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cathedrals – introduction: reading stained glass

Cathedral construction
stained glass development and technique

Part of a stained glass window at Bourges cathedral

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Tour de France 2023s

New translation, the Magna Carta

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reading stained glass
abelard’s preferences
viewing stained glass

itinerary for cathedrals in France section
hundreds of years and two world wars
Northern France map showing cathedral towns and war zones

church and cathedral construction
gothic cathedral building start dates, including precursor buildings
recommended books

end notes

reading stained glass

Before there were printed books, in particular the christianist Bible, and before most people were able to read, the christianist managers spread their propaganda (teachings, moral tales) using what are known as story windows - that is stained glass windows where the images depict stories from the bible. You will find an illustrations of typical story windows on pages for Poitiers cathedral and the St. Julian the hospitaller at Rouen. An increasing number of illustrations will be appearing, as I find time.

The choir at Troyes cathedral
The choir at Troyes cathedral


As you will notice, the story windows tend to be in the lower windows, for they needed to be accessible to those being instructed by the priest. See the round medallions in the lower windows - each one depicting an incident in the bible or in the saint’s story. The higher windows, by contrast, tend to have larger pictures, such as prophets and kings. For more on stained glass layout, look at a history of ugly stained glass.

These windows come in many designs, of which I will try to provide examples. In general, and unexpectedly for most modern visitors, these windows tend to read from bottom to top, not from top to bottom, though there are exceptions.

I am developing this area mainly in terms of the stained glass, which has been a constant background for my paintings, though you might find it difficult to see the connection [An art gallery is a part of abelard.org.]

painting by abelard

However, I shall also steadily fill in background to the development of the great building boom of gothic cathedrals during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. I am no expert in this, just an interested amateur. Where possible, I shall quote references where you may take your studies further.

Information on the iconography of cathedral art is included in the pages about Dax cathedral. This includes ‘saint’ recognition and typical heaven and boiling oil fancies for the naughty ones.[1]return to the index

abelard’s preferences

While I shall be telling you about gothic cathedrals and stained glass from many points of view, and with varying detail, it is well that I start by introducing you to my prejudices. My prime interest is in twelfth and thirteenth century (1100-1299) stained glass. For me, from then on everything went downhill, until the camera was discovered. Only then, at last, did artists start to move away from attempting to make two-dimensional art imitate three-dimensional life. With the camera a great burden was lifted from artists, and they could once more start studying and using materials for their aesthetic qualities and for imaginative expression.

The beautiful quiet and subdued light of the early, rich glass was steadily displaced by an increasing preference for decorative fiddling and flourish, along with the practical man’s demand for more light.

For further discussion, see history of art relating to stained glass.return to the index

viewing stained glass

Viewing stained glass, and other features of the great cathedrals, is not always entirely simple and straightforward. Many of these buildings are big, big, big, and what you wish to view may often be at a considerable distance, or very high up (never forget to look right the way up, including overhead). Serious lookers tend to bring a pair of binoculars with which they are comfortable[2]; and because at a distance, handshake may easily become a problem, even a small tripod.

Often the angles are difficult, and the light contrasts considerable. You you are not going to take good photographs if you do not have a fair knowledge of how to handle a camera. Maybe, one day, I’ll find time for a section on that as well, but I expect there is a good website out there somewhere without too much jargon.

Next, a reminder that many of these cathedrals are in the centre of crowded and, often, still medieval towns. Parking, or alternatively, carrying a load of clutter are not designed to improve your mood and the joy you may derive from a visit. As you will know from my constant repetitions, I have no love of crowds, but that can be an advantage with stained glass, as the cathedrals are often empty.

Stained glass is a living art form. It varies with the season and the light conditions. Stained glass is, of course, transparent and, therefore, can vary if there are clouds or trees beyond. During the height of summer, glass can tend to ‘wash out’ and halate[3] a little. This means that the prime times for good viewing are the spring and autumn, not tourist time. Some people swear by rainy, cloudy days which produce an even light, whereas I am for the full variety of stained glass moods. The winter can also be a problem with short days and low light levels. As an aficionado, I view stained glass in all its conditions, but you may wish to keep the above in mind in your planning.

You will not be appreciated if you walk in on a Sunday service and start gawping and oo-ing and ah-ing. It is also quite common to find a cathedral closed for a couple of hours at lunchtime and shut by 6pm. As said, these are very big buildings and they are not much heated. If visiting at the colder times of year and spending any time there, you will be very well advised to consider wrapping up. You may also come across the odd jobsworth who decides it is their holy duty to order you to put on or take off a hat, or to stop taking photographs. It is usually enough to wait for them to go away. Fortunately, what I regard as best viewing times often coincides with near deserted buildings.

