Sometime around the year 1240, at about the same time that workers were putting the finishing touches on Chartres Cathedral and masons were nearing the halfway mark on a new cathedral at Amiens (photo 1), an industrious Dominican friar named Vincent of Beauvais set out to write a “compendium of all theological knowledge” known to thirteenth century Europe. In time he would compile a vast array of facts, theories, and speculations on such subjects as astronomy, botany, zoology, mathematics, medicine, and history, all based on the authority of dozens of Greek, Roman, Arabic, Jewish, and Christian writers who preceded him. The compilation came to be called the Speculum Majus, or “Great Mirror.” Vincent organized his material in three expansive volumes called the Mirror of Nature, the Mirror of History, and the Mirror of Doctrine. Writers in the fourteenth century would add the Mirror of Morals to the original set.
According to Hans Voorbij and Eva Albrecht, it took Vincent fifteen years to complete the first three volumes of the Speculum Majus. (Visit their helpful “Vincent of Beauvais” website at http://www.vincentiusbelvacensis.eu/index.html for more background). The Great Mirror was copied many times over and, through the financial support and endorsement of King Louis IX (later St. Louis), it became a popular reference work for medieval theologians, philosophers, teachers, preachers, and cathedral builders.
Cathedral builders? Yes. Emile Male, the eminent French art historian, explained in The Gothic Image: Religious Art in the France of the Thirteenth Century that the clerics who commissioned the artwork and designed the iconography for many cathedrals did so with the idea of four divisions of knowledge in mind. Just as Vincent strove to summarize all knowledge in a comprehensive text, the church builders set out to do the same in the stone, wood, and glass of an all-encompassing sacred structure. Male observes that “striking analogies are noticeable, for example, in the general economy of the Speculum Majus and the plan followed in the porches of the cathedral of Chartres (photo 2).”
In this article, we’ll look at how creation, the main theme of Vincent’s Mirror of Nature, appears in the art and iconography of Chartres Cathedral in France and two cathedrals in the United States. In a future post, we’ll follow Mr. Male’s lead and consider the many ways in which medieval Christians regarded flora, fauna, and phantasms as symbols for their beliefs and ideals. But for now, we’ll focus on Vincent’s starting point: the Bible’s first book.
Images of Creation Vincent of Beauvais grouped his commentaries on nature around the six day creation story in the Book of Genesis. The Biblical account starts with the creation of light and ends with the creation of humanity. Consequently, early chapters in the Mirror of Nature treat light and the four classical elements as subjects of God’s work on the first day. Later chapters deal with plants, often in terms of their medicinal properties, as topics for the third day when God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass and the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind….” The final chapters are devoted to human anatomy and psychology, along with entries on domestic and wild animals, as subjects of the sixth day.
One of the most intriguing illustrations of the Biblical creation account appears on the North Porch of Chartres Cathedral. Statuettes on one of the arches depict imaginative creation scenes based on verses in the first chapter of Genesis. In one, a boy and girl walk hand in hand. The boy, holding a lamp in his left hand, leads the blind-folded girl with his right. Together they symbolize the separation of day and night on the first day, as one walks in darkness and the other in light. To their right sits God in the person of Jesus, who appears to be resting after a hard day at work (photo 3, above).
A second scene in the creation ensemble shows two angels creating the heavens on the second day by dividing the waters above from the waters below (photo 4, lower scene). It’s based on a curious verse that belies the ancient writer’s sense that the waters above the heavens give the sky its blue color. The sculpture shows the angels in an airy space between watery waves above and below them. It’s fun to contrast this scene with an image in a modern stained glass Creation window at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City (photo 5). It shows angels working between two fields of blue. Perhaps the statuettes at Chartres inspired the artist who designed the window in New York.
A third sculpture at Chartres symbolizes the creation of the “two great lights” in the heavens on the fourth day (photo 6). In the bottom half of the photo, you’ll see an angel holding a swirling disc. It represents the sun. To the angel’s right, Jesus sits in apparent contentment as he holds a smaller disc representing the moon in his hands. The top half of the composition shows sea creatures and fowl created on the fifth day. On the left, Jesus appears to be chatting with a man who has two small protrusions jutting from his forehead. Who was with God at creation? The devil? Nope, it’s Moses! The little “horns” on his head represent rays of supernatural light. The artist saw fit to include him in this scene because tradition has it that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, including Genesis. The window representing the fifth day of creation at St. John the Divine similarly contains images of birds in flight, a school of fish, and a whale. But instead of Moses, a dove representing the Holy Spirit as the source of inspiration for scripture descends on the scene (photo 7).
7. Creation of Fish & Fowl, Creation Window, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York
The theme of the cosmos’ creation continues to inspire artists in modern times, including sculptor Frederick Hart. Mr. Hart conceived the three creation tympana at the Washington National Cathedral. They depict the creation of the moon, sun, and humanity out of the formless void (photos 8, 9, 10), and by their positioning above the main doorways on the cathedral’s west façade present a fundamental tenet in a core belief that cuts across denominational lines: God is with us throughout time, from the beginning.
Why did Vincent call his compendium a “mirror?” I think one of his goals was to recount some of the innumerable ways in which creation reflects the plans and purpose of the Creator. What do we know of the divine plan for creation? Emile Male observed in Chartres, his book about the cathedral, that the tender images of God drawing creatures out of the void and blessing their goodness expresses the hopeful notion that “the world was created through love.” My prayer, as Advent and a new year approach, is that we experience deeply the love that infuses the world and reflect it fully in the way we care for creation and the creatures with whom we share it.
Copyright 2016, by Michael Klug, 11/30/2016, email@example.com