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Apocalypse Wow--The Sainte-Chapelle Rose Window

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

The stained glass in Sainte Chapelle (building completed in 1248) represents the highest achievement of the form. When you enter the main chapel, you are in a room whose walls are made almost entirely of glass. It's like walking through a kaleidoscope, or a prism, because the light changes as the sun arcs across the sky, and, of course, as the clouds roll in and out.



Apart from the amazing feeling of being in God's jewelry box, what impresses me most about Sainte Chapelle is its acres of illustrated biblical narrative. In this post, I'll focus on its rose window (completed in 1490), because it is the most detailed visual telling of the Book of Revelations I've ever seen.



The Center of the Rose

The window begins the story in its center, and continues in a clock-wise spiral outward. The non-figural work is a tiled pattern of golden fleur-de-lys (emblem of the kings of France) against a blue background. (Eternal thanks to the amazing scholars at The Online Stained Glass Photographic Archive for helping me to recognize the more difficult images in the rose.)


For those of you unfamiliar with the book of Revelation, it is the last part of the Christian Bible. It was written in roughly 95 A.D. by an author identifying himself as John (though he is not the John who wrote the Gospel According to St. John). It's a book of his personally-experienced vision and prophesy of the end of the world, which an angel commanded him to write down. This is the the main text from which the Christian idea of a Last Judgment comes (though several faiths have an idea of individual and group reckonings). A great deal of controversy surrounds the book to this day; some eastern Christian sects do not count it as a legitimate part of the New Testament, and its inclusion in the western Church's canon was debated for well over a 1000 years. Nonetheless, its iconography became almost essential for European places of Christian worship from about the 1000s to the 1500s. Revelation became the main narrative for the churches on the pilgrimage routes in particular, as it framed the story of the Church Militant's journey to becoming the Church Triumphant, and gave each believer a role with which to understand their spiritual struggle.



Christ comes with a Sword


The center of the rose window is the first vision of Christ in Chapter 1. He has seven stars and seven lamp-stands, representing the main churches of Asia (that is, of what is now Turkey). Angels seem to be guarding the seven churches radiating around his throne. In Christ's teeth is a double-edged sword. John worships at his feet. The structure here suggests a flower, in which a central image is surrounded by a ring of six petals.



The Elders and the Sealed Book

The narration moves to a section just above the central rose, where it continues in the next (outer) ring of six petals. In this part of the second ring, the 24 elders witness the newly triumphant king, who is enthroned at the top with the book of prophesy, with seven seals. The elders have musical instruments and lamps. They are arranged here much as a medieval court of nobles would position themselves before their sovereign.



Here are the elders close-up. The crowns, clothes, and instruments give you a sense of what a medieval elite would enjoy, although I'm not sure how much musical training nobility were given. William IX of France was famous for his musical compositions (mainly the lyrics) and his singing, but the "king as musician" who would be most evocative here is King David, with his psalms of praise to God. The key idea that I think was important to the medieval understanding and Church use of the elders is that there is a hierarchy of kings, and Christ in the Apocalypse is being crowned as the King of Kings. This asserts that earthly authority and religious authority are inextricably intertwined.



The Lamb Unseals the Book

This petal of the rose window features the opening of the book of prophesy, which John is to witness and write down. In the lower-left, you see the Lamb (symbolizing Christ) with seven horns and seven eyes (for the seven churches of Asia). The presentation is much like a heraldic shield, with the lamb on the top of the standard, the book with the seven seals at his feet, and the four creatures of the tetramorph as standard-bearers. I'm still trying to track down the significance of the flag with the white cross on a red field. The white, in general medieval religious symbolism, is for purity or charity, and the red is for martyrdom and sacrifice. However, it's the inverse of the cross of St. George, and I'm sure it is tied to something or someone specific. The gold shield is probably a mandorla, since it embodies both the Christ as Lamb and the Christ as King in the same manner in these two panels. The tetramorph is repeated over and over on the rose window. You can see it twice here--in the lower-left, and in the middle, where Christ is reading out the prophesy. I am not sure why the representation of the tetramorph is so frequent in the window, perhaps to reinforce the Revelation with the book of Ezekiel, where the tetramorph is described as heralding the coming of the Messiah.



The Four Horsemen: Conquest and War

In the next petal of the rose, the seals are being opened. Top-left is Saint Matthew (the human-faced figure of the tetramorph) guiding John in the reading, and in the small section bottom-right, Saint Mark (the lion-faced figure) is with John as he reads of the second seal. The first seal unleashes the horseman in the top-right. He wears a crown and carries a bow-and-arrow as he rides out on a white horse. The horse looks green to me, which would be appropriate for the horseman of Death, but there's lots of artistic license with the colors of the horses in this section. There are numerous interpretations of what the riders of the Apocalypse represent, which change from century to century and different theological audiences. The one that fits best for the time of production of the image is probably that he represents the Antichrist, or Conquest. The bottom figure is the second horseman, with a sword, who should represent War. In the original text, the horse is red, but it doesn't appear so here. (For an excellent, brief summary of the nature of the Horsemen, please see Laura Jenkinson-Brown's illustrated panel .)



