Stained Glass, Light Metaphysics, and Medieval Allegorical Commentary

Stained Glass

“The Old Testament is this vault which rises in a single rib, in a single groin, and the New Testament is the same rib that returns […]. And the keystone of this mystic vault is Jesus.”–Charles Péguy

The windows that exclude weather and let in the light are the doctors who stand against the storms of heresy and shed the light of the Church’s doctrine upon us. Light shines through the window glass, and this glass is the mind of the doctors, who contemplate, as if in a mirror, the heavenly things hidden in the figures (GA 1.130).

For those devoted readers who have followed us through Honorius’ Gemma Animae, here is a little meditation I wrote on his method of allegorical commentary.

According to the mystical tradition derived from Dionysius, and expounded by St. Thomas (e.g. I-II, q. 101), the liturgical symbol is the privileged medium through which the Christian soul contemplates the Divine Light in this life. Direct vision of the Divine Light must await the state of bliss. At the present time, since we have not entered into the pure light of eternity, “we need the ray of Divine light to shine upon us under the form of certain sensible figures.”

Otherwise invisible to us, the Divine Light appears through the filtered, differentiated light of incarnate figures. In the Old Dispensation, these figures were the narratives of salvation history and the ritual practices of the Old Law, which found their highest expression in the Temple liturgy, through which (according to Aquinas) the initiated could actually glimpse Christ as through a glass very darkly.

Christ comes as the Sun, shining through these figures and revealing that they were likenesses of him all along: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer all these things?” In the New Law, the liturgical symbol becomes a diaphanous membrane through which we may contemplate the whole sweep of Christ’s redemptive work in the figures of salvation history, and even glimpse something of our heavenly end.

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Detail of stained-glass, Sainte Chapelle

With this in mind, the mode of revelation ascribed to the liturgical rites by the allegorical commentators may be understood through an aesthetic analogy with the Gothic stained glass window. In fact, from a historical point of view, the same Dionysian metaphysics inspired the conception of the Gothic style, with its use of light and color, and the Scriptural-allegorical optic of certain liturgical commentators as they sought to “illuminate” the “spiritual gem” of liturgical ritual.

Revelation is like the construction of a cathedral. God laid the stones and painted the windows in the Old Testament. He illuminated them in the New. The Temple is the Cathedral, media autem nocte. At Easter dawn the light of the Resurrection and the flame of the Holy Spirit flood through these windows to reveal the whole program of sacred history, its inner coherence and its splendor, the inner life that, though obscured, had animated it from the beginning. The High Priest in his cerulean robe, whom we once glimpsed in the shadows, suddenly is revealed as Christ himself. The dark forms of the lower ministers, the priests and levites, the hanging lanterns, suddenly spring into view as the orders of acolytes and deacons, Christ’s priests, and the doctors of the Church, disguised there all along, only waiting to be revealed. The Temple cultus was our cultus in germ; in Christ it finally springs into flower.

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Gloucester Cathedral (Source)

And even now the sun has not ceased rising. Through the illuminated colors of the liturgy of the new High Priest, we look further and catch some glimpse of the realms of light where angels sing and the saints rejoice, their earthly pilgrimage accomplished, the devil finally defeated. At times, at the Sanctus for example, the angelic song bursts through and the Heavenly and Militant churches are united in anticipation of their final reunion around the Altar of the Lamb. On the eschatological nature of liturgical cult, Fr. Quoëx writes:

The state of blessedness is the ultimate sacred reality to which the first two states of cult are ordered. The provisional realities, shadows, and figures of this world will give way to the eternal rest toward which man tends and in which, through the merits of Christ, he will be established as body and soul. There, “in this state of the Blessed, nothing in regard to worship of God will be figurative; there will be naught but ‘thanksgiving and voice of praise.’” Thus, the Angelic Doctor cites Apocalypse (21:22): “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.

