Mercedes and Cora, my wife and daughter, recently went to see the film “Noah” at a local theater. When they came home, Cora reported that this modern version of Noah has talking rocks and carries an environmental stewardship message. The film’s slight deviation from holy writ evidently prompted its distributors to issue this advisory:
The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide….
It occurred to me that it’s not the first time the Flood story has been refashioned. The author of the Genesis account almost certainly drew inspiration from the older Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh in which Utnapishtim, his family, and scores of animals ride out a devastating flood in a large boat. Some of the Gilgamesh Epic’s cuneiform fragments date to 2,000 BCE, nearly two centuries prior to Hammurabi’s groundbreaking code and possibly up to 1,400 years before the book of Genesis was put to paper. With the movie and such thoughts about the distant past in mind, I thought it might be a good time to write a post about Noah as he appears in stained glass.
What does Noah Mean? Over the centuries, the story of Noah and the Great Flood has meant many things to those millions for whom it has been “a cornerstone of faith.” For some, it is a cautionary tale of an angry God’s power to judge and punish. For others, Noah offers a thought-provoking example of what it means to be a “righteous man” in a world of rampant “corruption and violence.” With the purpose of this blog in mind, we must ask, what did Noah, the Ark, and the Flood mean to those who built Europe’s great cathedrals in the Gothic age? (We’ll consider Noah and the rainbow in a later post.)
Probably the best place on earth to look for an answer to that question is at Chartres Cathedral in France. Its “Noah Window,” installed in the thirteenth century, is incomparable in scale and pictorial quality (photo #2, below, click to enlarge). The window’s forty-plus panels illustrate most of the familiar scenes recorded in Genesis, chapters 6-9. It also identifies the donors and throws in a few angels for good measure! It reads from bottom to top, and generally from left to right. We’ll also view some windows in New Jersey and Iowa that extend into modern times some of the themes in Chartres’ Noah Window.
You’ll find carpenters, coopers, and wheelwrights–thought to be the Noah Window’s donors–hard at work at the bottom of the window (photo #3, below). Given that Noah fashioned the Ark from gopher wood, folks in the middle ages assumed that he was adept with carpentry tools. Thus, he became the carpenters’ patron. Similarly, as a man who planted a vineyard and worked with wood, Noah was a patron to the coopers who assembled the oak barrels that held the wine for which France was famous even then. A modern lancet window at the Princeton Chapel carries forward this theme of Noah as a carpenter (photos 4 & 5, below).
The Genesis account starts with scenes depicting giants, the “Nephilim” mentioned in Gen. 6:4, “who were on the earth in those days” and are seen conversing with much shorter companions (center and upper right in photo #3, above). The story continues in a diamond-shaped panel on the next level in which God (who bears a striking resemblance to Jesus) tells Noah to build an Ark (photo #6, below).
Noah wastes no time in constructing the Ark and, with help from one of his sons, makes quick work of it. You’ll see Noah wielding an ax as his son carries wood planks on his back (photo #7, below). Meanwhile, a group of women, looking perplexed, observe and discuss the unusual construction activity taking place (photo #8, below).
When the Ark is complete, the animals come two by two. One of the scriptural directives reads: “And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.” Four panels in the Noah Window show pairs of horses, lions, elephants, camels, dogs, and various species of birds coming to the Ark. The horses, camels, and birds appear below (photos #9 &10).
The Ark rises on churning flood waters as people and animals drown (photos #11 & 12, below). Observe the Ark. It looks nothing like the vessel we saw Noah and his son building in photo #7, above. It now has masonry arches and stone columns. Why?
The Allegorical Method To answer that question, we’ll need some historical context. Medieval Christian theologians thought of the Hebrew Bible, what they and many people call the Old Testament, as both history and allegory. Some of them, however, regarded many Old Testament books almost exclusively from an allegorical perspective. That is to say they viewed scripture symbolically through a peculiarly Christian lens. Emile Male, the eminent art historian, wrote that people of the middle ages held “a conviction that both history and nature must be regarded as vast symbols.”
One of the byproducts of that conviction were elaborate treatises, such as the Glossa Ordinaria, that compiled symbolic interpretations–both “moral” and “mystical”–for nearly every Old Testament verse. The Glossa provided material for sermons, commentaries, and medieval artists. It became one of the main sources of subject matter for stained glass designers during the Gothic period, and remained in popular use until the Renaissance. The Catholic Church suppressed the allegorical method following the Protestant Reformation, and after the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563 the Glossa Ordinaria and similar works fell into disfavor.
Isidore of Seville (San Ysidro, California, is named for him) was a major contributor to the Glossa Ordinaria. Isidore seems to have specialized in the mystical branch of allegorical interpretation. While he could be quite imaginative at times, Isidore’s views on the the meaning of Noah, the Ark, and the Flood stuck closely to the Church’s symbolic tradition. He wrote that the Ark—as a means of salvation for its inhabitants—symbolized the Church. The Church, so this line of reasoning goes, is like the Ark because it is the means of salvation for believers. The artists communicated this theological concept by converting the Ark into a floating church (photo # 13, below). But there’s more.
Noah, as a savior figure in Isidore’s system, mystically foreshadowed Christ. Emile Male explains: “The ark was built by Noah, the only just man of the ancient world, just as the Church was built by Christ, the supremely just man.” To convey this abstraction, the artists changed the Ark’s colors in a subsequent panel to red and green, the symbolic colors of the cross and Christmas (photo #14, below; also see the post for April 18). The panel also shows a dove flying from a window at the top of the Ark. According to scripture, the bird will return with an olive branch to signal that the flood waters have receded and that it’s time to free the animals.
Finally, the Flood itself took on a mystical meaning as a symbol for the cleansing waters for the Christian sacrament of baptism. As the flood washed away evil in the world, Isidore wrote, so too does baptism wash away the sins of the faithful. The number eight also factored into this interpretation. The book of Genesis identifies eight people who survived the flood: Noah and his wife along with their three sons and their wives. In Christian iconography, the number eight has long symbolized rebirth and immortality, and octagonal fonts often provide the symbolic link to baptism’s regenerative power.
The striking Baptism Window at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Iowa City (photos #16 & 17, below) continues this tradition of representing the Flood as a symbol for baptism. It combines images of the Ark and a scallop shell embedded in a swirling tri-foil storm cloud that appears to signify the Christian belief in a Triune God. The scallop shell became a symbol for baptism through its association with St. James’ (a.k.a. San Diego or Santiago) missionary work in first century Spain (photos #18 & 19, below). The antique baptismal font in the Bishop’s Garden at the Washington National Cathedral has the traditional octagonal shape (photo #20, below).
Mike Klug, 5/8/14, firstname.lastname@example.org