|Rose window, St. John the Divine, New York City|
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|
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.
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|
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.|
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.
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|
|"Rose Window" generated with fractal geometry|
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.