When you have left the cathedral and are several miles down the road, you will remember that you meant to take a particular photograph or some note. I’ll leave you to worry about this.return to the index

itinerary for cathedrals in France section

I intend to cover the following cathedrals and churches in France, which I consider the most interesting and important in terms of stained glass. In some cases, there are also other reasons.

I am providing the list now, in order that you know where to look if you are in that area, prior to this part of abelard.org being developed fully.

  • Rouen
  • Dax
  • Poitiers
  • Angers
  • Laon - built on a hill with vast views across the plain, can be very difficult to park, one of the oldest, not in brilliant condition or well maintained. Look up and see the miraculous bulls on the tower.
  • Notre Dame de Paris - built like a brick whatnot. Like Reims [4], this was built a little later, as the builders become more concerned to make the structure more solid at the expense of fantasy. Lacks the delicacy of some of the other gothic cathedrals, but still a magnificent building. The most important stained glass is the North Rose window. The rest is mostly later replacements. Built from 1163 to 1345 under Maurice de Sully.
  • Saint Chapelle - right across the way from Notre Dame in the Palais de Justice, it was built between 1242 and 1248. This is the one in Paris you must not miss, a journey into heaven. Saint Chapelle is a small chapel compared to the vast cathedrals, but fully glazed so it is like entering a lantern.
    The slight problem with Saint Chapelle is that it is smaller. Thus, it is near impossible to retreat far enough from the windows to see some of the effects of great stained glass. Across the road, the great North Rose of Notre Dame will show you the sort of effects that you cannot see in Saint Chapelle, where the reds and the blues can fuse in some lights to give a gorgeous purple haze.
  • Chartres - one of the true wonders of the world
  • St Denis, the official church of French royalty - this is where it all started. St. Denis was heavily compromised by the 1789 Revolution when it was used as a hay barn. It is also in one of the less salubrious parts of Paris
  • Beauvais - the tallest gothic cathedral ever built.
  • Le Mans - magnificent building. With its flying buttresses, Le Mans particularly appears like a spaceship ready for launch. It also has a stained glass collection that is probably second only to that of Chartres.
  • Bourges - magnificent building, particularly by virtue of its flying buttresses... well and more!

To do list:

  • Sens - has an interesting and beautiful 15th-century (1400 - 1499) rayonnant window. With rose windows, always remember to look at them from the outside to have a good impression of the geometric patterns.
  • Sees - I normally make a detour from the south-bound motorway to spend some time in this quiet, dilapidated and little appreciated cathedral with some very nice glass.

And one extra special, modern building: the Matisse Chapel near Vence on the Côte d’Azur (limited access - check visiting times first).

There are, of course, many others. After all, approximately eighty cathedrals and five hundred substantial churches were constructed in the great building craze of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. But these are the ones to which I return and go on my A-list.return to the index

Map of Northern France - cathedral towns and zones affected
by the two world wars of the 20th century

Northern France map showing cathedral towns and the zones affected by the two world wars of the 20th century. Reims



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hundreds of years and two world wars

The gothic cathedrals in France were generally built very solidly. Some more ambitious projects failed at least in part, like the tower of Beauvais cathedral, while others moved - literally - over time. The West Rose at Chartres is one example, when restored in the nineteenth century, the whole rose had been found to have rotated about 15 degrees.

The world wars of the twentieth century [1914 - 1918 and 1939 - 1945] caused much damage to many cathedrals built in the northern half of France. Cathedrals badly damaged by German shelling in the First World War include Soissons and Reims, while others were damaged during World War Two. During World War One, all down the Front, the German gunners took potshots at the churches and cathedrals in boredom and sheer vandalism. Beauvais and Rouen were badly damaged in the Second World War. Chartres cathedral, amazingly, was hardly touched as the Allies swept through on their way to Paris in 1944.[5]

Marker at abelard.org

“Villard de Honnecourt worked in the region where he was born. He has left us a drawing of the chevet of the church at Vaucelles near Honnecourt, which he is said to have rebuilt. ‘Here is the plan’ he wrote of the chevet of Madame Sainte Marie de Cambrai, ‘just as it rises from the ground. Later in this book you will find plans of the elevations, including the positioning of all the side chapels, the walls and the designs for the flying buttresses.’

