Our God is a Consuming Fire: The Iconography of Fire in Gothic Art and Architecture

Cate Isert

Abstract


Throughout the history of Christianity, religious symbolism has been used as a tool in art, architecture, and literature to convey deeper meanings to believers. To understand physical manifestations of historical religion, familiarity with historical religious symbolism is necessary. Using Biblical references and early Christian writings, this research shows how religious art supplemented the twofold role of the cathedral: to educate and to sanctify the masses. One prime example is the depictions of fire in Gothic cathedrals. Fire expressed the many facets of God’s nature including judgment and favor. Depictions also showed the futile attempts of anti-Christians to persecute the righteous with fire. Examples of fire in the Bible and in religious art show that fire represented the presence or influence of God. They fall into three categories: the favor of God, the judgment of God, and the attempts of the wicked to persecute the righteous by fire. Two case studies of French Gothic cathedrals are key in understanding the visual use of fire: the Abbey of Saint-Denis, the former burial church of French kings; and Chartres Cathedral, a major center of worship of the Virgin Mary. Both have numerous examples of fire in their stained glass and sculpture, and they both demonstrate the influence of fire throughout their architectural histories. Saint-Denis’s construction and decoration show the influence of anagogy, a physical experience inspiring a transcendental experience. In this case, the physical medium was light, a benevolent form of fire. Chartres, on the other hand, burned five times in three hundred years, making its current form a result of fire. Contemporary poets refer to the destruction of the cathedral as both a judgment of God on the people of Chartres, as well as an opportunity for the cathedral to be rebuilt in a style more fitting to the worship of God. Much of its fire-related art deals with judgment or martyrdom. Through the study of fire symbolism in Gothic architecture and art comes a better understanding of the God’s role as a protector and judge in the Gothic Christian church, thus allowing an acquaintance with Christian symbolism that can transfer across the ages.

Keywords


Gothic cathedrals; Fire; Symbolism

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