Saturday, January 15, 2011

Infinite Entendre

Rose window, St. John the Divine, New York City
Early in design school we learned about "double entendre," a term typically used to describe one phrase that has two different meanings ("entendre" being French for meaning). Our teacher gave us a simple example: "A man walked into a bar. Ouch." The "ouch" highlights the two possible meanings of "bar" and "walked into," calling into question our first interpretation of the phrase. We were taught to apply this concept to art and architecture, on both a functional and a poetic level. And don't stop with "double" - the more functions and meanings you can pack into a design the better. The best art does and says many things with one simple and elegant gesture.

The best art also has, to use some more French, je ne sais quoi - the "I don't know what," a profound hint or feeling that can't quite be teased into words. This is where I start thinking of "infinite entendre." You can pull out a dozen or so different meanings from a great painting or poem or building or dance, but then you realize that the meanings keep going, keep multiplying forever. Some you feel but can't describe. Some you will not notice for another fifty years. God's creations, both verbal and visual, have this quality of infinite meaning. When an infinite being creates, don't expect to get to the bottom of his work anytime soon. But it is right to look and to keep looking, because he will keep letting himself be found.

Amiens Cathedral, France
Now that the bankers have all they need to process my construction loan (and should be done in a week or two), I've started thinking more about the design of the east window in the Great Room of my house.

This window will start out as a standard, aluminum-framed, five-by-five-foot piece of clear glass. I have imagined designing a translucent covering to go over the interior of this glass that would work (physically and symbolically) like the stained glass rose windows of ancient churches. But I don't think I would use stained glass. Thin slices of wood, perhaps, thin enough to glow red-orange when hit by sunlight. Thin slabs of alabaster, or marble, could work too.

There are lots of possibilities for materials, but I've been more concerned with the overall organization of the window, its geometry, and what it means. So I did the first thing any responsible researcher would do: I googled "rose window" and stole a bunch of images.

I think the inspired works of people have infinite entendre too. As I poured over image after image of rose windows from cathedrals all over the world and all through time, I quickly realized that they are great examples of designs in which meaning seems to approach infinity. 

St. Matthias, Richmond, England
In an earlier post I mentioned sketching the camp of Israel in the desert, as described in Scripture, and ending up with something that looked like a flower. As I looked at my new collection of rose window images I was struck by the similarity between their basic organization and what I sketched. At the center of the camp was the tabernacle, around which was the circle of the Levites. Beyond the Levites the 12 tribes were organized in groups of four, one group for each cardinal direction. The rose window at St. Matthias is the most direct expression of this order, with exactly twelve "spokes" radiating from a central circle. But nearly all the windows I found had basically the same organization: a circular array of spaces around a defined center.

I don't think the Roman Catholic Church meant to symbolize with their windows the Jews in the desert. The design of the Israelite camp just happens to be a perfect expression also of the church in its focus on Christ. We are a people too, and Jesus is our center, just as the Pillar of Fire was the center for the Jews.

National Cathedral, D.C.
I was delighted to see a nine-square grid at the center of the National Cathedral window (albeit inscribed in a circle), since this is essentially the plan of my Great Room. I found this grid at the center of several windows. I could link it to the Israelite camp, since the center of the camp was the tabernacle, where God's presence dwelt in the holy of holies - a perfect square. A central square doesn't just look back to Israel though, but forward to the New Jerusalem, which will also be a square. The 12 comes back too of course, and not just in the number of the disciples: the heavenly city will have 12 gates. When the sides of a square are given 12 parts, three per side, a nine-square grid emerges.

At some point as I surfed on the topic of rose windows I read a speculation that "rose window" is actually a misnomer. The French word for wheel is "roue," and the story goes that "roue" window got mistranslated into English as "rose" window. Since there was a clear resemblance between these windows and flowers, it stuck. If this is true, I'd see it as a fortunate mistake, since there's no question these windows resemble flowers, which in turn symbolize the physical camp of Israel and the spiritual organization of the church. One site I stumbled upon even paired particular flower species with the ancient windows they most closely resemble.

Christchurch Cathedral,
New Zealand
But assuming for a moment that the original name for this feature was "wheel window" yields another crop of meanings. Some have noted the resemblance of certain windows to wagon wheels, but I don't see the ever faithful medieval architects consciously building wagon wheels into the walls of their sacred architecture. It's hard to find a single element on an ancient church, especially a major element, that did not in some way signify a divine principle.

