Light, Beauty and Emotions in Chartres Cathedral

By Sarah Randles, The University of Melbourne/University of Tasmania

Although today we do not usually think of the phenomenon of light as an aspect of material culture, it fits James Deetz’s definition of material culture as ‘that sector of our physical environment that we modify through culturally determined behaviour’.[1] Such culturally determined behaviour includes the construction of the built environment to modify natural light, as well as emotional responses to light. This means that it is possible to think about light and the way it was used in the Middle Ages in terms of human emotional responses to materiality.

Chartres Cathedral, showing light from chandeliers and candles reflecting from metallic surfaces. Photograph in public domain.
Chartres Cathedral, showing light from chandeliers and candles reflecting from metallic surfaces. Photograph in public domain.

The physical manifestation of light held enormous spiritual importance for medieval Christians. In Genesis 1:3, God’s first utterance in creating the world was to command that there should be light. In John 8:12, Christ describes himself as the light of the world. Medieval accounts of miracles and visions often interpret bright light as a sign of the presence of God. The great gothic cathedrals, including Notre-Dame of Chartres, prioritised the use of light in their design. Their height, interior space and great expanses of stained glass windows were enabled by the technological advance of flying buttresses, which shifted the burden of weight to the outside of the building rather than relying on the walls to support it, and allowed the windows to let unprecedented amounts of light into the interior of the buildings.

The builders of medieval cathedrals undoubtedly sought to manifest a metaphysical understanding of the nature of light, and were conscious of the ability of light to produce beauty. The theologian and natural scientist, bishop Robert Grosseteste (c.1170–1253) wrote in his book on the physics and metaphysics of light, De Luce, that light was beautiful in itself, by its very nature. Grosseteste also described the ways that light passed through stained glass windows to create colour, interpreting this as a symbol for the way that humans needed divine illumination to produce cognition and affection.[2] Responses to the manipulation of light as material culture could therefore be both intellectual and emotional.

Chartres Cathedral, showing light from the clerestory windows illuminating the choir. Photograph by Marianne Casamance, under a creative commons license.
Chartres Cathedral, showing light from the clerestory windows illuminating the choir. Photograph by Marianne Casamance, under a creative commons license.


The ability of light and beauty to produce emotion was well understood, and was employed to effect in the medieval cathedral. Alcuin of York (735–804) wrote that it was easier to love beautiful things than to love God directly,[3] but it was generally accepted by the church that beauty might be properly used as an aid to further the love of God. At Chartres cathedral, light – both natural and artificial – was used to produce this effect and to enhance the emotional experience of worship. The cathedral inventories compiled over the centuries record a profusion of gold, silver and copper objects, which were designed to reflect and magnify light. The fifteenth-century accounts of works from the cathedral record expenditure on candles and torches, which reflected light from metallic surfaces that would have enhanced the beauty of the cathedral’s interior space and prompted emotions of delight, pleasure, awe and wonder. For Grosseteste, all shining substances like gold or stars were beautiful, even if they were not perfect in themselves, because of their ability to shine. Abbot Suger of St Denis wrote about contemplating the gold and silver ornaments of the church with ‘sheer affection’, and described how they caused him to ‘sigh deeply’ in his heart.[4]

Chartres is famed for its wealth of extant medieval stained glass, much of it dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Having recently been restored and cleaned, these windows provide insight into the ways that light filtered through the glass to illuminate the medieval cathedral, and how the dark and light spaces of the building could be used to enhance the emotional responses of worshippers. Pilgrims emerging from the darkness of the crypt into the nave after nine days in darkness would have been dazzled by the brightness of daylight, while the clerestory windows of the choir allowed for the main altar and the gold-clad reliquary that housed the cathedral’s most precious relic – the sainte chemise of the Virgin Mary – to reflect maximum light. The light in the cathedral was not static, but shifted with the time of day and the seasons of the year, changing the experience of the interior space, and giving rise to what Henry Adams, writing in the early twentieth century, has called its ‘moods’.[5]

Yet, the medieval emotional response to the physical beauty of a cathedral and its ornamentation could also be problematic. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) was concerned that the emotions produced by the splendour of medieval cathedrals were the wrong ones, leading worshippers away from God and providing a distraction. He described the medieval churches with their ‘enormous height, extravagant length and unnecessary width of the churches, of their costly polishings and curious paintings which catch the worshipper’s eye and dry up his devotion’.[6] Bernard made a clear distinction between emotional states; between religious devotion and mere aesthetic appreciation of beauty:

I don’t know why, but the wealthier a place, the readier people are to contribute to it. Just feast their eyes on gold-covered relics and their purses will open. Just show them a beautiful picture of some saint. The brighter the colors, the saintlier he’ll appear to them. Men rush to kiss and are invited to contribute. There is more admiration for beauty than veneration for sanctity.[7]

The builders of medieval cathedrals may have intended their works to lead the eye and then the heart to God, but ultimately it was the emotional state of the beholder that determined whether they were successful.

Sarah Randles is an Honorary Research Fellow at The University of Melbourne and an Adjunct Researcher at the University of Tasmania. She is a short-term Project-to-Publication Fellow and a former Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Her current research project investigates the intersection of emotions and material culture in medieval cathedrals, focusing on the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Chartres. Sarah is the editor (with Stephanie Downes and Sally Holloway) of Feeling Things: Objects and Emotions Through History, which has just been published by Oxford University Press.


[1] James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early North American Life (New York: Doubleday, 1977), pp. 24–25.

[2] Cecilia Panti, ‘Robert Grosseteste’s Cosmology of Light and Light-Metaphors: A Symbolic Model of Sacred Space’, in Bishop Robert Grosseteste and Lincoln Cathedral: Tracing Relationships Between Medieval Concepts of Order and Built Form, edited by Nicholas Temple, John Shannon Hendrix and Christian Frost (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014).

[3] C. Barratt, ed., Medieval Aesthetics (The Hague: Mouton, 1970), p. 99.

[4] Erwin Panofsky, Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and its Art Treasures (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 63.

[5] Henry Adams, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904), chapter 5.



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