French-American Bridge for Medieval Musical Iconography

Seeing and Knowing through Music at Chartres Cathedral


John Glasenapp, OSB (Columbia University)

Chartres Cathedral boasts the largest number of musical representations within it of any Gothic cathedral. There are a total of 312 images of music performance, including 26 different instruments, concentrated especially on the Western frontispiece, around the monumental choir screen, and in the cathedral’s famous windows. It is fitting, then, that the Musée des Beaux-arts just next-door houses the Instrumentarium of Chartres. The Instrumentarium exhibits reconstructed medieval instruments and hosts performances of medieval instrumental music. We began our day there with an introduction to their impressive collection by André Bonjour and Xavier Terasa. They described how information was gleaned from musical iconography in their design process and what remained a best guess, such as the exact size of many of the instruments. When possible, the builders used materials available to medieval craftsmen like catgut strings and cow’s bladder for the air bag of a bagpipe. After their presentations, we were invited to play all of the instruments. It was fascinating to hear and play actual models of the instruments we had been seeing and describing in artworks. Trying them out was also great fun and made a total cacophony.

In the afternoon, André Bonjour led a tour around the cathedral to examine some of its musical imagery. Many images are quite small and easy to miss. Although several that he pointed to contained unique and important details, it was the sheer volume and ubiquity of musical representations that most struck me. Such density is difficult to appreciate without being physically present in a space, but quite inescapable and overwhelming when there.

The cathedral’s imagery places music at the heart of Christian cosmology and Christian worship. The marriage of the two depends on the evocation of several senses of music among the cathedral’s abundant representations. Humans, such as shepherds, playing instruments suggests the most common conception of music. But interspersed with these musicians are angels sounding their own celestial song. Although their performance is imperceptible, the endless rounds of liturgy in the cathedral are nevertheless a participation in their ceaseless praise. Finally, the personification of music among the seven liberal arts in the archivolt of the south portal evokes music as a purely intellectual science. She is surrounded by a carillon, vielle, psaltery, and monochord and simultaneously represents secular learning and the harmonic order of creation. In The Virgin of Chartres: Making History through Liturgy and the Arts (2010), Margot Fassler highlights that the two liberal arts personified as women in this section of the cathedral, grammar and music, are those most central to the celebration of the liturgy. She argues that the themes of seeing and knowing thread through both the art and the liturgy. Chartres’s musical imagery suggests to the viewer that playing, hearing, and studying music are privileged means to see and know the creative mind of God.

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