With Iowa’s green corn fields in mind, I’m writing today’s post about summer and its representation in stained glass and sculpture in Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. We’ll visit three cathedrals in France, and show how the themes they carry about time are linked to churches in the United States such as the Washington National Cathedral and two parish churches in Iowa. Toward the end of this post, we’ll highlight the incomparable Calendar Window at Chartres Cathedral (photo #1 below; click to enlarge) since it’s one of the best surviving examples of its type. Along the way we’ll learn a few things about life on the farm in the summer of 1234.
Labors of the Month Because medieval theologians thought of manual labor, along with contemplation, as aspects of humanity’s participation in the divine plan for redemption, sculpted calendars with “labors of the month” scenes are prominent on cathedrals throughout Europe. Artists followed a pattern of pairing the zodiac signs with mostly rustic scenes that people of that time could easily associate with each month.
To illustrate this, let’s look first at some sculpture from Chartres and St. Denis. Thirteenth century sculpture on Chartres Cathedral’s north porch shows, for example, a man using a sickle to harvest wheat and a man stomping grapes in a barrel to represent August and September (photo #2). A maiden holding a flower (Virgo) and a woman holding scales (Libra) appear opposite them (photos #3 & 4).
An earlier example of this sort of pairing appears on the jambs of a main doorway at the Abbey Church of St. Denis, located in the Paris suburb of the same name. The original sculpture at St. Denis was most likely installed in the eleventh century. Four circular scenes representing the summer months appear on the left door jamb (photo #5). Read from top to bottom. The first scene, representing June, shows a man harvesting winter wheat with a sickle. A man in a field mowing hay with a scythe symbolizes July. Next, two men filling a wine barrel signify August. In the last of these summertime chore scenes, a man shakes an oak tree as acorns drop to the ground to feed a pig. For medieval farmers, September was the month to fatten the swine. Opposite them on the right door jamb, you’ll see a crab-like creature (Cancer) and, above, a seated woman holding scales (Libra).
It’s worth noting that some medieval artists in France and elsewhere in Europe probably never saw an actual crab. That may explain why Cancer sometimes looks like a crayfish (photo #7), as at Chartres.
God and Time Along with their views on the sanctity of work and its connection to the church calendar, medieval thinkers conceived of God as Chronocrator, or Lord of time, a term they borrowed from the ancient Greeks who used it to describe some of their gods. Theologians of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries took this idea in two directions. They thought of God as being both the beginning and end (alpha and omega) of linear time and as the central figure in cyclic time. The stained glass and sculpture they helped create gives visible form to this conception of God embracing all of time. To convey the idea of God as the beginning and end of time, Christ appears enthroned between the Greek letters alpha and omega atop the Calendar Window lancet at Chartres (photo #8). The two letters that start and end the Greek alphabet also commonly appear in the modern glass, sculpture, and carvings of North American churches (photos #9 and 10).
To communicate the belief that God is the central figure in the cycles of time, medieval artists placed Christ at the center of great circular rose windows whose “petals” sometimes number twelve or twenty-four. The South Rose at Notre Dame of Paris is a prime example because it combines the numbers twelve and twenty-four in its structure to suggest both the twelve months of the year and 24 hours of the day (photo # 11). Each of twelve main petals extend from the center and subdivide into two circles. The petals continue to extend outward to twenty-four medallions that outline the window’s perimeter. The South Rose at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC is similar with Christ at the center of twelve petals ringed by twelve circles (photo #12).
Chartres’ Calendar Window We’ll conclude this post with several stained glass images depicting the summer months from the Calendar Window at Chartres. As with the sculpted scenes above, this shimmering lancet pairs delightful scenes of rural life with a corresponding zodiac sign. By way of context, Chartres sets in the midst of France’s Beauce country, a fertile wheat-growing region southwest of Paris. Grape growers and bell ringers (photo #13, bottom left and center) donated the Calendar Window. It dates to the 1200’s and reads from bottom to top. Above the donors in the center medallion, you can see January represented by a man with three faces (an eye toward the past, present and future) next to Aquarius, the water carrier. In the upper left and right, the huddled figure warming his hands and Pisces denote February.
June (Junius) appears about midway up the Calendar Window, represented by a man harvesting wheat with a sickle. Leo, the fierce lion, proudly strides next to him (photo #14).
A peasant wearing a wide-brimmed hat to protect himself from the summer sun wields a scythe, evidently mowing hay (photo #15). He symbolizes July (Julius) and appears opposite Cancer, an eight-legged crab who seems to be missing his pincers (photo #16).
The scene for August (Augustus) shows a man threshing wheat; that is, beating the grain out of the husks (photo #17). Lovely Virgo, holding red roses in her raised hands, stands next to him (photo #18).
In September, the grape harvest and wine production are well underway. We see two men in a large vat. One picks bunches of green grapes off a tangled vine while the other stomps the grapes into the pulpy juice that will eventually yield a fine white wine (photo #19). The vintners are paired with Libra, or “Balance,” holding her scales. The image below (#20) comes from a postcard I bought at the cathedral. I forgot to take a photo of Libra, and that’s reason enough to go back to Chartres to correct the glaring omission!
Finally, with the calendar in mind, I want you to know that, for the time being, I hope to post to this blog on a monthly basis. Enjoy the summer and go visit a farm (or winery)!