Through all the ages there has always been a technique that is used to grab the public’s attention. In modern society billboards and television are most commonly used; however during the Gothic period around the 12th century, styles of architecture were pertained and the art of the church was used to educate the public and thus Rose windows were the equivalent to billboards housing information of the time. They told stories through their symbolism and through the analysis of different examples of Rose windows it can be demonstrated; with specific reference to the South Oculus Rose window of the Canterbury cathedral, St. Etienne and Angers Rose window.
A great deal of detail, found in the line work of the stone known as tracery, emerged from these windows exemplifying radiance of cultural and spiritual development and ultimately representing completeness and balance. However, it is these finer details that need to be discussed in order to express the iconography of these great works of beauty. The ‘South Oculus Rose Window’ in figure 1 of the Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oldest surviving oculus windows that are glazed (Cowan, 2005: 47). According to Lee (2007: 70) the main theme of this rose window is Law and Prophets.
The glass consists of a variety of geometrical, angular and flat figures and shapes. The center figures are usually of most importance and in this image the two figures in this focal point represent Moses and Synagogue which are surrounded by four cardinal virtues (Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Strength) who revolve around the centre symbolizing protection (Cowan, 2005: 47). The cardinal virtues are all holding scrolls that contain writing which could represent religious scriptures. There are also repetitive geometric and lucid shapes that create movement and a sense of pattern work around the glass.
The patterns lure the eye into the center steering the reader to the focal point. As a whole the figures symbolize the Law. The Prophets who are situated in the half- roundels are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel (Cowan, 2005: 47). It has a delicate background as it is filled with dense foliage from the original imagery. It is made from early glass, on the contrast the figures are of a Victorian style (Lee, 2007: 71). According to Lee (2007: 71) the rose window depict the genealogical ancestors of Christ. However, they were originally designed to reflect the light through the high windows (clerestory).
The window is no mere isolated art piece but can rather be seen as a complex network of iconography (Seliger, 2011: 3). It represents the New Testament and symbolizes light and salvation (Seliger, 2011: 4). The window is dominated by the colour red which indicates the representation of the New Testament. The geometric framework also creates further meaning: as it represents balance shown through the relationship between the circle and the square, working as a metaphor for the divine and profane, eternal and temporal, and God and Man (Seliger, 2011: 4).
The ‘South rose window’ of Angers (figure 2) is a 13th Century tracery found in Beauvais. The two main focuses of this window are the formal and iconography development (Cowan, 2005: 205). It is known for its astronomy and astrology as well as its exploration in zodiac symbols and is designed to be appreciated from both sides of the window (Cowan, 2005: 203, 205). There was no distinction between astronomy and astrology during the medieval times (Cowan, 2005: 207).
The stars and the sun played a large role in the people’s daily lives, giving them an understanding to the year by translating it into their day to day activities and this is how they related the zodiac symbols of medieval art to the passing of time. (Cowan, 2005: 207). At the Angers, the signs of zodiac imagery fill the outer circles of the upper half of the window (Cowan, 2005:207). The word zodiac means the ‘wheel of figures’ which refers to the grouping of stars of the night into twelve divisions that suggest animal-like shapes which are displayed within the window (Cowan, 2005:207).
According to Cowen (2005: 204) fortune was not known specifically as being part of the Christian figure but rather a powerful popular image within the medieval times. The appearance of fortune within the Christian context was quite unusual as it was jarring to find zodiac signs within the rose window in the Church (Cowen, 2005: 207). However, the traces of zodiac forms and imagery were removed in the early 19th century (Cowan, 2005: 207). The term “Psychomachia’ was use to describe this fortune, which means ‘battle in the soul’ (Cowan, 2005:204).
The wheels of fortune were said to remind the viewer of earthly power, wealth and status as the figures are flow around the perimeter as they take their journey through life (Cowan, 2005:204). The lower sets of the window illustrate the Elders of the Apocalypse holding the phials and lutes, while Christ is seated at the center (Cowan, 2005: 207). The tracery within the Angers rose starts at the center, which gives a metaphorical understanding of the importance of Christ, being the light of the world. Furthermore, playing an important role in both astronomy and zodiac symbolism.
Rose windows usually took the form of a wheel, which is often known as a universal symbol of time, further symbolizing the repetition of the day and night, year after year (Cowan, 2005: 203). The ‘East rose window’ of the St Etienne Cathedral, Brie-Comte-Robert, as seen in figure 3, shows Christ within the center surrounded by the twelve apostles each with their traditional attributes, followed by the labours of months which symbolize time (Cowan, 2005: 203).
According to Cowan (2005: 204) the east rose window of St. Etienne is similar to the south rose of Angers Cathedral, as it also has Christ depicted as the focus of the rose window. The twelve apostles are paired with the twelve labour of months. The labours of months are known as the cycle of different human activities which are associated with different seasons throughout the year (Ross, 149). The labourers within the surrounding windows display the activity which has taken place in a specific month of harvest, each section within the tracery telling its story about the events which took place within the land.
The figures in the window are stylized and consist of geometrical shapes. The drapery of the clothing has little volume and shading in colour which makes the image appear flat. The facial features are vague with no expression which creates a sense of seriousness and earnestness of labour work. In concluding the iconography of Rose windows it can be said that they were of great importance during the Gothic period, described as large narrative circles; appreciated both from inside and outside.
They all held a reference to biblical symbols and images that told a biblical story. There were also other influences such as astrology and astronomy where the zodiac signs were used as a reference to daily experiences. Hence, not only did the rose windows tell society about acts of the church but of everyday experiences as well, they were billboards of the medieval period that told us their significant stories that now remain an artifact for Ancient history.