Chartres and the Pistis Sophia
On the thesis that images on the Left West Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral are direct references to scenes described in the ancient Gnostic text, The Pistis Sophia.
By Dan Craig-Morse © 2010
This article presents an overview of the theory that sculptural images on Chartres West Front Royal Portal left lintel tympanum and archivolt are depictions of Christ’s astounding ascension and descent as described in an obscure, third-century Gnostic manuscript, called the Pistis Sophia. In Book I of this lengthy text, there is a description of Christ’s two-day ascension to the higher realms where he tells his disciples of his process of throwing the lower angelic, archonic realms into a state of confusion and dis-empowerment. As the Pistis Sophia text was/is considered heretical by the orthodox church, the implications of such a correlation add further intrigue to the mystery of Chartres Cathedral.
I visited Chartres on the weekend of November 28-29, 2009, during which time the photos for this article were taken on an early model digital camera I had at the time. Having been familiar with the Pistis Sophia text and upon reviewing the photos in the days following my expedition, the possibility that a highly controversial, esoteric Christian text was referenced on the walls of Chartres began to emerge.
Notre Dame Sous Terre “Our Lady from Under the Earth” Replica of a wooden statue found in the ancient Druid well upon which Chartres was later built. According to accounts, the statue had an inscription: Virgini Pariturae “dedicated to the woman who would bear a child.”
The Pistis Sophia was a collection of books purportedly written as an account of Christ’s esoteric teachings to his disciples. Scholars have placed this manuscript dating from the late second and third centuries A.D but which was lost or hidden for centuries until its discovery in 1773 in Egypt in the Coptic Askew Codex and later published in 1905 by Carl Schmidt. This text was most certainly considered heretical by the rising Roman orthodox church as it included numerous elements and themes found in the Gnostic tradition, particularly the earlier schools associated with the Sethian tradition as exemplified by the Secret Gospel of John. Among the non-orthodox elements of the Pistis Sophia, there were references to Christ’s teaching after his crucifixion, that Mary Magdalene was considered one of his closest disciples, elaborate references to a fallen angelic hierarchy, and the story of Christ’s visit to this earth specifically to rescue the fallen feminine figure called Sophia.
It is helpful to note that the Pistis Sophia, according to the esteemed Gnostic scholar G.R.S. Meade, was not designed to be shared as a public text but rather was likely part of an inner teaching for those who participated in a tradition that gave context to this material. Perhaps this is why this text has been even less recognized than the works found in the Nag Hammadi Library.
He writes, “It is evident, however, that the P.S. was never intended to be circulated as a public gospel. Certain things are to be preached or proclaimed to the world, but only certain things. Certain mysteries, again, the recipients were to bestow under certain conditions, but others were to be reserved. The ‘Books of the Saviour’ are, therefore, to be regarded as Apocrypha in the original sense of the word-that is, ‘withdrawn’ or ‘reserved’ writings.”
If the architects and masons who built the Royal Portal of the Chartres intended to include references to this heretical Gnostic document, then the implications of such a radical departure from orthodox Christianity is quite significant as this was one of the great Catholic Cathedrals of its day, a jewel in the crown of the Roman Church. Catholicism had little patience for thinking outside of the orthodox box, as was made clear even while Chartres was under construction, as the Church conducted its most brutal suppression of the gnostic-oriented Cathars in the Albigensian Crusade of Southern France.
Chartres has historically been a site devoted to the worship of the Virgin Mary where the enticing relic called “the Veil of the Virgin” was given to the Church during the reign of Charlemagne and Chartres has been an important destination for many a pilgrim, even to this day. Chartres features a 16th century Black Madonna and the famous stained glass including the only remaining glass from before the 1194 fire, recently cleaned, that features the image of Madonna and child (see above). That the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary could suggest that the designer’s intention was to make a symbolic statement in stone that recognized a greater archetypal story of the “Mother of God.” Chartres, like Notre Dame in Paris, is clearly dedicated to the divine Christian feminine figure, or at least, to an archetypal divine feminine image. Chartres has many mysteries connected with the ancient Druids including the pre-Christian wooden statue of a Madonna and child (see above), found at the grotto on the site where Chartres Cathedral, with an inscription “Virgini Pariturae”, (dedicated) to the woman who would bear a child” (which according to Ella Rozett (2) are words referring to several ancient Christian legends recorded between 1201 and the 1600s). This wooden statue was lost to antiquity but a replica of it is found today in the lower crypt at Chartres as shown above. The ancient well and the labyrinth (below), not to mention the extensive research conducted on the sacred geometry of Chartres, all shroud this 900-year-old relic in mystery and intrigue. The following presentation, I hope, can further contribute to an on-going excavation of the enormously creative architectural surge of 12th-century French Gothic cathedrals.
