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 Coptic Gnostic text, The Pistis Sophia.
By Dan Craig-Morse
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 the third century
Coptic Gnostic manuscript, the Pistis Sophia. This profound text describes 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 states 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. 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.
The Pistis Sophia was a book 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 of the classic Gnostic texts, most of which were
lost until the most prominent discovery at Nag Hammadi in 1945. 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
If the architects and masons who built the Royal Portal of the Chartres intended to include reference to this heretical Gnostic document, then the implications of a 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 just 60 years after Chartres was built when 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 left). That the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary could suggest that the builders intention was to make a symbolic statement in stone which 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 the Ella Rozett (4) 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 1000 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. So what follows is a basic overview of this research.
Chartres Cathedral on a
November overcast day, 2009.
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.
"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)
In one attempt to explain these images in the
University of Pittsburgh's extensive collection of images of Chartres,
these questions remain.
“The tympanum of the left door shows the
Ascension or the Second Coming.
Christ (crossed halo) stands on a cloud,
supported by two angels.
Below are four angels (descending from the clouds?).
Some of them have their mouths open (singing?)
On the lintel below are ten seated men
holding books or scrolls and looking upward (apostles?). (2)
Common interpretation of this image.
Ascension into Heaven flanked by two
- Angels singing
looking up in awe.
Yet, on closer inspection, this explanation may not be so clearly spelled out in
this sculpture. For example, why are 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 they're flights seems to imply a downward and somewhat chaotic movement. And the figures below, attributed to the
disciples are ten in number, not the traditional twelve.
Alternative Explanation: Christ Rocking the Archons.
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 catastrophe to follow.
From the Pistis Sophia by Meade, published in 1927. (3)
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.
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 it's increase in size is meant to illustrate distance as it gets closer and finally meets the Christ at his feet in it's 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."
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.
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
1. Christ is talking to his disciples on the Mount of
2. A tremendous light comes from behind the moon and
descends over Christ. He tells us 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, or the aspect of Christ's ministry that was not included in Roman orthodoxy but relegated to the back-channels of heretical gnosticism.
The text continues with Christ talking to his
disciples about what occurred as a result of his powerful ascent into,
according to a classic Gnostic cosmology, the lower heavens ruled by fallen
Jesus, the compassionate, said unto them: "Rejoice and exult from this
hour on, for I have gone to the regions out of which I had come forth. From
this day on then will I discourse with you in openness, from the beginning of
the Truth unto its completion; and I will discourse with you face to face
without similitude. From this hour on will I not hide anything from you of the
[mystery] of the height and of that of the region of Truth. For authority hath
been given me through the Ineffable and through the First Mystery of all
mysteries to speak with you, from the Beginning right up to the Fulness, both
from within without and from without within. Hearken, therefore, that I may
tell you all things. (p. 8-9)
came to pass, when the sun rose in the east, thereafter then through the First
Mystery, which existed from the beginning, on account of which the universe
hath arisen, out of which also I am myself now come, not in the time before my
crucifixion, but now,--it came to pass, through the command of that mystery,
that there should be sent me my Light-vesture, which it had given me from the
beginning, and which I had left behind in the last mystery, that is the
four-and-twentieth mystery from within without,--those which are in the orders
of the second space of the First Mystery. (p.9-10)
came to pass then, when Jesus had finished saying these words to his disciples,
that he continued again in the discourse, and said unto them: "Lo, I have
then put on my Vesture, and all authority hath been given me through the First
Mystery. Yet a little while and I will tell you the mystery of the universe and
the fulness of the universe; and I will hide nothing from you from this hour
on, but in fulness will I perfect you in all fulness and in all perfection and
in all mysteries, which are the perfection of all perfections and the fulness
of all fulnesses and the gnosis of all gnoses,--those which are in my Vesture.
I will tell you all mysteries from the exteriors of the exteriors to the
interiors of the interiors. But hearken that I may tell you all things which
have befallen me. (p. 15-16)
Here the Pistis Sophia (PS) narration describes Christ's ascent in a brilliant light and identifies this light as his "Light-vesture". This is a theme in Sethian Gnosticism as
well as in PS which identifies the higher light body as a "vesture," a garment of Light or coat of many colors, which, at one point in the PS, the disciples are urged to "Put it on!" This theme of a coat of light is also presented through metaphor as the Robe of Glory in the The Hymn of the Pearl from the Nag Hammadi library.
In Chartres' left west portal tympanum, Christ is donning a distinctly separate garment, worn over his existing robes which is visibly draped over his shoulders and behind him down his back.
The narration continues. "It
came to pass then, when I saw the mystery of all these words in the vesture
which was sent me, that straightway I clothed myself therewith, and I shone
most exceedingly and soared into the height.
I came before the [first] gate of the firmament, shining most
exceedingly, and there was no measure for the light which was about me, and the
gates of the firmament were shaken one over against another and all opened at
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)
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 non uniform in their flight. 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 is that "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.
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.
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 god's agenda where by reading the signs of the lower heavens, the Mezzaroth, 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 helf 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 theArcher 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 astronomy.
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 archivolt from left to right.
Cancer Leo Libra Sag Gemini Scorpio Virgo
Aries Taurus Aquarius Capricorn
The outer row is organized according this
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 were 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 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 there 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:
Christ ascends in brilliant light as symbolized by the stream-like image
2. Christ receives his vesture as symbolized by the additional robe that is draped
over his already fully clothed body.
3. Lower angels step back in awe and fear at the appearance of this foreign Being of Light.
4. The archon bonds are unloose and they fall in disarray and awe.
5. The angels sing praises not knowing what light was in their midst.
6. 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.
7. 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
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 a Robe of Glory, 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 Great Source of All That Is, the Ain Soph, El Elyon, the emanations from the Godhead. 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. Clearly, this mystery teaching is not about Christ, it is about us.
1. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chartres_Cathedral
3. Pistis Sophia, Meade, 1921
G. R. S. (George Robert Stow) Mead [1863-1933]
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.
4. 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.
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.
gnostic scriptures: Ancient wisdom for the new age. New York: Doubleday.