The Four Horsemen: Famine and Death

The petal directly beneath the rose's center opens the third and fourth seals. In the top and bottom scenes, John is guided by the ox-faced figure of the tetramorph (Saint Luke), and the eagle-faced figure (St. John the Evangelist). The large panel on the right depicts the horseman of Famine, with his empty scales. According to the text, his horse should be black, but it makes sense that the glass-designer wouldn't use an opaque color like black in a window of this sort. On the left is the most famous horseman of our age: Death, on a pale horse. The term "pale," in the Greek that Revelation was written in, is "khloros," which works out to "sickly," or "greenish." Essentially, looking decomposed. The Sainte Chapelle artist renders Death's horse as white, but I'm impressed with how corpse-like he (almost undoubtedly "he") paints the rider himself, with Death's bones visible through his grey skin. The horse has a particularly angry look, compared to the others. I blew up the image by about 300% to figure out what Death is wielding on high: it appears to be three interlocking serpents, each a different color. The most striking component of this representation of Death is how the artist dealt with the line "...and Hades followed with him." The artist represented the underworld as a hell-mouth. While hell-mouths are quite common in medieval religious art, especially representing Judgment Day, this is the first instance I've seen where one is used with the fourth horseman.



The Moon Turns to Blood

With the fifth and sixth seals opened, the souls of those who martyred themselves for Christ hide under his throne (top left), then the moon turns to blood (bottom-center), and great earthquakes take place (same panel). The martyrs cry out to God for justice against their murderers. In the earthquake panel, you can see powerful and the humble hiding in the crevices to try to escape the wrath of God.



The Trumpets of Judgment Day

Following the seven seals, there are seven trumpets sounded. In this section, the angel at the top triggers the falling from the sky of a star called "Wormwood." Wormwood can be interpreted as a fallen angel, perhaps Lucifer/Satan. On the left, a trumpeting unleashes blood into a third of the sea, and a third of the ships at sea are lost. If you look closely, you can see that the artist lovingly represented the ships with their masts and hulls. On the right, the trumpet blast calls for a dimming of the heavens, and a golden eagle appears to cry "Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of earth," written in Latin in the window. In the bottom-center panel, the trumpet rains hail and fire from the sky.



The Beast Appears

The panels in this part of the rose window show the pouring of vials. These vials poison the earth. At the top, an angel pours a vial on the throne of the Beast. There's a wonderful detail here, where the people who serve the Beast are so tortured for their wrong-doing that they gnaw on their tongues in pain. Each figure has his tongue sticking out as he bites it. The middle panels show the rivers being poisoned, and the wicked being scorched to death by the sun. At the bottom, we have the first appearance of the seven-headed Beast himself.



What is the Beast?

Here's the text from Revelation. It's worth quoting in full:


And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”
The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.

The interpretations which look at what John was writing in his historical context suggest that the Beast represents the succession of Roman emperors, whom John saw as a threat to the churches of Asia. But medieval interpretations, from what I've read, would have been more interested in the symbolic eschatology than a historical interpretation. In this sense, then, I think the medieval Christian understanding of the Beast would be a wielder of worldly power who would threaten the Church, but not the one John had in mind hundreds of years earlier .


The ambiguity of the many metaphors of the book of Revelation have permitted countless individuals and groups to be smeared with being called the Beast or Antichrist, as a way of inciting mob action or aggressive acts. The Beast was a powerful representation in medieval monasteries and churches to encourage the membership to cling more firmly to the faith, and renounce threats to Church power.



The Whore of Babylon

The rose window of Sainte Chapelle has the whole of the Apocalypse on it. At over 90 pieces, it's overwhelming to take in. I'll conclude with one more famous character from the book: The Whore of Babylon. Here she is riding the Beast, and carrying a chalice. Like the Beast, she is so vaguely and yet vividly characterized in Revelation that she can be a symbol for any group over time who wishes to paint someone or something as evil. In the medieval sense, the Whore *is* Babylon; that is, she represents a sophisticated and powerful city (like Rome? like Jerusalem?) which is focused on its own materialistic or decadent powers. The Beast may represent corrupt non-Christian rulers, and the Whore is the people who consent to and flourish under that rule. In the book of Revelation, there's only room for an "us" and a "them," and the "them" are a scourge to "us." The prophecy promises they will be wiped out. The "us" will then enjoy a justly-ruled, eternal paradise.


In a world that is frightening and painful (and the world has always been thus), this promise is the most compelling a faith can offer: justice is coming; stay strong.


There are other figures of parts of this window I'd like to discuss, but lack good photos of them. Hopefully, this year I'll get to return to Sainte Chapelle. In the mean-time, please enjoy the images on the stained glass archive site.





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