This article is not intended to present a thorough overview of the obscure gnostic text, Pistis Sophia, nor is it seeking to provide more historical investigation into who the builders of Chartres were and what they were trying to express in this unprecedented architectural statement at this time in history. Many books have been written about this already. In my own review of the research on Chartres, I have not found specific references to the link between Chartres and the Pistis Sophia. What follows is a basic overview of this research.
Royal Portals in the West Front Entrance
Left Main Right
Ascension of Christ Last Judgment Madonna and Child
Close up of the Left Portal, Tympanum and Archivolt
The front entrance, known as the Royal Portal, was built between 1136 and 1150 AD (1) and is part of the oldest above-ground remnant of the church that survived the devastating fire in 1194 that destroyed much of the building. These portals would therefore represent some of the original theological expressions of the designers of the cathedral.
Most explanations that I have found explain the scene pictured above as “The Ascension of Christ”. This view is quite logical given that it is clearly depicting Christ rising up, flanked by angels, with other angels announcing his arrival and his disciples looking up in wonder.
A common interpretation of this image.
Top Row – Christ’s Ascension or Second Coming, flanked by two angels.
Middle Row – Angels singing in celebration.
Bottom Row – Disciples looking up in awe.
Here is a common interpretation as found in Wikipedia’s review of Chartres Cathedral.
“The left portal is more enigmatic and art historians still argue over the correct identification. The tympanum shows Christ standing on a cloud, apparently supported by two angels. Some see this as a depiction of the Ascension of Christ (in which case the figures on the lower lintel would represent the disciples witnessing the event) while others see it as representing the Parousia, or Second Coming of Christ (in which case the lintel figures could be either the prophets who foresaw that event or else the ‘Men of Galilee’ mentioned in Acts 1:9-11). The presence of angels in the upper lintel, descending from a cloud and apparently shouting to those below, would seem to support the latter interpretation. The archivolts contain the signs of the zodiac and the labours of the months – standard references to the cyclical nature of time which appear in many gothic portals.” (1)
Scholars have struggled to explain this image and these are two explanations that try to wrangle it into either a scene of the ascension or the second coming. There are questions that pose a challenge of why the two angels flanking Christ standing back as if rearing from his presence. This is contrasted by an image from Notre Dame in Paris where the angels are positioned with great reverence.
Also, the four angels below Christ with mouths opened, do not necessarily look like they are expressing joyful praise and their flights seem to imply a downward and somewhat chaotic movement. And the figures below, attributed to the disciples are ten in number, not the traditional twelve. What is going on in this scene?
The Pistis Sophia is an ancient Coptic codex, translated from original Greek, that includes lengthy expositions on Christ’s post-crucifixion teaching to his disciples. Early in the first book, there is an astonishing description of Christ making an ascent into the sky in a brilliant cloud of light. The disciples are extremely afraid, not knowing if he is to return or if there might be a catastrophe to follow.
From the Pistis Sophia by Meade, published in 1927. (3)
It came to pass then, when the disciples were sitting together on the Mount of Olives, speaking of these words and rejoicing in great joy, and exulting exceedingly and saying one to another: ‘Blessed are we before all men who are on the earth, because the Saviour hath revealed this unto us, and we have received the Fulness and the total completion,’–they said this to one another, while Jesus sat a little removed from them.
…there came forth behind him a great light-power shining most exceedingly, and there was no measure to the light conjoined with it. For it came out of the Light of lights, and it came out of the last mystery, which is the four-and-twentieth mystery, from within without,–those which are in the orders of the second space of the First Mystery. And that light-power came down over Jesus and surrounded him entirely, while he was seated removed from his disciples, and he had shone most exceedingly, and there was no measure for the light which was on him. (p. 4-5)
In this image, we see a stream, almost like water which may be depicting “the great light power” that descended from the realm of the High God, which is described in the text as being associated with the second space of the First Mystery or “the Father in the form of a dove.” The light stream could be interpreted as coming from afar and its increase in size is meant to illustrate distance as it gets closer and finally meets the Christ at his feet in its full light power.
The story continues.
