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Augustine's Theory of Signification Applied to the Saint-Chapelle of Paris

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In his work “On Christian Doctrine”, Augustine lays forth before us his general classification of every existing thing with regard to the message any of them conveys to human mind through senses.  By the word “thing” the author means not only the opposite to ”nothing” but also a particular, mostly tangible object that is not used as a symbol of any other thing or idea (e.g., a stone, a tree). The same object may be employed to represent something different from what it originally is − then it becomes a “sign” (e.g., the stone may stand for a stubborn person). Moreover, there are signs that have no other usage than causing some association to come to the mind of a perceiver; these include words, inscriptions, and so on.

The author also divides signs into natural ones that, like smoke or footprints, provide certain knowledge apart from any desire or intention of the user, and conventional ones − deliberately exchanged by living beings to impart information, feelings and perceptions. The latter category comprises gestures, visible banners, music, and many others, but Augustine defines words as the major means of indicating thoughts of the mind. He emphasizes that words are so effective in conveying information to ears that they were also given their own special signs to address eyes – combinations of letters.

 A word may indicate the object for which it was originally created (e.g., the name of an animal), or its meaning may also cover the things this objec commonly symbolizes. Accordingly, in these two cases the sign will be referred to as proper or figurative.

Taking the Bible as an example, Augustine demonstrates that a certain message may be shared either in plain and easy language or figuratively, through metaphors and symbols. The latter way requires certain efforts from the reader, which only increases his pleasure in savoring the text.

I would like to apply Augustine’s theory to one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in Europe and, perhaps, in the world – the Sainte-Chapelle of Paris (Gilbert,1988, p. 50). It was built between 1242 and 1248 by Pierre de Montreuil at the commission of Louis IX, who intended to display the relics of Christ’s Passion there.

Using Augustine’s terminology, one can view the Sainte-Chapelle as a place of worship (that is a “thing”) or a figurative sign of both the world predominance of Christianity and divine origin of French monarchy. With its impressive vertical proportions, huge buttresses pointing upwards and remarkable fleche touching the skies, the chapel seems to draw the viewer closer to heaven. Not only does the outer façade convey divinity and splendor, but also every detail of the interior, from richly decorated floors to beautiful statues, has its special symbolic meaning and, therefore, can be regarded as a sign.

Magnificent stained-glass windows of the chapel are worth special attention. Every window, along with distributing gentle light around the chapel, serves as canvas for vivid stained-glass paintings and tells us the history of humanity from Creation to Redemption. We can apply Augustine’s theory to every panel and see that it is not merely a piece of delicate artwork but a combination of conventional figurative signs. For example: the angel of apocalypse and the trumpet in his hands (both mentioned in the Book of Revelation of the Bible) symbolize resurrection of the dead, a dove stands for  the Holy Spirit, and so on.

Similarly, the vaulting of the nave not only serves as a ceiling but also symbolizes heavenly realms through its spherical shape and smooth lines meeting at the upper point. This is an example of a figurative sign that requires no special knowledge or understanding – the vault resembles the skies so much that the message of heaven being right at hand reaches the mind of every visitor, not necessarily familiar with Christian doctrine.

Christ’s relics, if taken as authentic, would be regarded as natural signs of Christ’s life and death on the cross. Many Christians believe that they are not works of art designed to symbolize something, but rather the traces that Jesus left on Earth.

Indeed, the Sainte-Chapelle of Paris is an outstanding example of Gothic art. Moreover, the pieces of architecture and painting we find there impart such a powerful and clear message that it becomes obvious why Augustine in his book called signs of this type “visual words”.

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