Jun 15, 2002

Face-to-face with the Grand Summa

Online Edition – Vol. VIII, No. 4: June 2002

Face-to-face with the Grand Summa

by Michael S. Rose

Drawing near to the church building, standing perhaps in the piazza or near the fountain of the arcade-studded atrium, one comes face-to-face with the façade, that is, the front exterior.

Often the most memorable part of the building, it may incorporate a bell tower or other towers, statuary, sculptural reliefs, frescoes, stained glass windows and of course the main entrance doors to the church.

This front entrance is the "face" that the church presents to the world. It is often times the only part of the building that people will see, and thus it is the façade that has the greatest opportunity to evangelize, teach and catechize. This is accomplished most obviously through the incorporation of exterior artwork.

The façades of the great churches of Christendom have been approached with great care by the architects of every age. History books show us there is no one way to design the façade of a church. The emotionally elaborate Gothic exteriors, the austere, geometric-style "wall architecture" of the Renaissance, the irregular, undulating sculptural facades of the Baroque, all evoke a profound sense of goodness, beauty and truth – that which naturally draws both the pious pilgrim and the curious skeptic nearer the Porta Caeli – the Gate of Heaven.

All do so through very different means, yet it is an iconographic beauty — a beauty of image — that is at the basis of their creation: proper proportions, purity of forms and multifarious works of art.

The façade acts as a "vessel of meaning" in the most straightforward of ways: it is the foreword of a book as much as it is a grand Summa — a foreword to the Catholic liturgy that takes place inside, a prelude to the great truths of the Faith, and a welcoming invitation to the maternal sanctuary; simultaneously, it is a summary of the Faith in its totality (its Catholicity).

While the façades of the churches of the first millennium were beautiful "vessels of meaning", none compare with the Gothic facades of later centuries in complexity, detail and craftsmanship.

Victor Hugo, for instance, makes this observation about the grand façade of Notre-Dame in Paris: "…crowding upward before the eye without disorder, their innumerable details of statuary, sculpture, and carving [create] a vast symphony in stone… like divine creation whose two-fold character it seems to have appropriated: variety, eternity".

At Notre-Dame, standing at a distance in the cathedral square or on the steps of the cathedral, the pilgrim stands face-to-face with eternity.

Two elements of the façade deserve particular mention: the front portals and the rose window.

The door to the Domus Dei

If only for practical purposes, the portal, made up of the architectural elements surrounding the door, is of greatest importance in the façade. For this is the door to the Domus Dei, the House of God, the entrance to the Porta Caeli. It is the means through which the pilgrim reaches the threshold of God’s house.

Through the centuries, architects and church artists have responded to the obvious by paying particularly close attention to the design of the elements that surround the openings into the church. These are often elaborately treated with carved ornaments of saints, kings, men, animals or foliage, depending on the popular symbols and images employed during different ages.

The revival of monumental stone sculpture, an art that had disappeared with classical antiquity, took place beginning in the eleventh century. Meant to attract and instruct, the carved image became an integral part of the architecture of a church. Biblical scenes from the Old Testament and from the life of Christ were commonly depicted in the semicircular arches above the central doorways on what is called the tympanum. The deeply recessed portals of French Romanesque churches such as Saint Tropîme and Saint Gilles in Provence provided the earliest "canvases" for tympanic relief sculpture.

Since everyone must enter the church through its doors, the space directly above the entrance provided the most prominent location for iconographic sculpture, which would serve as a visual extension to religious teaching.

Portal sculpture, which was one of the leading forms of French art in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, is necessarily rich in both figural meaning and Christian symbolism.

The Last Judgment was perhaps the most common New Testament narrative tympanum scene depicted during the twelfth century. The most vivid of these, with angels and demons portrayed, are at the French cathedrals of Autun (1135) and Conques (1130). The most well known is that of Chartres’s Notre-Dame Cathedral: the famous Portail Royal (1155), part of the only remaining element from the Romanesque church that burned to the ground in 1194. When the new Gothic church was built over the crypt of the old cathedral, the architects designed freestanding statues to decorate the new portals (doorways) and the various façades of the new edifice. This was the first time since Roman antiquity that sculptors carved figures that reflected individualized characteristics. This marked the beginning of portrait-like carving to adorn church façades.

Chartres is also the origin of the exterior niche, an indented space for a three-dimensional statue, which was used extensively in Gothic cathedrals. More than two thousand of these sculpted figures adorn Chartres cathedral.

The eye of God

It is also at Chartres cathedral that we see the full development of the rose window, a large circular window of stained glass (here placed above the central portal). Stone tracery provides a framework for segments of stained glass, radiating from the center like the unfolding petals of a full-blown rose.

The great rose window at Chartres, American historian Henry Adams wrote, "is one of the flowers of architecture which reveals its beauties slowly without end".

The rose is not only one of the most beautiful flowers of God’s creation, it is also Notre-Dame‘s most prolific emblem. Representing the beauty and love of the Virgin Mary, it is this rose that is at the "heart" of the Gothic façade. At the center of this heart is invariably an image of Christ, often sitting upon the lap of the Virgin, who offers her incarnate Son to the world. The images that radiate out from Christ are narrative images from Scripture and the lives of the saints.

Sometimes referred to as "the eye of God", the rose window is a powerful work of art that anticipates the beatific vision of God’s beauty in the eternal Kingdom. It is a representation of perfection, balance and harmony of the purified soul as it prepares to enter that Kingdom forever.


Michael S. Rose, a frequent contributor to the Adoremus Bulletin, is the author of two books on church architecture, Ugly as Sin (Sophia Institute Press, 2001) and The Renovation Manipulation (Hope of St. Monica, 2000). A new book, Goodbye! Good Men – How Catholic Seminaries Turned Away Two Generations of Vocations from the Priesthood (Regency Publishing, Ltd.) debuted this spring. A trained architect, he is married and the father of four children.



Michael S. Rose