by Richard Nilsen
I think often of the rose window at Chartres cathedral in France. There are three such windows, but the one at the north corner of the building is the one that rivets my attention each time I visit.
Rose windows are common in the cathedrals of northern France, and come in many styles. Chartres has two styles: The oldest window, on the front of the church, is mostly stonework, with only a small percentage of glass. But the two rose windows in the transepts (the north and south “els” of the standard Gothic church, forming the crosspiece to the crucifix floorplan most such churches use) are in a later, more elaborate and vitreous style and are lacy with tracery, letting in the colored light that is the raison d’etre of Gothic architecture.
Yet, it is the north window that moves me, in part because it moves, itself. This is an illusion, of course, but its designer was one of the geniuses of his age, able to create that illusion with static stone and glass. Each of these two roses are built of circles of circles, building from a central core, and radiating out, like choirs of angels surrounding Providence. But in the north window, the panels dance.
It may be hard to see this in a reproduction, like the one here, but there is a ring of squares and diamond-shapes that form one of the rings, and it is nearly impossible to see these alternating squares and diamonds as anything but tumbling shapes, dancing around the center.
The north rose window of Chartres cathedral is — I have said many times — the single most beautiful human-created entity I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a gob-lot of iconic art works. It brings me to tears each time I am in its presence, and I feel the need to return to it, a feeling very kin to love.
I know a lot of hoo-haw gets ascribed to art. People make great claims for art, only some of which can be supported. But I believe, from my own experience, that art can make you more sensitive to the world around you, to prompt you to see again those things you have become inured to through over-exposure and turned to the ash of everyday-ness. As I have also said, every bush is the burning bush, we just can no longer see it. When you open those gates in your chest, and let the world in, it becomes intensely beautiful and makes you understand, as William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
I do not know how long this effect can last after you accept a profound work of art, perhaps it can change you permanently, perhaps it is itself an illusion and perhaps it slowly fades, like an after-image of a flashbulb.
On my last visit to Chartres, it was a gloomy sort of day, without much light, and Chartres, at the best of times, is a dark cathedral. Darker than most we have visited.
Too dark for interior photos that day, so I spent about an hour and a half, maybe two hours, photographing the outside, alternating with sitting inside and meditating on the north Rose Window. I say again, it is the single most beautiful production of humankind I know. It never fails to move me deeply.
Then outside for more sculpture, then back inside for more Rose Window.
When I finally gave up and headed back down the hill toward the hotel, I came across a couple of kids — a boy and a girl about 9 or 10 years old — and they were throwing stones at pigeons.
I wish I could have picked up some stones and thrown at them and asked them, “How do you like being thrown at?” But my French was not up to it. So I stood there with my hands on my hips looking stern and adult and tried to shame them into stopping. Either I succeeded, or they got bored with hitting pigeons, and they stopped and left.
I have no love of pigeons, but I don’t think they deserve to be stoned. I was feeling a sudden rush of St. Francis of Asissi, and also feeling a little full of myself for being and “atheist christian,” but a block on, I came across the Pont St. Thomas over the Eure River, just past an ancient church and over a weir in the river and stopped to watch the water, when I noticed a spider web on the bank, stretched out to the bridge. It was dewy with condensation and a small spider sat in the middle, like the center pane in the rose.
Just then, the reflection of a bird shot past on the water’s surface and I looked up to see a swallow or martin flash past. When I looked back down, a cloud of gnats swarmed over the river and at the end of the bridge, a cat walked by. All to the tune of crickets and the chirp of sparrows. The entire world was animated. I felt like I was instantly open-chested to the world of nature and animals. It was a crest like a wave that came over me, and then the world returned to normal and I went back to the hotel.
Footnote: These words are only tangentially related to the question of animal rights, but readers may be interested in reading a piece I wrote years ago about the “Catch-22 of Animal Rights,” which can you can reach with this link:https://richardnilsen.com/2014/05/19/the-catch-22-of-animal-rights/
Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina. We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.