This cathedral [Cambrai] was destroyed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but by an extraordinary piece of luck, and thanks to a photograph of a no longer existing model of Cambrai, we can admire the choir which was built at the time of Villard, perhaps by the master himself. This model was one of a secret collection of models of strategically important towns and their immediate surroundings. The models, which were Louis XIV’s idea, were obviously kept from the public and from foreign diplomats. They continued to be made throughout the eighteenth century and even in part of the nineteenth century. Today they have no military importance and make a very worthwhile display in the Musée des Plans-Reliefs which is temporarily housed on the top floor of the Hôtel des Invalides. When Paris was occupied in 1815, the Germans took the opportunity to remove some of these models, including the one of Cambrai and its cathedral, to Berlin, where it was put in the Zeughaus. Unfortunately it was destroyed during the bombing of Berlin in 1944. The photograph of the model is all that remains of the cathedral.“ [Quoted from The cathedral builders by Jean return to the indexGimpel, Michael Russell Publishers, 1980]

church and cathedral construction
[ illustrated version with greater detail ]

The building of gothic cathedrals developed in step with the development of the design process. Through the medieval apprenticeship system, accumulated knowledge was passed down. Over a period of about a century and a half, designs increased in complexity and sophistication as the new techniques developed into a coherent ‘gothic’ style.

Added to this accumulating knowledge taken from experience, came the use of small-scale models, constructed similarly to the proposed full-scale building, and used to test the overall stability of a design. Detailed testing was made ‘on the job’, by building the cathedral one bay at a time, while using proven elements from previous designs.

So it was that cathedral construction evolved, with ribbed vaults and pointed arches appearing at the start of the eleventh century. This first major innovation in gothic cathedrals - the pointed arch - replaced the rounded Roman arch and enabled the building of more complex and higher buildings. This evolved to include the ribbed, arched vaults of large buildings, which able to span much large spaces than could the Roman arch.

By trial and error came the flying buttress to counteract outward pressures, so allowing ever taller and more complex structures. Flying buttresses were first recognised as being used in Notre Dame in Paris shortly before 1180.

Later, throughout the twelfth century, came the technology that gradually removed the requirement for walls to carry loads. The gothic builders discovered that it was no longer necessary to build curtain walls between the load-bearing skeleton of the church, because the skeleton carried all the weight. This allowed the builders to become much more adventurous, and to fill the spaces between the load-bearing pillars and ribs with glass.

return to the indexThe leading person to consolidate all these building techniques was Abbé Suger (Abbot of St. Denis, 1081 - 1151).

gothic cathedral building start dates,
including precursor buildings

The cathedrals were built over extended periods, often centuries. Frequently, the work was started then stopped for years or even decades, according to the availability of will and resources. Therefore, the dates below must be read with caution.

  • Cluny, 1097 approx
  • Durham, 1093
                One of the earliest examples of pointed arch use in Europe; there is also buttressing, but inside the building
  • St Denis, Paris 1136
  • Laon, 1160
  • Notre Dame de Paris, Paris 1179
  • Canterbury, 1180 approx
  • Chartres, 1194
  • Bourges, 1195
  • Le Mans, 1200? - 1250
  • Reims, 1211
  • Amiens, 1220
              The largest gothic building in France. 145m or 475ft long, with vaults 42.5m or 139ft high.
  • Salisbury, 1220
  • Beauvais, 1225
    The highest cathedral structure in France. The vaults are almost 48m or 157.5ft high.
    The builders outdid themselves, to the extent that the chancel collapsed in 1284. Work was then halted by the Hundred Years’ War. After resumption, the chancel collapsed again in 1573. After that, the builders were never able to complete the cathedral, thus the cathedral has no nave (this adds to the problems, as the nave tends to be a major part of the buttressing to the chancel in a cathedral building), but they did eventually achieve the world record, beating Amiens by 5.7 metres for the highest vaults. Last time I dropped in, this incredible building was still held together by trusses (tie-rods). But there is magnificent early glass in the chancel, and some like to look at the fantastic astronomical clock with its 90,000 parts.

    This fever continues around the world, as architects attempt to build ever higher skyscrapers (see, for instance, the Burj Dubai building), though I expect those in medieval times were more inclined to think that they were building heaven-scrapers.
  • return to the index Westminster Abbey, 1245

recommended books

The Rose window by Painton Cowen
Thames and Hudson Five GoldenYak (tm) award

hbk, 2005, 0500511748
$53.55 amazon.com / amazon.co.uk

Rose Windows
pbk, 1981, 0500810214
amazon.com / £8.95 amazon.co.uk

Extremely well illustrated - the paperback version [title: Rose Windows] has 59 pictures in colour and 82 in black-and-white and densely packed with facts. An ideal primer to be carried around with you on any visit. Like so many books, written by informed hands, it is very badly organised and laid out. My Thames and Hudson glued paper-cover version started falling apart from early on, but always travels in its own protective plastic cover to keep the pages in one place. I cannot resist giving these books five GoldenYaks, if only because I know of nothing better. The new hardback version [title: The Rose Window] is lavishly illustrated with 300 colour and 50 b/w images. While author now has greater experience, the text is less dense and not the sort of thing to carry around in a back pack.

