The official standpoint of the Catholic Church on astrology is pretty clear according to their Catechism, but the history of astrology and Christianity in the European Middle Ages shows a lot more complex and contradictory relation.
One of these contradictions is the common depiction of the Zodiac signs in Christian manuscripts, calendars, on artifacts and buildings, including the biggest and most significant cathedrals of the era. The rather simplistic explanation for this phenomenon is that while theologists and philosophers kept arguing on the reconcilability of God’s absolute will and the doctrine of free will versus the influence of planets on human life and decisions, they accepted what is called Natural Astrology: the idea that God rules the soul, and the planets are his intermediaries to govern the corporeal aspects of the living beings and their material universe.
According to this interpretation in mediaeval Christian architecture the Zodiac signs symbolize the wholeness of the Creation and are commonly associated with the natural cycles of a year.
Zodiac signs as mosaic or tiles on the floor, stained glass windows and reliefs can be found in many abbeys, monasteries and cathedrals of the mediaeval era, but only in a few cases appear all three of them on one building. One of these examples is the Cathedral of Saint Denis (also known as Basilica of Saint Denis) near Paris, one of France’s oldest and most significant cathedrals, the landmark of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture.
Saint Denis, the first bishop of Lutetia (Roman Paris), was beheaded around 250 on the Montmartre and became the patron of Paris and France in later centuries. According to Carolingian legends, after his martyrdom he walked 6 miles with his severed head in his hands to the place where he wanted to be buried and a martyrium was erected on the site of his grave, where cca. 230 years later on the order of St. Geneviéve Saint Denis de la Chapelle was built. However, currently there aren’t reliable historical sources to establish the validity of these legends. According to the most probable historical version around 630 Dagobert I, the official founder of the Saint Denis Cathedral, reburied the relics of the martyr on the current site in a new chapel and Benedictine monastery built to honor the saint. The church was subsequently rebuilt in the 8th century and became a pilgrimage center and the burial place of almost every French king until the 18th century.
Around 1130 Abbot Suger, a highly influential churchman of his time, friend and counsellor both of Louis VI and Louis VII, started to reorganize and rebuild St. Denis to try to cope with the increasing crowds of pilgrims. After demolishing the old Carolingian westwork he extended the old nave and added a new, three-story nartex (entrance hall) with three portals, reflecting the proportions of the nave and the two lateral aisles. The sculptures and decorations of the three entrances on the new facade followed a complex visual and iconographic scheme.
The bigger central portal illustrates the Last Judgment, the south portal’s theme is the Last Communion of St. Denis, and the north portal – originally decorated with an unusual mosaic of the Virgin – since the 19th century portrays the Martyrdom of St. Denis, accompanied by the original 12th century carvings of the Zodiac signs on the doorjambs. For some reason, the depiction of the Zodiac signs is not complete: Cancer, Leo and Virgo are missing.
After completing the new westwork in 1140 Abbot Suger continued the constructions on the eastern end of the old nave. By building a new choire using architectural elements in a revolutionary way and thus enabling the insertion of huge stained glass clerestory windows he created the first example of a new architectural style later called French or Gothic style.
Almost a century later, in 1231, Abbot Odo Clement began the rebuilding of the old 8th century Romanesque nave in the evolved version of this style called Rayonnant Gothic, deriving its name from one of the characteristic elements of the style: the huge stained glass rose windows with radiating patterns of tracery.
The rose windows at both ends of the new transept were the first ones completed in this style, and heavily inspired the creating of the rose windows of Chartres Cathedral and Notre Dame. The window at the north end depicts the Tree of Jesse, the south window represents The Creation, with God at the center, surrounded by angels and the twelve Zodiac signs representing the Order of the Heavens and the path of the Sun, and 24 agricultural labors in the outer circle portraying the Order of the Earth.
Unfortunately most of the original glasswork – save 5 windows and a few fragments – was destroyed during the French Revolution and had to be rebuilt in the 19th century, together with the ravaged pavement, sculptures and the tombs of the French rulers buried in the cathedral. Only two planes of the original glasswork from the south window were left, the rest was recreated in the 1800s under the control of architects Francois Debret and Eugéne Viollet-le-Duc. The south window has been under reconstruction since 2006 because of the damage made by gradual distortions in the structure of the transept.
The youngest depiction of the Zodiac signs in the cathedral is a section of the tiled floor in the nave, leading to the altar. The floor level of the cathedral was changed quite a few times during the centuries, the current pavement was completed during the 19th century renovations when Violet-le-Duc rebuilt the floor of the nave and the transepts on the original 13th century level.
You can find additional pictures on our Pinterest board.
The Abbey Church of Saint-Denis: Birthplace of Gothic Art and Architecture in Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review
images of the west portal © Mary Ann Sullivan
everything else © Philippe Giron