The role of the Doctor is to help Christians to see the pure Light of Christ shining through the colorful pageant of the liturgical rites. As a friendly guide, he takes us up to the glowing windows of the rites one by one, pointing out the crowds of figures to him and deciphering the dense episodes of salvation history: a liturgical exegesis.

The doctor performs an act of Apocalypse, revelation, unveiling. This act has an eschatological dimension, because at the same time that he makes us glimpse the limbs of Christ working in the liturgy, he causes us to yearn for the light to overcome the mediating forms entirely, for faith to cease and vision to begin. So by “decoding” the liturgy, the commentator trains us to wish for the state of glory.

Allegorical commentary is not merely didacticism, or arcane scholastic exercise, or a childish “Where’s Waldo?” where the game is to spot Christ wherever you can. It came from a belief about the nature of Revelation itself. These commentators were convinced that liturgy was the ongoing drama of Biblical Revelation happening before their eyes, a continuation of the Incarnation that, like the sun shining through the stained glass each morning, flooded the dark world with Light and revealed Christ’s manifold presences in the Church. This drama invited intelligent viewing, and even active participation.

The Biblical narrative is not consummated once and for all on Calvary, but again and again when the sun rises on each Eucharistic celebration. The monk’s lectio divina in the dark of the night finds its completion in the Eucharistia at daybreak, when the protagonists are cast on the Eucharistic stage and he takes active part in the drama of salvation history: might catch a glimpse of Moses coming through the sea, or see Joshua blow his triumphant horn.

As the sun rises with the morning Eucharist in Sainte Chapelle, the dark figures buried in the stories of stained glass are irradiated with the light cast by the Sun who banished the shadows and fulfilled the figures. The companies of prophets and patriarchs renew their ceaseless homage to their Antitype, the Christian joins in worship with all the saints and patriarchs through whom God has revealed himself, and the humble species of the Eucharist is projected in pied beauty on the canvas of the chapel walls.

We can’t all pray with the illuminated book of Sainte Chapelle, but through the window of the liturgical commentary we can see the Scriptural types cast upon the walls of our own churches wherever we are.

Ecclesia Saltans (1): A New Document Bearing on Ecclesiastical Dance, by Jacques Chailley

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King David’s dance under the ark, a miniature from the 13th century
Woisen, Maria-Gabriele: Sacred Dance. Encounter with the Gods.
1974, illustration 39. Bible Moralisée, France

From David’s ecstatic jigs, to the round dances of Dante’s saintly choirs, the Western tradition is permeated with the idea and practice of sacred dance. Even among the clergy.

Holy day revelers of yesteryear, peeking into a cathedral, might very well find the precentor prancing to a tune, or staid canons caroling round the labyrinth, nuns linking arms to circle around the creche, or altar boys in ornate raiment staging a holiday show.

If we believe the sources, proper parts of the Mass like Introits, Kyrie tropes, Sequences, responsories, were danced to. Significantly, earlier Gregorian chant (until ca. 13th century), at odds with its most recent Solesmes iteration, was rhythmic, at least enough to inspire people and clergy to dance to it.

Verily, the blood of Latin Christendom coursed once nearly so warmly as (dare I say it?) that of the Ethiopians, with their unmatched ritual dance:

“Dance rites were of great and varied significance in many churches of eastern and western Europe. The physical surrender to a state of transcendence, personified by the dancing body, led to a wide range of expression in gestures, both where solo and round dance were concerned. Ritual dances took place in the cathedral of Dubrovnik prior to 1425, as they did in English cathedrals, in Notre-Dame in Paris, in Saint-Leonard in Limoges. In the cathedral of Seville, in an unbroken tradition instituted in 1439 by Pope Eugene IV, still today ‘los seises’ (the choirboys), clad in luxurious processional garments, sing and dance before the high altar accompanied by castanets, constituting an integral part of the liturgy.[1] The late medieval Church remained therefore in many places an ‘ecclesia saltans,’ [‘a dancing Church’] following in the footsteps of the celestial angels performing their symbolic round dance.[2][3]

The following article, translated here for our readers’ pleasure and edification, claims to have found documentary evidence for clerical dance in the 13th century cathedral of Sens.