So I looked to Ezekiel instead. In the vision described in Chapter 1 there are wheels near each of the four living creatures: "They were identical wheels, sparkling like diamonds in the sun. It looked like they were wheels within wheels, like a gyroscope." (v. 16, The Message)  Just about every "wheel window" I've seen features concentric circles of some kind, a "wheel within a wheel." We could say that the Levites were a "wheel" within a larger wheel of the Israelites, and in the nascent church we see the Three (Peter, James, John) within the Twelve within the hundreds and thousands. The designers of these windows could have meant in part to symbolize these New Testament social structures. But it is not a stretch to think that they also had in mind apocalyptic visions such as Ezekiel's; scenes of the Last Judgment were often depicted over the entry doors, after all. Besides, can you imagine a better representation of something that "sparkles like diamonds in the sun" than east-facing stained glass?

The "wheels" in Ezekiel's visions were not a secondary element: "the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels." (v. 19) So it is conceivable that this reference would be seen as suitable for such a major building feature, especially considering all the other biblical themes the geometry picks up at the same time. Finally consider verse 17: "The rims were immense, circled with eyes." When I looked closely at some of the more intricate rose windows, where the stone tracery grows very close to itself, especially around the edges, allowing only tiny points of space for glass, I thought of eyes. And stars. Of the windows shown here, the first one, from St. John the Divine, does this best (click on the image to see it larger).

Notre Dame, Paris
A few days ago I was reading the introduction to the recently published book, "Common Prayer." In a discussion of prayer cycles the authors used the description, "wheel within a wheel." The daily cycle of morning, midday and evening prayers are a "wheel" within the larger wheel of the weekly cycle beginning with Sunday, which in turn is a wheel within the yearly cycle of the church calendar. This organization seems to be best represented not by concentric circles but by circles inscribed around the inner edge of a larger circle. This is when the Christchurch Cathedral window caught my eye, with its wheels rolling around inside a larger wheel; and then that massive rose at Notre Dame - with its trefoils of circles at the edge defining the outer circle, inside of which is another rotation of circles, and inside of that yet another smaller array of circles. Circles encircling circles encircling circles. Not that we can look at one of these windows and find out which Scripture reading to do today (though perhaps...), just that the varying "scales" of ancient prayer cycles find expression in this geometry.

"Rose Window" generated with fractal geometry
I found a digital design with the title "Rose Window" (by "erucolindo3") made with a program that uses fractal geometry to generate various shapes. A (surely oversimplified) description of fractal geometry is that the parts that make up the whole have the same geometric structure as the whole. This seems especially compelling in a universe where atoms (particles circling a single nucleus) make up the material for solar systems (planets circling a single star) - and, we should add, where a cloud of saints centers life on a single God.

Well, you get the idea - this could go on. So what is a rose window? A gorgeous piece of glass celebrating the sunrise as a parable of resurrection? A representation of Israel and God? The church and Christ? Ezekiel's wheels? A year of prayer? A flower? A galaxy? A cross-section of the entire exploding universe?

Yes. And more. And we haven't even talked about the actual stained glass. Works such as these - works of God through people high on the Spirit in wisdom for art - with inexhaustible parallels to the nature we see and know, take their place as an inseparable part of that nature, a new and vital growth within God's ever expanding creation.

For a parting shot, and for comparison, here is my current east window. Nowhere to go but up.


  1. Finally catching up from my trip! Last January I had a chance to go to mass in DC, not at the National Cathedral but at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I snapped a few pictures from the outside, one of the rose window. It is a Marian shrine so the window is appropriately titled "Ava Maria". I took it outside but in the darkness the settings were wrong. I always struggle with taking pics inside of a church, esp right after a service. I think it is the reverence of it. Congrats on the loan closing today, easy with the trees! Jessica

  2. just found your blog while searching for imagines of the rose window in the Christchurch Cathedral, but due to all the earthquakes in Christchurch NZ, the rose window has finally fallen and the Cathedral is in bad way. Good luck with your windows. Tania

  3. Tania: I've noticed a lot of traffic from people looking for images of that window, then I read that it had recently collapsed. Very sad. It was a great window. I hope it gets rebuilt.