in the nave, was that God existed, and that He was calling to me. I can’t explain why this happened, or why it affected me that way. I was overcome with awe, with wonder. Nothing in my life as a bookish small-town American growing up in the late 20th century had prepared me for Chartres. It struck me with the force of revelation.
I was never again the same. What was once seen cannot be unseen. I left the cathedral on a quest for God. I wanted to know the God that inspired men to build such a magnificent temple to His worship. It was a quest that I did my best to refuse over the next few years, but I could never forget it. The God whose voice I could not hear in the Bible, or in the way of life that formed me, spoke to me in the limestone and colored glass of that Gothic cathedral in France. I was an illiterate peasant — in part a willfully illiterate one, I confess — but entering the Chartres cathedral was like finding a message in a bottle. In time, I surrendered to the faith, and my eyes were opened to the Bible, and everything else.
But I first saw God at Chartres. I saw a Sign, an arrow pointing me on the pilgrim’s path.
On that same trip, we visited Notre Dame de Paris. I have no memories of it, because, I guess, the great Gothic impression was already made in me by Notre Dame de Chartres. However, over the years I have been to Paris many more times than I have to Chartres, and have visited Notre Dame more often, to marvel at the glory of God made manifest in Gothic cathedral architecture.
So: I see the image above — of the light shining through the rose window, onto the ashes of Notre Dame cathedral — and I see a Sign. Beauty, order, and harmony were not consumed by the fire. The light that streams into the cathedral through the rose windows passes through colors arranged in such a way as to illustrate scenes from humanity’s mortal life. The rose window tells us that God — who, to the medievals, is Light — manifests Himself by passing through the stains of our mortality. He is everywhere present, He fills all things. Even when we sin — as some of the smaller in the west portal rose window depict — God is present, illuminating the sacredness of life, drawing even our frailty and brokenness into harmonious lines bursting with color, and life, and meaning.
People like to quote that line from a Dostoevsky character: “Beauty will save the world.” Look at the image of the rose window shining forth in the ruins: there you see the meaning of the phrase. Where there is beauty, there is hope. Two years ago, I sat in a cafe in the St-Germain neighborhood of Paris, drinking coffee with a well-known French philosopher. We commiserated over the moral and political collapse of our time. Eventually I asked him, “What gives you hope?”
He shrugged. “I have no hope.”
“I do have hope,” I told him. “My hope is in Jesus Christ.”
Please, I added, don’t think I am saying that in a trite, sentimental way, like a TV evangelist. I am not optimistic — but I am hopeful. Then I told him the story of wandering into the Chartres cathedral as a callow teenager, and having been awestruck by the beauty in its stones and glass. After that, I knew, just knew, that there was something beyond this life, something greater, something eternal — and that I was being asked to join the dance of harmony and exaltation made manifest in that great cathedral.
This, I told the philosopher, is why all these years later, I can confront the grave crises that you and I both agree are upon us, and not lose hope. I saw the meaning and beauty and harmony that underlies all things, and fills everything with light. Your own ancestors revealed this truth to me. They brought me light, and hope — and, I believe, salvation. The darkness of our present age cannot overcome this vision that I first glimpsed at Chartres. It’s right here, in your own backyard!
The philosopher listened to me with respect. Then he said, “Well, that is fine for you Americans, but here in France, we believe that this life is all there is. When you are dead, that’s the end.”
No wonder my friend the philosopher was in such despair. I hope in the days to come, he will cross the Seine, and enter into what is left of the great Gothic cathedral in his city. I hope he will look up at the light captured in the rose window, and will spy the same hope of redemption that I did in the Chartres rose window decades ago. The west portal of Notre Dame de Paris was saved from the flames. It is a doorway into mystery — the mystery of eternity, and the priceless gift of hope, for those with eyes to see, and with those the courage to pass through, rejoicing. “And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.”
UPDATE: A reader points out that the image in the second shot is of the south rose window. The south, north, and west rose windows all survived. Everything that follows in this post is still true, though I misidentified which rose window this is. Sorry about that. I should have known this wasn’t the west portal, because the massive organ obscures the view of the rose window from within the cathedral.