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.

3 thoughts on “Stained Glass, Light Metaphysics, and Medieval Allegorical Commentary

  1. Very well written. When did we Latins stop viewing the Liturgy through this lens, and start seeing the sacraments as merely “grace dispensers”. Every time I mention that at Baptism we see the Crossing of the Red Sea (or the Flood, or even the Creation story), at Confirmation the giving of the Law on Sinai, etc. I occasionally get a few brows raised, but mostly just indifference.

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    1. I wrote a bit about this in the posts on De Vert, but should write more. The short story, as I see it, is that liturgics takes its cue from Biblical exegesis as a rule. The four senses of Scripture (in full vigor in the Middle Ages) applied to the cultus get us Medieval Latin liturgical commentary, which I think is far closer to Patristic mystagogy than is usually allowed.

      In the early modern period, attention shifted away from traditional exegesis through the lens of the four senses toward positive theology,”learned” philological, historical, and critical interests (incipient Wissenschaft). That optic applied to liturgy (see our posts on De Vert) gave us a new genre of liturgy criticism, where the basic dogmatic truths about priesthood and the Eucharist might remain untouched by Catholic scholars, but anything smacking of “mystery” is derided as Gothic obscurantism, even by orthodox writers. At best, writers just refused to discuss allegory (Martene), or admitted it as possibly useful to piety but in the end a roadblock to the real work of telling the story of development through learned research. With everything the Latin West had of mystagogy thus expelled along with the old commentary tradition, that left learned historical treatises and literal explication of texts and rubrics, with notable exceptions (see Lebrun). It was probably a necessary adjustment, but the time has come to reclaim what was good.

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