Introductory illustration of the Magnus Liber Organi, Notre-Dame MS F. Note the dancing clerics in the middle right panel.


A New Document Bearing on Ecclesiastical Dance

Jacques Chailley, Acta Musicologica, vol. 21 (1949), pp. 18-24.

In his Dictionnaire de Plain-chant, d’Ortigue relates a proverbial expression still in use in his day (1853) in Sens: “On such a day, the precentor dances” (Tel jour, le préchantre balle). He writes: “We cannot say precisely what this dance once performed in Sens by the precentor consisted in.” The only known evidence is found in a text of the Statutes of the chapter of Sens, reproduced by Du Cange and d’Ortigue, wherein we learn that this dance took place, not once per year as the latter believed, but twice and only twice, non plus per annum: on the feast of the Invention of St. Stephen, patron of the metropolitan church, during the procession in the cathedral’s nave, and on the feast of St. Loup, a former archbishop of Sens, in the abbatial church of St. Colomba where his tomb lies.

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Sens, Bibliothèque Municipale, Ms. 6, f. 234v

The precentor danced in gloves, with a ring on his right hand and a baton—the baculus, the insignia of precentor, which played such an important role in the feast of Holy Innocents, incorrectly called the Feast of Fools: Dum cantatur in choro…precentor in his duobus locis, in chirotecis et annulis cum baculo debet ballare, et non plus per annum.

By chance I have come across, in Sens itself, the score, as it were, for this peculiar dance. It is found on f. 234v of Ms 6 of the Bibliotheque Municipale, which contains the Precentoris Norma, the book belonging to the precentor himself, once found chained in the choir of the cathedral, according to the library catalogue.

This is all the catalogue tells us, for the inventory of the MS seems to have been rather superficial, since it lists this part of the MS as concernimg the duties of the precentor during a synod, which is untenable. The same inventory makes no mention of two series of interesting motets dating probably from the beginning of the Ars Nova, which have never been noticed.

To return to our precentor’s dance, we find in this MS, probably from the beginning of the 14th century, a rubric that accords with the chapter’s Statues:

In inventione beati Stephani, ad processionem in navi ecclesiae Senonum precentor debet ballare. R(esponsorium).

Next is a musical text in square notation, over the following words: Lapides omnes animae iuste.

Then a second rubric, parallel to the first:

In processione ad sanctam Columbam, precentor in festo sancti Lupi debet ballare. R(esponsorium).

And with the music: O venerandum eius descendit.

These texts may seem to be nonsensical but they are easily identifiable. The incipit of the first, Lapides, is known from a Terce antiphon for the feast of St. Stephen found in the current chant books. It also figures in a monastic antiphoner as the second antiphon of Lauds: Lapides torrentes illi dulces fuerunt: ipsum sequuntur omnes animae iustae. From this we can gather that the text of Sens joins the incipit and the final of the complete text, leaving out the middle. It is a responsory, however, not an antiphon, and the music is moreover entirely different. Let’s turn to the older antiphoners.

There we find the same two responsories in the office of Sens in the form we expect. Here is the first as given in the antiphoner of Sens, B. N. n. acq. lat. 1535, from the end of the 12th century:

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This response is not proper to Sens and is found in many books, but what is peculiar here is the addition, at the end of the repetition of the response, of a long melisma or pneuma which would have been used precisely for the precentor’s dance. Of course, this is not a unique case in the use of Sens: such melismas are frequently added to responsories on solemn feasts, especially to the final responsory of a nocturn, and exhibited stock melodies adapted for each Church mode. We find the same pneuma, for example, in f. 85 of the same MS for the Precursor Domini of the feast of St. John the Baptist. In the same office of St. Stephen, other responsories have pneumata (f. 24, 25).

