Chartres (3) The Glass
An important source for the Chartrean philosophy of light was the writing of Pseudo-Denis. He was called Pseudo- because he was thought originally to have been a companion of St Paul although he was probably, in fact, a fifth century Syrian monk. Pseudo-Denis wrote a book called The Celestial Hierarchies which took as its theme Plato’s idea that the divine light is so bright that to us it appears to be darkness. Hence we can only approach the divine indirectly through the things that have been made, which to greater and lesser degrees shine with the divine light that is within them. Of all the things that are transparent with the divine the first and most important is light itself. Dante expresses this idea in the Paradiso when he writes ‘The divine light penetrates the universe in each thing according to its dignity”. So in a sense Denis thinks things are actually made of the divine light. It’s like saying that a picture is made of paint and canvas, and yes, the picture could not exist without them, but that does not tell you what is most important about a picture. It is also made of the painter’s idea which is expressed indirectly through the pigment. Romanesque churches had been dark and shadowy, partly because of technical architectural limitations but also because the idea was to suggest the dark mystery of the divine presence. But now the new cathedrals were flooded with the divine light. We think of the windows as Chartres as just that, windows. But the medieval builders thought of them as walls made of light. They thought of their cathedral as light itself.
Tbere are few visitors to Chartres who are not impressed with the glory of the stained glass. It’s especially important to me, although this might sound a bit odd, because of my disenchantment with Locke and Hume. They claimed to make experience the foundation of their philosophy (none of your airy fairy stuff here) so they start with sense impressions. But in my view that is just what they don’t do. They make abstractions of sense impressions. What they really start with is ideas of sense impressions. For them sense impressions are neutral, there is no difference between a sense impression of a buttercup and one of a plastic teaspoon. But you can’t have an empty sense impression, it has to be an impression of something. The starting point of all philosophy, in my view, has to be our actual and vivid sense impressions of the world, because the first things we know are the things we sense around us. They aren’t sense impressions as the abstract entities Locke and Hume talk about but, of things that are, for example, coloured, because everything in the world has a colour. Colour is an initial datum. But Chartres has taught me something else. We not only have primary impressions of coloured things but of gloriously coloured things. The glass at Chartres is about the glory of light. Light is the most common thing we experience and most of the time we take it for granted and don’t notice it. But Chartres teaches us that the world is bathed in glory. It is not the glass that makes the light glorious, but the light when revealed in its glory by the glass, as Newton’s prism did, that makes the glass glorious. I think that’s the starting point, the given we have to work with, and the philosophical question is what we think the implications of that are. What can we make of a world that contains such glory? This glass shows us that light is so wondrous I find it hard to avoid the implication that its creators drew. It reflects the glory of the divine.
I wonder too about the biblical stories that are told in the glass. Suppose the glass was just a jumble of colours that had no narrative structure. The colours would still be impressive. But I think it’s a valid Wittgensteinian point that we always experience things within a pre-conceived narrative. Think of very abstract art, say Barbara Hepworth or Henry Moore. There is no obvious narrative in those sculptures as there is here. But there is one nevertheless. Barbara Hepworth is showing us the basic shapes of the universe, the basic geometries that underly forms, quite like the ideas that inspired the builders of this cathedral in fact. Henry Moore is suggesting that cerebral as we might be we belong to the earth, we are the earth become conscious, quite a Darwinian point as I understand Darwin. So even the most abstract art is communicating a meaning which could be put in narrative form. Facts, things we sense, lie rather like broad beans in soft pods of enshrouding mythical narrative. I’m inclined to think, and this is very much the idea underlying this book, that the idea you can escape from myth through science is itself a myth. So perhaps it’s not so much a question of which proofs demand acceptance by our intellects but which myths feed our souls most nourishingly. Looked at in this way the whole myth of Christian salvation history in the full sweep of its grandeur as it is laid out in the glorious glass of Chartres takes some rivalling.
Dawkins’ account of the neural mechanisms whereby our eyes see rainbows is truly great. But he’s missed the glory of light as it is so primordially revealed in rainbows (My heart leaps up too when I behold a rainbow he says, and I’m sure it does, but he doesn’t develop this emotion. If he did I think it would take him in the direction of religion). Does anywhere tell us of the glory of light as it is split into colours by the glass, just as Newton’s prism split it, like Chartres?