Saturday, May 24, 2014

Chartres Cathedral: The Good Samaritan

Chartres Cathedral: Good Samaritan Window Overview

Many medieval images reinforce allegorical interpretations (e.g., of Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, and others) that the parable of the Good Samaritan symbolizes fallen humanity, Satan’s attacks, the Law’s inadequacy, and Jesus’ mercy. Such symbolic elaborations are found, for example, in 12th century stained-glass windows in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres. These twenty-four images physically and theologically integrate the parable with the Fall of Adam and Eve: Jesus, as the true Good Samaritan, restores fallen humanity (the wounded man) after being attacked by Satan (the thieves) to a right relationship with God, which the old dispensation (the priest and Levite) cannot provide.

The next few posts will follow story told by this "luminous sermon" (Stoksted) and how it elaborates the parable. Then I follow up by analyzing how stained-glass windows in the Cathedral of St. Etienne in Bourges advance this allegorical interpretation by adding stories of Moses.

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres was a holy site for centuries before the construction of the current Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres. The first reference to a cathedral in Chartres—although bishops are mentioned from as early as the fourth century—was the destruction of the cathedral in 743. Another cathedral was destroyed by Viking raiders in 858. Chartres’s cathedrals were dedicated to the Virgin Mary from at least the eighth century, and its most celebrated relic was a linen garment (Sancta Camisia) believed to have been worn by Mary when Jesus was born. Chartres became a popular pilgrimage site, because stories of healing miracles associated with the garment began to spread. The garment also saved the city from at least one later raid from the Vikings in 911: When the city was besieged by a group of Vikings led by a man named Rollon, the bishop at Chartres displayed the relic on the city ramparts. Rollon not only fled, but he also converted to Christianity and was appointed as the first Duke of Normandy (Miller 1996: 8-9).

The cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1020/30, rebuilt, damaged again when fire ravaged Chartres in 1134, and almost completely destroyed by fire in 1194. The Romanesque church was rebuilt—some parts, such as the “Royal Portal” and the crypt were not destroyed—from 1194 to approximately 1260. This new edifice would be a magnificent Gothic cathedral, an architectural style that produced extremely tall naves and towers, airy interiors, and breathtaking stained glass windows dominating the walls: “Gothic churches became the jeweled houses of God . . . glowing manifestations of Christian doctrines, and invitations to faithful living, encouraging worshipers to follow in the footsteps of the saints whose lives were frequently featured in the windows of Gothic churches” (Stokstad/Cothran 2011: 491).

The Gothic Chartres Cathedral is no exception. The walls serve almost as a bare skeleton for massive stained-glass windows that cover approximately 22,000 square feet. One of the 176 stained-glass windows in the cathedral depicts scenes from the parable of the Good Samaritan and scenes from the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. This window was created around 1210, and, like all of the stained glass windows in this Gothic cathedral, the messages of these biblical texts are crystal clear even for those who cannot read the texts themselves. As the windows spring to life with the light of day they serve as luminous sermons preached with pictures instead of words (Stokstad/Cothran 2011: 491).

The Good Samaritan window is found in the south aisle of the nave, and it has a total of 24 separate but interconnected images that make up the window. The story and its theological interpretation unfold as viewers work their way from the bottom to the top of the window. At the bottom are three scenes that depict shoemakers, the group that donated the money to pay for this window. The Lukan parable is then depicted in nine different scenes. The first five scenes appear in a “medallion cluster (quatrefoil panes; for more details of the description below, see Miller 1996: 64-65).

In my next few posts, I will work through the different scenes in the window.

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