The same holds for the O venerandum, which belongs only to this local use. The same MS gives it as follows:

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We note that this responsory is found without pneuma in another Sens antiphoner, B.N. lat. 1028, f. 243, which comes chronologically between the previous text and the book of the precentor (second half of the 13th century), while Lapides is found along with its pneuma (f. 54). Other responsories of the same office also have pneumata (n. acq. 1535, f. 101), Dum beatus Lupus).

It is interesting to note that the pneuma of O venerandum is found in the form of a Sequence after the responsory.

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Now we come to the object of principal interest in this page of the Precentoris Norma. Here we find something unique among all the other pieces of the same manuscript: the long melismas of the pneuma are divided by vertical bars into small groups of 2 to 4 notes, and the last note of each group is topped with two dots placed side-by-side. Further, in the middle of Lapides, the initial note of one of the neums is topped by a sort of comma very similar to forms of the clivis in ancient notation. Finally one of the neums of O venerandum is topped by a visibly later annotation, in 15th century script, which can be deciphered as the word Arière.

We may thus suppose that we have found a true semeography of the precentor’s dance steps, which further proves that we are dealing not, as in a chorea or tripudium, with a simple rhythmic walk or hop, but with real dance figures defined and passed on by tradition, since one of the people charged with executing it judged it necessary to make notes as a sort of memory aid.

Another interesting conclusion: this proves that liturgical dance was performed to genuine Gregorian chant, and not only, as we sometimes tend to believe, to metered texts of tropes or conductus or Latin rounds (cf. Yv. Rokseth, Danses clericales du XIII siecle, in les Melanges 1945 des public. de la Fac. des Lettres de Strasbourg, Paris, Bellles Lettres, 1947).

This leads to a question of capital importance for the interpretation of chant: was the rhythm of Gregorian—at least as practiced at the time of our MS—with its pronounced asymmetry, modified in view of the dance, to permit an equal rhythm of steps? For example, should interpret the groupings of notes and vertical bars as an attempt to impose proportional notation? I do not think so. In fact, in some sense these signs and bars seem to have been added après coup; erasures are visible in the first and possible errors in the bars of the second responsory, a fact that bolsters our interpretation of the markings as a later memory aid leaving the sense of the earlier notation unaffected (compared with the writing in the piece that follows: Gloriosa dicta scio). Further, this MS was not used in chanting but for the dance itself, since the precentor did not chant while dancing, as the statues of the chapter clearly state: dum cantatur in choro. We have the chanters’ book: it is the antiphonor mentioned above. The text there is notated in neumes on staff and does not lend itself in any way to an unusual interpretation, proportional or otherwise.

It is thus certain that the precentor made his steps at predefined notes of a pure Gregorian chant. It must be pointed out, however, that in the pneuma and its two responses, emendation of parts of several phrases has produced an internal symmetry, found also in the sequence, which renders them particularly suitable for this unexpected use.


[1] Renato Torniai, La danza sacra (Rome, 1950), 276-80

[2] Reinhold Hammerstein, Die Musik der Engel (Berne, 1952), ills. 81 and 85.

[3] Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Ages, Volume 3, Part 1


The Holy Mass in the First World War: A Photo Collection

This article by Henri de Villiers was first published in 2014 on the blog of the Schola Sainte Cécile, to commemorate the centenary of the start of the Great War. It is translated and republished here in honor of Remembrance Day.

On 3 August 1914, Germany declared war on France, and Europe entered into a terrible four years of slaughter that would decimate believers on every side, wiping out the youth of thousands of towns and villages, and bringing about the loss of a great part of Europe’s Christian elite. In memory of this sorrowful centenary, we present a collection of photographs that testify to the faith of these men in the midst of the horrors of the front.

We shall remember them.

Requiem æternam dona eis Domine, & lux perpetua luceat eis.


“For the Lord will judge his people, and will be entreated in favour of his servants.” (Psalm 134,14)
Photo: Mass at the front in France during the First World War.


“The sorrows of hell encompassed me: and the snares of death prevented me.”
(Psalm 17,6)
Photo: Mass at the front for the French troops – New York Times, 14 February 1915


“I will love thee, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my firmament, my refuge, and my deliverer.”
(Psalm 17,2-3)
Photo: 1915: A mass at the 43rd battery of the 29th artillery regiment between Oostduinkerke and Nieuport.