It came to pass then, when that light-power had come down over Jesus, that it gradually surrounded him entirely. Then Jesus ascended or soared into the height, shining most exceedingly in an immeasurable light. And the disciples gazed after him and none of them spake, until he had reached unto heaven; but they all kept in deep silence. (p.6)
The light stream is below him in this picture. He is described as being surrounded by light, but also then “Jesus ascended or soared into the height, shining most exceedingly in an immeasurable light.” The emphasis on this light stream being below him, might have been the designers manner of depicting Christ ascending “in an immeasurable light.”
It came to pass then, when Jesus had reached the heaven, after three hours, that all the powers of the heaven fell into agitation, and all were set in motion one against the other, they and all their aeons and all their regions and all their orders, and the whole earth was agitated and all they who dwell thereon. (p. 6)
Gnostic cosmology makes clear and consistent reference to a realm of “gods” who are distinctly not The High God, nor are they in the higher angelic realms. Rather they are “lower” gods, called archons, who are responsible for Sophia’s capture and persecution in the lower heavens, as described extensively in this text as well as in many of the codices found at Nag Hammadi in 1945. As Sophia struggles in a state of lost light and oppression, she sings songs of redemption that correspond to David’s Psalms with calls for rescue by her savior, the Light of Lights. Though these archons were lower gods, they were also angelic, in that they were depicted as non-physical and that they held their positions in the lower heavens, as the higher angels held their positions in the higher realms of the Pleroma. Part of the story of Sophia’s fall is that she left her place in the higher Pleroma, seeking to join the Unknown, Ineffable Godhead, but instead, she was stopped by the Limit and fell, in pursuit of the false light of the Demiurge, Adamas, the Serpentine Lionine power.
In this image above, the two angels that flank him are reared back, in a manner that may correspond to how this extremely high being, the Christ, burst into the lower angelic hierarchy, to where they were, in a sense, taken aback, in awe, in confusion and in wonder, as described in the text.
The narrative continues.
But the disciples sat together in fear and were in exceedingly great agitation and were afraid because of the great earthquake which took place, and they wept together, saying: “What will then be? Peradventure [perhaps] the Saviour will destroy all regions?” Thus saying, they wept together. While they then said this and wept together, then, on the ninth hour of the morrow, the heavens opened, and they saw Jesus descend, shining most exceedingly, and there was no measure for his light in which he was. For he shone more [radiantly] than at the hour when he had ascended to the heavens, so that men in the world cannot describe the light which was on him; and it shot forth light-rays in great abundance, and there was no measure for its rays, and its light was not alike together, but it was of divers kind and of divers type, some [rays] being more excellent than others . . .; and the whole light consisted together. (p. 7)
And it came to pass then, when the disciples saw this, that they feared exceedingly, and were in agitation. Then Jesus, the compassionate and tender-hearted, when he saw his disciples, that they were in great agitation, spake with them, saying: “Take courage. It is I, be not afraid. (p.8)
Overview of this first section of Book One of Pistis Sophia.
1. Christ is talking to his disciples on the Mount of Olives.
2. A tremendous light comes from behind the moon and descends over Christ. He says that this light was sent by the Second Space of the First Mystery.
3. Christ ascends in a brilliant light.
4. The disciples are shocked and fearful, especially when there was a great shaking of the earth. Christ then descends back to the Mt. of Olives, radiating a light of even greater intensity than during his ascent.
This ascent and descent is unique in the Pistis Sophia, with no corresponding story in the Bible, and is contrary to Biblical versions of his last act on earth, his final post-resurrection ascent. Indeed, the description of this ascension experience, according to the text, corresponds to what constitutes the so-called “mystery teachings” of Christ and an aspect of Christ’s ministry that was not included in Roman Christian orthodoxy.
Angels in fear, agitation, and singing praises.
“And all rulers and all authorities and all angels therein were thrown all together into agitation because of the great light which was on me. And they gazed at the radiant vesture of light with which I was clad, and they saw the mystery which contains their names, and they feared most exceedingly.” (p.20-21)
“And all their bonds with which they were bound, were unloosed and every one left his order, and they all fell down before me, adored and said: ‘How hath the lord of the universe passed through us without our knowing?’ And they all sang praises together to the interiors of the interiors; but me they saw not, but they saw only the light. And they were in great fear and were exceedingly agitated and sang praises to the interiors of the interiors…“ (p. 21)
“And all their bonds were unloosed and their regions and their orders; and every one left his order, and they fell down all together, adored before me, or before my vesture, and all sang praises to get interiors, being in great fear and great agitation.” (p. 22.)
