Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
protected from the circle of the moon
That pitches common things about. There stood
Amid the ornamental bronze and stone
An ancient image made of olive wood –
And gone are Phidias' famous ivories
And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.
Joanna here, talking about something that shocked and horrified me last week. I watched fire burning next to the rose windows of Notre Dame.
Those rose windows are perhaps the most famous stained glass in the world. Very old. Very lovely. Anyone who’s been privileged to see them has been moved by the experience.
We still don’t know what shape they’re in.
Notre Dame has three of them over the doors on the south, west, and north of the Cathedral.
They’re called “rose windows” not because of the color or because they have roses in the stained glass itself, but from the shape. The circle with spoke-like mullions and the delicate tracery of stone is thought to resemble an open rose. They’re madly characteristic of Gothic architecture and are found in great churches all over northern France.
The idea of a simple round window is ancient. Classical domes were often topped by a round, unglassed opening that let in both light and the passing rain shower. See the pantheon (126 AD) over to the left. They called windows like these oculi, from Latin oculus, “eye”. Here’s a much fancier one with glass one from a Romanesque church in Oviedo, Spain dating to 845 AD.
The term “rose window” was used from the Seventeenth Century onward for oculi of splendid stained glass laid out in that circular wheel-like design. They certainly had rose windows before that but I don’t know what people called them.
“Particularly Fancy Oculi” maybe. Or “those round windows full of little bits of stained glass.”
So how old are the three rose windows of Notre Dame? How old is Notre Dame, anyway?
First thing to consider is that Notre Dame was built by stages, one church on another. One religious structure, I should say, on an older one. Before the first Christian church was built in France, the ground was used to being holy.
In 1711, workmen digging out a vault under the choir of Notre Dame came across nine large cubical stones with bas-reliefs and inscriptions. Sparing you the original Latin, one stone read,
“Under Tiberius Cæsar Augustus,
the Parisian watermen
publicly erected this altar
to Jupiter Optimus, Maximus,”
which places a Roman temple under Notre Dame. The stash of stones was carved in the neighborhood of 14 AD to 37 AD when Tiberius was emperor. Other carvings show Vulcan, Castor, and a well-known divinity of the Gauls, Esus, on various bas-reliefs. That Gaulish divinity is a broad hint that the Romans had helped themselves to a previously sacred space.
Various exciting historical events intervened in the three-and-a-half centuries between 37-ish and 375 AD. The Roman temple disappeared. The church of Saint Stephen was built on its ruins. A separate church dedicated to the Virgin Mary arose close by and
over the next centuries expanded its way south to engulf St. Stephen’s. These would have been Romanesque churches, perhaps a bit like the church at the left from Ninth Century Spain.
Whatever the merits of these churches — Fortunatus speaks of thirty marble columns in the church of the Virgin — nothing now remains.The Virgin's Mary's church was pulled down in 1160 to make way for a new, improved church, constructed in the latest Gothic style. That's the Notre Dame of today. In 1218, the even more ancient structure of St. Stephen’s was leveled to make a roomy spot for the south transcept.
And so our Notre Dame was built, (I’m about to get to the rose
Maybe they put signs up saying “Pardon the inconvenience. We’re building for a new and greater Paris.”
Now, Medieval folk did not just install a sturdy construction barrier, drive in heavy equipment, and and toss up yer major stone buildings in a couple months. No. They took their time and did it right.
Maybe they were on time-plus-materials contracts.
Or going for deeper historical accuracy here — much of the work on these great cathedrals was done as pious labor donation and financed with sporadic gifts of money. I suspect stuff got built when the dibs were in tune and construction projects sat around with not much happening for a couple decades when folks got distracted.
In any case, the cornerstone of Notre Dame was laid in 1163, the rose windows were constructed 1225 to 1260, and the cathedral completed in 1343. That’s (jo counts on her fingers) 180 years which is pretty much lickety-split in terms of cathedrals.
As to the rose windows . . .
No. Let me digress for a minute to give you interesting news about the colors in Medieval stained glass.
The wide of spectrum of colors achieved in Medieval France's stained glass windows was produced by varying both the proportion of metal added to molten glass and the temperature to which the mixture was heated. Impurities in the metals, bubbles in the cooled glass and variations in the thickness of the cut panes would ultimately contribute to the jewel-like quality of finished windows. Colored glass was cut to size by heating or with a diamond. Details (facial features, drapery, foliage, etc.) were painted on with a mix of cullet (scrap glass), copper and Greek sapphire dissolved in wine or urine.
Such windows were not depicted merely in transparent colours, as we are apt to think; but from the thickness, texture, and quality of the old glass. It holds the sunlight, as it were, within it, so that the whole becomes a mosaic of coloured fire.
William Richard Lethaby, Medieval Art
But back to the rose windows:
There are three rose windows in Norte Dame, the North, South and West. These were ambitious projects, these windows, technical projects that pushed the boundaries of state–of-the-art both in size and in artistic splendor.
The North Rose Window dates in at 1250 to 1260. The central medalion is the image of Mary holding the Christ child. The figures surrounding are from the Old Testament. That's the North Rose Window way up at the top of the screen. Most of the original glass is still intact in this one.
The rose window in the south is devoted to New Testament notables; the apostles, wise virgins,
martyrs, and saints, including St Denis, the patron saint of France, carrying his head. A practical and visually riveting solution.
This window has suffered a good deal of restoration. The masonry settled disasterously on this wall and the window had to be supported. It was extensively restored in 1725 and again in 1861, under the direction of Viollet-le-Duc, of whom more anon. In its latter restoration the rosette was turned by 15° to give it a more stable vertical and horizontal axis. Expert glassmakers restored the remaining 13th century glass and reconstructed missing medallions.
But in the process of this restoration they rearranged the placement of the glass panels, taking the apostles from their original inner circle and scattering them at random over the whole design. This seems careless.
The West Rose Window was completed first, in 1225, and is the smallest of the three. It was restored between 1844 and 1867, again, under the direction of Viollet-le-Duc. It is telling that, after restoration, none of the original Thirteenth Century glass survives.
A restoration may be more disastrous for a monument than the ravages of centuries.
Prosper Mérimée to Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, 1843
Notre Dame is considered the first of Viollet-le-Duc’s extremist interventions in churches . . .
”old statues were removed, often to museums, and new ones designed.” . . .
“In spite of all his scholarship, he still had a Romantic approach to Gothic architecture.”
Folks have had unkind things to say about Viollet-le-Duc's work for the last century. Did he restore Notre Dame or create an unscholarly Victorian Medieval fantasy?
But he did bring the gargoyles back and that was certainly the right thing to do.
Should we take this opportunity to undo the Victorian meddling?
Or will we just meddle in our own Twenty-first Century way?
Is Notre Dame a museum fixed in time or does it continue to grow and change and interact with its visitors and the worshippers who come?
Notre Dame has been a work in progress for 800 years. Are we next in line to contribute?
Where do we go from here?