I’m writing this blog to share my interest in Christian iconography. Iconography, or the “art of writing with images,” is “like a lost language.” So says Malcolm Miller, the colorful docent at Chartres Cathedral in France. To be sure, the symbols that comprise iconography’s basic script are unfamiliar or meaningless to most of us. Over the years, I’ve spent more than a few hours studying them as an amateur. I’m not a professional art historian or theologian.
My interest in iconography began in 1977 when I took a class on Art & Architecture taught by Fr. Maurice B. McNamee, a delightful Jesuit priest at St. Louis University (SLU). Until I met Fr. McNamee, I simply overlooked the meaning that surrounded me. I sat in church pews on Sunday mornings throughout my life and regarded the painted glass as nothing more than luminous wall paper. It didn’t occur to me that colors (aside from red, white and blue) have meaning, nor did it occur to me that symbolic numbers appear in both sacred and secular architecture. His class opened my eyes.
It’s been more than thirty years since I studied at SLU and in that time I’ve had the good fortune to visit some of the Gothic cathedrals Fr. McNamee enthused about: Chartres, Notre Dame de Paris, Salisbury, and Canterbury. I’ve also had the chance to listen to some excellent docents and tour guides share their knowledge and understanding about those cathedrals.
So, this blog will share some of what I’ve learned about iconography as well as photos of stained glass and sculpture that I’ve taken along the way. As I write about the photos, I’ll try to identify some of the themes and symbols that connect us to spiritual roots in medieval Europe and beyond.
I’m starting on Palm Sunday because Holy Week provides a lot of material that I hope will interest you. The five stained glass panels below depict Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The story of the “triumphal entry” appears in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Luke, and John. All three refer to Jesus riding on a young ass or colt. Matthew reports that the welcoming crowd spread their garments and branches from trees on the road. John alone mentions “branches from palm trees.” The palm is significant. The Wikipedia page on “palm tree symbol” reports that the palm in ancient Egypt represented immortality. In ancient Greece and Rome it was a sign of victory. Christian artists picked up on the victory theme and later began to depict martyred saints holding a palm branch to symbolize their victory over the forces of evil. Thus, for second century readers of the gospels, the palm had at least two symbolic meanings.
Palms are evident in the stained glass images below. The first two panels come from Chartres Cathedral in France and date to the late 1100’s. Photo #1 (below) shows Jesus on the colt with a few of his saintly disciples (note the halos) standing in the background to the left. To the right, members of the crowd hold stylized tree branches or palm fronds. The scene appears to be based on Matthew’s account because branches and garments lie beneath the donkey’s feet.
The second window from Chartres (photo #2) shows a crowd welcoming Jesus in what looks like a fortified medieval city. Six towers rise from its crenulated walls. One writer says that we know this is Jerusalem–King David’s capital city–because the six towers attached to the wall represent the six points on the star of David. But the scene contains a seventh tower detached from the city wall on the right. The seven towers could represent the days of Holy Week, with the separate tower perhaps signifying Easter Sunday.
The third panel (photo #3) appears in the large Life of Christ window at the Kolner Dom, the Cathedral of Cologne, Germany. It’s a modern window made in a medieval style that I believe was installed in 2005. With palm fronds clearly visible, it is based on John’s gospel account. The glass was designed by Johannes Klein and made in Germany.
The next two images come from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, NY. This is late nineteenth century stained glass in a pictorial style, rich in detail, that was popular during the Victorian era. The window (photo #4) combines and expands upon Matthew’s and John’s gospel accounts by showing the entry scene with Jesus in a red robe astride the donkey, two disciples with halos (probably bearded Peter and young beardless John), dozens of men holding palm fronds, a young woman and man laying a brown cloak beneath the donkey’s feet, and doves–symbols of peace–circling overhead.
We’ll return to palm symbolism in the next post.
Mike Klug, email@example.com