Painton Cowen has also produced a very useful directory of stained glass in Britain:

  A guide to stained glass in Britain by Painton Cowen, Michael Joseph Ltd, 1985, hbk 0718125673

return to the index

end notes

  1. A good start on architecture can be found in the introduction to some of the Michelin Green Guide series.

  2. Naturally, the greater the magnification of your binoculars, the greater the problem with handshake. The greater the magnification, also the more bulk and weight to carry around. Choosing a pair of binoculars to suit you is, therefore, a compromise. The small cheap ones can vary a great deal in quality - try them out before buying.
  3. Halation
    Light spilling from one section of glass to another. However, these old craftsmen knew their trade, thus
          thickening the leading where this is most likely to occur. They even could take foreshortening into account.

  4. Reims, like everything on the German side of the World War One German front, lost a great deal of its treasure, including glass, to German shelling. The Germans even used the cathedrals and churches in the area for target practice. Hence, all the great stained-glass treasures of France are to the west of that line.

    The philistines of the French Revolution also did a great deal of damage to French heritage (as mentioned regarding Saint Denis above), as Cromwell did in England.

    The third era of destruction across northern France was occasioned in driving the National Socialists out of France in 1944 in association with the D-Day landings.

  5. Chartres cathedral, amazingly, was hardly touched as the Allies swept through on their way to Paris in 1944. However, one of the world’s most important medieval libraries of about 2,000 books was severely damaged on the evening of 26 May 1944, when a fire, set by a airial bomb of unknown origin, ripped through the library building .

    For safekeeping, the manuscripts had been moved to the Chateau de Villebon, 20 km outside Chartres. Then in 1940, as a propaganda stunt, the Germans insisted that the manuscripts were returned to the library premises.

    It is possible that some small proportion may be recovered by modern techniques, after the considerable damaged wreaked by fire, and water from firemen.

    Some small damage was also done to the cathedral fabric when Resistance members had taken refuge in the towers, and the Germans had fired on them. Fortunately, the glass was stored in the basement throughout the war.

    Some of the manuscripts had been microfilmed before the war. Now, 567 documents of the original 2,000-odd have been identified as remaining at least in some sense.

  6. Lancet
    pointed, as seen in the arches and windows with a pointed head introduced in the Gothic period of
         architecture. [From the point of a lance - a spear.]

  7. Medallion

    In stained glass, a medallion refers variously to a circular; oval, square or diamond shaped space, generally one of many within the overall window design, that contains a figure or figures.
    Yoked medallions are two medallions partially joined together.

  8. Grisaille

    Almost monochrome glass, each piece shaped as a square or diamond and painted with black enamel paint. From a distance, grisaille windows have an overall greyish tint; hence the name grisaille, meaning greyness in French.return to the index

marker cathedrals – introduction: reading stained glass
marker gothic cathedral and church construction
marker cathedrals, an illustrated glossary
marker Chartres - wonder of the world
marker Notre Dame de Paris, Paris
marker lantern towers of Normandy and elsewhere
marker history of ugly stained glass: Auch, Bazas, Dreux
marker Auch cathedral choir and stalls
marker Rouen and Monet
marker at France pages Dax and church iconography marker photographs, Dax
marker Bazas - iconography and architectural styles
marker Poitiers, neglected masterpiece marker photographs, Poitiers / photos 2
marker Angers, heart of the Angevin Empire marker photographs, Angers
marker Laon, the midst of the gothic transition, with added oxen marker photographs, Laon
marker Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon
marker Notre Dame of Lausanne
marker Senlis - how a typical cathedral changes through the ages
marker Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges - the cathedral of the Pyrenees
marker Cathedrale Saint-Gatien at Tours

marker Le Mans and Bourges cathedrals - medieval space technology
marker Lausanne rose window - photo-analysis
marker cathedrals in Lorraine - the Three Bishoprics
marker cathedral giants - Amiens and Beauvais
marker Clermont-Ferrand and Agde - from volcanoes to cathedrals

marker Germans in France - Arras cathedral
marker Germans in France - Reims cathedral
marker Germans in France - St. Quentin cathedral
marker Germans in France - Noyon cathedral
marker Germans in France - Cambrai cathedral
marker Germans in France - Soissons cathedral

marker cathedral plans, and facts
marker stone in church and cathedral construction
marker using metal in gothic cathedral construction
marker cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France
marker cathedrals and cloisters of Franceby Elise Whitlock Rose
marker the perpendicular or English style of cathedral
marker Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France

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