This aspect of the fresco is certainly most disorienting to the casual viewer, or to the classic explanation that the angels are singing praises for Christ’s glory. But clearly, these angels are positioned in a downward movement and appear chaotic and nonuniform in their flight. They are falling down below from the wave lines that indicate the higher heavenly realms. Their mouths are open in verbal expression but it is hard to say that they are singing praises with great joy. The text presents perhaps the best explanation of their unique position as “they were in great fear and were exceedingly agitated and sang praises to the interiors of the interiors…” These angels are described in both PS and other gnostic texts as “archons” or fallen gods who have fallen out of graces with the Godhead and have qualities which, within the Jungian model, correspond more to the egoic function rather than that of the great Self.
The Horoscope-casters and Consulters.
The Pistis Sophia continues.
“And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished saying these words, that Mary continued again and said: ‘My Lord, will not then the horoscope-casters and consulters from now on declare unto men what will come to pass for them?”
And Jesus answered and said unto Mary: “If the horoscope-casters find the Fate and the sphere turned towards the left, according to their first extension, their words will come to pass, and they will say what is to take place. But if they chance on the Fate or the sphere turned to the right, they are bound to say nothing true, for I have changed their influences and their squares and their triangles and their octagons; seeing that their influences from the beginning onwards were continuously turned to the left and their squares and their triangles and their octagons. But now I have made them spend six months turned to the left and six months turned to the right.” (p. 30)
Here you have these ten figures, all looking upwards, some looking to their left and some looking to their right. They have scrolls or books, upon which, it might be deduced, their astrological charts and calculations are made. That there are ten figures makes it difficult to identify them as the twelve disciples.
“…I have made them spend six months forming all their configurations turned to the right, in order that they may be confounded in confusion in their whole range. And moreover I have made them spend six months turned to the left and accomplishing the works of their influences and all their configurations, in order that the rulers who are in the aeons and in their spheres and in their heavens and in all their regions, may be confounded in confusion and deluded in delusion, so that they may not understand their own paths.” (p.31 -32)
According to the Pistis Sophia, Christ came down from the First Mystery, (which has a trinitarian quality), where he comes to rescue the fallen Sophia who has become entrapped by the Demiurge. Indeed, this is the great plan of redemption for humanity as well, for we too have fallen victim to the control systems of these gods who themselves have fallen out of alignment with the Creator, or so the PS implies. This first book of PS recalls a dramatic story of how in the process of Christ’s rescue of Sophia, he reduces the power of the archons by one-third and throws their systems of organization and control into chaos. This text suggests that the “soothsayers and horoscope casters” are, in a sense, agents of the lower gods’ agenda were by reading the signs of the lower heavens, the Mazzaroth, they are serving a lower wisdom and guiding the people into continued limitation. The theological implication of this text is that Christ is, in a sense, buying us time by lessening the influence of the lower control forces so that we can gather our focus, our intention, and our prayers towards the will of the Light of Lights where our true heritage and identity can be renewed.
Here on the front entrance to a prominent 12th century Catholic Church, we see many images that correspond to this powerful, radical cosmology. Christ’s vesture worn over his existing robes, a stream of light coming from above, lifting Christ up into the heavens. Angels rearing back and also thrown into confusion, being both in awe of a light that is beyond their own understanding but also in great fear as their world is thrown into chaos. And finally, the ten horoscope-casters and consultants, not the typical twelve disciples, are looking either to one side or to the other, into the heavens that have been scrambled, so to speak, to confuse their divinations and powers of influence. To top all this off, so to speak, let us look at the heavens themselves, as are depicted in the archway over the ascension scene.
Christ Changes the Fate and the Spheres.
On the archivolt, the 12 signs of the zodiac are portrayed, along with their associated Labors. By discerning these signs as they are laid out in the archivolt, we see that they are not laid out in according to the classic order of Aries, Taurus, Gemini, etc. but are in a non-uniform, scrambled order. This may correspond to the story of how Christ threw the lower heavens into a new order that brought confusion to the horoscope-casters.
A common view of this astrological array is described by Masse, in his 1900 text. (1)
“In the vaulting are the months, and ten of the signs of the zodiac; and beginning at the bottom there are, on the right January, represented by Jonus bilfrons with Capricornus; the February, represented by an old man warming himself, an Aquarius. For March, there is Mars, and a vine-dresser, and the Fishes. On the other side of the doorway April and the Ram; then May, represented by a mounted huntsman with falcon, and the Bull. June is represented by a haymaker and the Twins. Returning to the point of starting – i.e. next to January, but in the next and outer row – the first is July, a reaper and the Crab; the next is August, with a man binding a sheaf of corn and the Lion. September is represented by wine-making and the sign of Virgo. On the other side of the door October, the time for gathering fruit, and the Scales, or rather the remains of the female figure that once held them. November and December are represented by a man killing a pig and eating portions of it, the two signs being the Scorpion for November, and the Archer for December.”(Masse, Pg. 38-39).
