Pictorial Art at Notre Dame

Stories in Light: A Guide to the Stained Glass of the Basilica of the University of Notre Dame

by Nancy Cavadini and Cecilia Davis Cunningham
2020 University of Notre Dame Press, 232 pages, $24
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In 1842, Father Edward Sorin of the Congregation of Holy Cross began both a school and a parish in the mission that was known as Notre Dame du Lac. A meticulously executed portrait in a window of 1880 shows the revered founder with the dream of his college below, with its chapel. The basilica was built between 1871 and 1875; its windows were provided by a French studio initially owned by the Carmelite monastery in Le Mans (which flourished from 1853 to 1903). 

The forty-four large windows are integrated within the larger program of statuary and wall painting within the impressive Gothic Revival structure. All 220 scenes they contain attest to the keen interest of the Order in a keeping vital contact with the country of its origins.

The basilica is a beautifully conceived and well-preserved testimonial to a faith that motivated immense sacrifices. Father Sorin settled in a new world determined to promulgate a Catholic tradition that enshrined intercessory prayer and miraculous interventions by the divine. He never truly accepted the validity of a secular government established by the French revolution of 1789, nor did he side with the struggles of the Paris Commune of 1871 to instate a more democratic and egalitarian republic. Thus, the windows provide a retrospective glance of the late-nineteenth century’s deeply traditional French Catholic piety.

The windows’ subjects stress saints cherished in French devotion: Saint Radegonde, the Merovingian queen who founded the monastery of the Holy Cross in Poitiers; Saint Martin of Tours, who emerged as a model of charity after he cut off half of his mantle to give to a freezing beggar; Saint Louis, the thirteenth-century king of France who received the relic of the Crown of Thorns and subsequently enshrined it by building Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle; Christ showing his Sacred Heart to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque, a seventeenth-century French nun; and Saint John Eudes, the seventeenth-century French priest who encouraged devotion to the Sacred Heart of Mary.

The chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus includes in a window a young woman kneeling and holding in her hands a model of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris. A banderol carried by an angel reads in Latin: “The French people are devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.” When the window was made for Notre Dame, the Basilica in Paris was barely under construction. Someone must have acquired drawings of the proposed monument to allow them to render the image in the window with such accuracy.

The style follows the tradition of the French vitrail tableau (pictorial art) as opposed to the vitrail archéologique (inspired by medieval stained glass). The figures thus embody ninteenth-century canons stressing realism and three-dimensional space. The windows tell a compelling story, not simply the veneration of the saints, but deeply felt longing for continuity of the past.

Those of the radiating chapels are particularly engaging. One is dedicated to the tradition of the “invention” and the transferral of relics with vivid images of house-shaped reliquaries (similar to the surviving thirteenth-century reliquary of the Three Kings in Cologne). The Angels’ Chapel vividly depicts the founding of the great monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel. Our Lady of Victories Chapel depicts signature battles, including the Christian armies of Western Europe defeating the Muslim Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Another window depicts the victory of Louis XIII of France over the French Huguenots (Protestants) in 1628, after which the invocation of the Virgin as Notre Dame des Victoires was established.

The authors’ research is admirable for both the history of the studio and the analysis of each of the many saints and stories. It would have been welcome, however, to see some more solid analysis of the saints historically documented as authors and administrators, such as Bridget of Sweden and Teresa of Ávila, in contrast to the saints of pious legend such as Barbara.

With such a comprehensive text, it is unfortunate that the production is not up to the same standard. Throughout, the windows are photographed from the floor. This gives many of the saints the appearance of stocky proportions whose haloes are ellipses rather than circles. The numbered floor diagram would have been enhanced with a facing page listing the subject matter of the windows. Even better, sections of this diagram could have been repeated at the introduction of each section to aid the reader walking through the basilica.

Stories in Light is of great service to a public interested in study of social and religious traditions that cement ethnic bonds as well as nineteenth-century art. The building and the religion are transplanted phenomena.

Notre Dame Basilica replicates a style from the homeland and the windows are imports embodying the then-current pictorial modes favoured for didactic imagery. The authors have done a great service in researching the many saints not commonly known today and placing them in a context that includes the veneration of relics, the importance of miraculous apparitions, and belief in divine intervention in secular endeavours.