This magnificent window is the thirteenth-century north rose window at Notre-Dame de Paris. St Thomas Aquinas would have seen this window when it was brand new – a pretty mind-boggling thought.
That observation is made by Fr Robert Barron in his book Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of Faith (see previous post). Fr Barron continues by describing the window as a demonstration of St Thomas’s description of beauty as “occurring at the intersection of three elements: wholeness, harmony and radiance”.
But as Fr Barron goes on to point out, this window’s beauty is more than skin-deep. It is rich in symbolism intended to give “a foretaste of the beauty of the beatific vision”.
First, there is its numerical symbolism:
Around the central figures of Christ and his mother are eight small circles. Then on the next major row we find sixteen circular images (medaillons in French), and on the next twice sixteen, or thirty-two, images, and then finally another row of thirty-two. If we add thirty-two, thirty-two, sixteen, and eight, we arrive at eighty-eight. In a word, the entire window is an artistic meditation on the number eight.
Eight is “a symbol of eternity, since it stands immediately outside of seven, which evokes the seven days of the week, or the completed cycle of time”.
A second important area of symbolism is the window’s complexity. When Fr Barron first visited Paris as a young man, he returned to Notre-Dame every day to look at this window, “partly because there was so much to take in”. He continues:
The vision of God is like that. Saint Bernard said that heaven will slake our thirst, but the very slaking will, paradoxically, make us thirsty for more. We will know all that we want to know, but that very satisfaction will convince us how much we don’t know. Thomas Aquinas said that what the saints in heaven grasp for the first time is just how incomprehensible God is and therefore just what an adventure the life of heaven will be.
The north rose window at Notre-Dame reflects only one tiny facet of the incomprehensible, inexhaustible God who has revealed himself to us in Christ and whom we encounter in his church. But what a facet!