From the 12th century onward, the leading conception of divinity, derived from the Pseudo-Denis, maintains that God is Light and that His creations receive and transmit some part of this Light. "This concept holds the key to the new art - an art of light, clarity, and dazzling radiance." (G. Duby, The Age of Cathedrals).
Now, at the same time, master builders discovered a new architectural technique which enabled them to open up the walls and make room for huge windows.Stained glass served three purposes:
- it served as a textbook for illiterate congregations;
- it contributed to the beauty of the place that was no longer a mere building made of stone but the earthly equivalent of The City of God as Apostle John describes it :" "The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The wall is adorned with every jewel." (Apocalypse). The huge windows looked exactly like jewels, all the more as window panes were a luxury in the Middle Ages (only the greatest lords could have window panes - not to mention stained glass !-, the others had to be satisfied with oiled paper to close their windows.)
- it made the stone construction the sacred dwelling place of an all powerful God.
Listen to what 13th century bishops say:
" The windows through which the light of the sun is transmitted mean the Holy Scriptures that repel the name of the Evil while illuminating us." (Pierre de Roissy - Chartres)
" The windows are the Holy Scriptures that shed the light of the sun, i.e. of God into the church, i.e. into the heart of the faithful while illuminating them." (Durand, Bishop of Mende)
Being extremely brittle, these large glass areas were the first to suffer from damage wrought by time and by men, and both the late 18th century Revolution and World War II were terrible for the the church glass windows.
During the 19th century, new windows were designed to replace those broken during the Revolution, but unfortunately the 1940 and 1944 air raids smashed them too, except one window that had just been taken down for repair work in 1939 (so that it spent the war period in a wooden case, which saved it!) and some minor pieces that that have been refitted since.
Four-lancet window from the end of the 15th century showing various scenes from the Passion of Christ and of the life of John the Baptist. For instance, a Pieta in the left lancet, Baptism of Christ and Beheading of St John at the bottom, in the centre. The upper part of the window shows various scenes from the Passion, Christ before Pilate, Flagellation, Bearing of the Cross, etc...
Upper part of a 15th c. window showing the signs of the zodiac. For medieval man, this has nothing to do with the horoscope some people listen to when turning their radio on in the morning. The zodiac was always linked up with the months, themselves related with agricultural activities. It was used as a symbol of change and passage of time, as opposed to God's permanence and eternity.
In the left centre of the window, almost at the top, you can easily recognize Libra and Scorpio ( on its left). Under Libra, see Aries.
During the 19th century, new windows were put up to take the place of those that passing time and the Revolution had destroyed. Unfortunately the 1940-44 air raids smashed them all except a few fragments that could be brought together to reconstruct two windows, such as this one evoking the life of the Virgin.