“My eyes have failed for thy word, saying: When wilt thou comfort me?”
(Psalm 118,82)
Photo: Holy Mass for the French troops on the front of Champagne in 1915 – Collection of Odette Carrez


“The Lord will give strength to his people: the Lord will bless his people with peace.”
(Psalm 28,10)
Photo: 1915- the sub-lieutenant Pape (sic!) says holy mass for the 262nd infantry regiment. Photograph by Henri Terrier (1887† 1918). Musee de l’Armee, Paris.


“With thee is my praise in a great church: I will pay my vows in the sight of them that fear him.”
(Psalm 21,26)
Photo: German troops assist at mass in the Belgian cathedral of Antwerp – New York Times, 21 March 1915.


“Salvation is of the Lord: and thy blessing is upon thy people.”
(Psalm 3,9)
Photo: Austrian soldiers receive benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in 1915 in Russian Galicia. New York Times, 23 May 1915.


“Praising I will call upon the Lord: and I shall be saved from my enemies.”
(Psalm 17,4)
Photo: a Russian priest celebrates the divine liturgy for Russian troops in 1915. The soldiers have formed a choir and are chanting the liturgy next to the altar. The War Illustrated Album DeLuxe, Vol. 1; Amalgamated Press, London, 1915.


“I have lifted up my eyes to the mountains, from whence help shall come to me.”
(Psalm 120,1)
Photo: a priest says mass for Italian troops on the Italo-Austrian front in the mountains of Tyrol – New York Times, 27 February 1916.


“And they shall call them, The holy people, the redeemed of the Lord. But thou shalt be called: A city sought after, and not forsaken.”
(Isaiah 62,12)
Photo: April 1916-Soldiers of the Russian expeditionary corps taking an oath and venerating the icon and cross at the monastery of Saint-Pantaleimon, Mount Athos, Greece. Photograph: Dubray.


“God is with us.”
(Isaiah 8,10)
Photo: April 1916-In the Mirabeau camp near Marseille, men of the first regiment of the first Russian brigade pose around their flag, decorated with the face of Christ and emblazoned with the motto taken from Isaiah and chanted at Byzantine Great Compline, in particular on Christmas Day: С нами Бог – God is with us.


“Behold, God is my saviour, I will deal confidently, and will not fear: O because the Lord is my strength, and my praise, and he is become my salvation.”
(Isaiah 12,2)
Photo: April 1916-gathered on the parade grounds of Camp Mirabeau near Marseille, the men of the first Russian brigade receive the blessing from Fr. Okouneff, chaplain of the regiment, before their departure for the front.


“And the Lord is become a refuge for the poor: a helper in due time in tribulation.”
(Psalm 9,10)
Photo: April 1916 – gathered on the parade grounds in Camp Mirabeau near Marseille, the troops of the second regiment of the first Russian infantry brigade celebrate Easter, with the divine liturgy celebrated by Fr. Okouneff, chaplain of the regiment. The soldiers have formed a choir and are chanting the liturgy next to the altar.


“The sacrifice of praise shall glorify me: and there is the way by which I will shew him the salvation of God.”
(Psalm 49,23)
Photo: 1916 – Renault car-chapel dedicated to St. Elizabeth, donated by a businessman from Antwerp to serve the Belgian troops.


“In that day man shall bow down himself to his Maker, and his eyes shall look to the Holy One of Israel.” 
(Isaiah 17,7)
Photo: French soldiers assist at mass before going into battle – Source: Vive la France – William Heinemann, Londres, 1916.


“Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak: heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled.”
(Psalm 6,3)
Photo: Mass in an Austrian military hospital in 1916


“Thou shalt no more have the sun for thy light by day, neither shall the brightness of the moon enlighten thee: but the Lord shall be unto thee for an everlasting light, and thy God for thy glory.”
(Isaiah 60,19)
Photo: a priest, probably the famous Father Paul Doncoeur, S.J., celebrates mass at an altar – nicknamed the altar of Fr. Doncoeur  – carved into the 1st Zouave Quarry, in the quarries of Confrécourt in the Soissonais. Paul Doncoeur was a Jesuit who become a military chaplain in 1914. He participated in the battles of the Marne, Aisne, Champagne, and Verdun. He was seriously wounded at the Somme. Then he rejoined these regiments for the battles of Reims and Flandres. His bravery and dedication to assuring a Christian burial to soldiers who died on the battlefield earned him an immense renown: seven citations, the War Cross, the Legion of Honor. This altar was sculpted by the 35th and 298th infantry regiments in 1914. There is a patriotic inscription written below: “God save France.” On the right, a ladder gave direct access to the front lines.


“In my affliction I called upon the Lord, and I cried to my God: And he heard my voice from his holy temple: and my cry before him came into his ears.” 
(Psalm 17,7)
Photo: Mass celebrated for Austrian prisoners of war – Illustrated War News, Vol. 1, Illustrated London News and Sketch, London, 1916.


“But I, O Lord, have cried to thee: and in the morning my prayer shall prevent thee.”
(Psalm 87,14)
Photo: a chaplain preaching in a French church transformed into a hospital


“This hath comforted me in my humiliation: because thy word hath enlivened me.” 
(Psalm 118,50)
Photo: Mass for the troops in the region of Soissons


“By this I know, that thou hast had a good will for me: because my enemy shall not rejoice over me.”
(Psalm 40,12)
Photo: Mass at the front


“Offer up the sacrifice of justice, and trust in the Lord: many say, Who sheweth us good things?”
(Psalm 4,6)
Photo: French soldiers hear mass in a chapel in the trenches-New York Times, 25 February 1917


“Come and behold ye the works of the Lord: what wonders he hath done upon earth, Making wars to cease even to the end of the earth. He shall destroy the bow, and break the weapons: and the shield he shall burn in the fire.”
(Psalm 45,9)
Photo: March 1917 – M. l’Abbé Louis Lenoir (1882-1917), military chaplain to the 4th colonial infantry regiment, celebrating holy mass for the troops at Gravena (Greek Macedonia), shortly before his death in May 1917.


“Turn away from evil and do good: seek after peace and pursue it.” 
(Psalm 33,15).
Photo: Mass on the Italian front in 1917


“Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name: the just wait for me, until thou reward me.”
(Psalm 141,8)
Photo: Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war assist at holy mass in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy in 1917. British Library.


“Be thou mindful of thy word to thy servant, in which thou hast given me hope.”
(Psalm 118,49).
Photo: Abbé Even, chaplain of the 51st division. Photograph taken 10 September 1917 by Paul Castelnau (1880 † 1944). Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, Paris.


“All the flocks of Cedar shall be gathered together unto thee, the rams of Nabaioth shall minister to thee: they shall be offered upon my acceptable altar, and I will glorify the house of my majesty.”
(Isaiah 60,7)
Photo: field altar for Mass in the open air, installed in the back of a car in 1917. Photograph: Georges Pila.


“All ye inhabitants of the world, who dwell on the earth, when the sign shall be lifted up on the mountains, you shall see, and you shall hear the sound of the trumpet.”
(Isaiah 18,3).
Photo: 22 June 1918 – blessing of Polish flags in the woods of Beaulieu, Aube. Photograph: Auguste Goulden.


“You shall have a song as in the night of the sanctified solemnity, and joy of heart, as when one goeth with a pipe, to come into the mountain of the Lord, to the Mighty One of Israel.”
(Isaiah 30,29)
Photo: Mass celebrated in Amiens Cathedral, where the walls have been reinforced with sandbags to protect them from bombardments – 1918.


“In the year that King Ozias died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and elevated: and his train filled the temple.”
(Isaiah 6,1)
Photo: interior of Amiens cathedral, with sandbags to reinforce the building against shelling – 1918.