Here are some examples of some of the astrological signs on the archivolt.
Leo the Lion and Taurus the Bull
Cancer the Crab and Aries the Ram
If we look at how these signs are spread across the arch, or the celestial spread, we find that they do not follow the classic order of the zodiac. Following is the order of the astrological signs according to classical astrology.
Astrological signs in according to their numerical order.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sag, Cap, Aquarius, Pisces
But if we look at the way the signs are laid out on the archivolt their order is non-traditional.
Astrological signs order on outer and inner rows of archivolt from left to right.
Cancer Leo Libra Sag Gemini Scorpio Virgo
Aries Taurus Aquarius Capricorn Pisces
The outer row is organized according to this numerical order:
4, 5, 7, 9, 3, 8, 6.
The inner row has this numerical order.
1, 2, 11, 10, 12.
This order is mixed up with no obvious correlation to how we typically view the twelve constellations as they appear.
Here is Christ’s depiction in PS of how the ordering of the heavens was thrown into disarray on account of the lower god’s fear.
“It came to pass then, when all those who are in the twelve aeons saw the great light which was about me, that they were all thrown into agitation one over against the other, and ran hither and thither in the aeons. And all aeons and all heavens and their whole ordering were agitated one over against the other on account of the great fear which was on them, for they knew not the mystery which had taken place.
In the text, Christ ascends to the lower god regions and causes there to be a profound shake-up of the orientation and hence the power of the lower gods in these regions. As well, the soothsayers and horoscope casters are limited in their ability to attain higher wisdom, beyond the messeroth (lower heavens under the control of the lower gods), as their divinations are caught in the entrapments of lower god consciousness.
Overview and Conclusion
In this article, I have attempted to link the sculptural images on this prominent Western facade at Chartres as it relates to the Pistis Sophia. The particular images reviewed above that appear to be a direct reference to scenes from Book 1 of the Pistis Sophia are listed and interpreted as follows:
1. Christ ascends in brilliant light as symbolized by the stream-like image beneath him.
2. Lower angels step back in awe and fear at the appearance of this foreign Being of Light.
3. The archon bonds are unloosed and they fall in disarray and awe.
4. The angels (lower gods) sing praises not knowing what light was in their midst.
5. Through Christ’s intervention, the horoscope caster’s look towards the left and then to the right in a manner that confuses their orientation and undermines their power of divination. This weakens their influence to allow for humanity’s more direct connection with Higher Divinity.
6. The zodiac signs of the archivolt are out of order. There is a disruption in the ordering within the lower heavens to help humanity see beyond this tainted and confused local cosmos that fogs our more direct connection with the higher Pleroma or realm of the Godhead, the Elohim, and the greater Beings of Light.
As noted in Pistis Sophia,
“The power then which was in the prophet Isaiah, prophesied before thou didst come, that thou wouldst take away the power of the rulers of the aeons and wouldst change their sphere and their Fate, in order that they might know nothing from now on.” (p.22)
My hope is that this interpretation of Christ’s ascension imagery on the Western Portal at Chartres as described in the Pistis Sophia does not simply become relegated to the dusty back hallways of esoteric research. Rather, my intention is to offer this as further material in a living Wisdom tradition that can help spark the spiritual seeker’s imagination. Here on a decaying wall in northern France are depictions of an ascension on a stream of light and an aggressive shattering of old paradigms to make way for a clearer and more direct connection with the divine. As one digs deeper into the fertile soil of Christian mysticism, great gems can be found that point to our latent potential as physical beings, who have been diverted from the direct realization of our divine essential nature.
2.http://www.interfaithmarianpilgrimages.com/pages/Chartres.htm. Ella Rozett has done research on The Black Madonnas in Europe and I am grateful for her help in connecting me with this Divine Feminine tradition in Cologne in the fall of 2009.
3. Pistis Sophia, G. R. S. Mead 1921.
G. R. S. (George Robert Stow) Mead. Pistis sophia. (1921). Scanned, proofed, and formatted at sacred-texts.com, June 2005, by John Bruno Hare. This text is in the public domain in the United States because it was published prior to 1923.
Hurtak, J.J., & Hurtak, D., (1999) The pistis sophia: A coptic gnostic text with commentary. Los Gatos, CA: The Academy for Future Science.
Layton, B. (1987). The gnostic scriptures: Ancient wisdom for the new age. New York: Doubleday.