The rose window’s heavenly light

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The rose window in the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul is framed by the pipes of the Casavant organ.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

Many Catholic churches around the world are renowned for their stunning rose windows. The three rose windows at Chartres Cathedral in France, for example, invite annual pilgrimages and stand as the central stained-glass installations in the structure.

By design, rose windows are placed to catch the morning or evening arc of the sun, creating dynamic patterns of light on the parishioners below. Born from the French Gothic period, rose windows signify ethereal beauty and inspiration to Catholics, religious scholars and artists.

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When you’re in the nave of Lewiston’s Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul for morning Mass, the structure’s one rose window, which faces southeast, rises at your back and illuminates wandering circles and rectangles of colored light on the center aisle. The window illustrates four figures at each compass direction surrounded by intricately carved roses and quatrefoils.

The best places to view the rose window are from the high altar at the front of the basilica and from the Casavant organ in the back balcony. The Basilica’s window is darker than most, and its tracery — the stone framework surrounding the glass elements — is thick and prominent. In fact, from many places in the massive structure, the glass is difficult to see. From the nave, the small figures and accompanying symbolic details are nearly impossible to discern.

Christ or the Virgin and Christ are found in the central rosette of most rose windows signifying that there are many paths to reach the divine. Saints depicted in the petals of a rose window are seen as intermediaries to Christ, the dominating figure. The Basilica’s rose window does not place an image of Christ in the center, but instead a simple image of a red cross.

The construction of what is now called the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul was overseen by the Dominicans, who had been invited from Canada, and by church parishioners, most of whom were French Canadians or their descendants. Like the church, the design of the rose window reflects the values and principles of the people behind its construction. Unfortunately, any writing or correspondence detailing those rose window design decisions are lost in church archives, and identifying the figures depicted in the rose window is mostly guesswork.

The Rev. Robert D. Lariviere, now at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Auburn, was the pastor at the Basilica from 1999 to 2008. His work and experience offers the most informed guesses about the identities of the figures and other elements of the rose window.

“The church was built by a community of priests and brothers, some ordained, some not ordained,” he said. “There would’ve been a lot of Dominican themes. We can only guess. You would have to know Dominicans, their history and tradition, and the rule of life they follow.”

The first figure, in the northern position of the rose window, wears a decorative hat and holds a stylized staff, or crosier. These are clues to his identity. “How do you know it is a bishop? The miter and the staff,” Lariviere said. The figure’s miter, a tall headdress worn by bishops as a symbol of office, is a prominent feature in the design.

“It’s probably Saint Augustine because of the monastic cowl here,” he said, pointing at the figure’s hooded, wide-sleeved habit. “He’s the bishop, but he’s got the monastic cowl. The cowl is the religious habit, which is the sign of poverty. This was probably Augustine, but it’s only a guess.”

The rule of life followed by Dominicans has its origins in a fourth-century saint, St. Augustine, who lived at the very end of the period of antiquity. “How do you get people to live together in a community, to live the Gospel more deeply?” Lariviere asked.

According to religious scholars, the Rule of Augustine is the oldest monastic rule in the Western Church. “It’s all rooted in the Gospel. When we speak of the rules of life we’re not talking about rules in the sense of ‘you break the rule, you’re going to get in trouble.’ It’s a standard. What is the standard? The standard for us, of course, is the Gospel,” Lariviere said.

He pointed at the figure in the eastern position in the rose window, a haloed male also wearing a monastic cowl. “My guess is that it’s probably Dominic,” he said. It follows that the Dominicans who built the church would place Saint Dominic, the namesake of their order, in such a prominent position in their rose window.

St. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers initially to preach against a branch of the Catharistic movement called Albigensianism in Southern France and Italy. The most common symbols associated with this saint are lilies and stars. In the image in the Basilica window, there are two small stars on either side of the figure, providing possible clues to his identity.

The sole female figure in the rose window is believed to be Therese of Lisieux. “She’s holding the crucifix and she’s holding the roses,” Lariviere explained, describing the symbols central to her figure in Catholic iconography. “The crown of roses is associated with Saint Therese,” he said, noting that her Carmelite habit is another clue to her identity.

Therese of Lisieux was a Carmelite nun who died of tuberculosis at age 24. She is said to have lived “a life of piety, prayer and love of Jesus,” and was nicknamed “The Little Flower of Jesus.”

“She’s often shown holding a crucifix because she did a lot of meditation, meditated on the cross and the mystery of Christ, and her writings reflect that,” Lariviere said.

Unlike the other two figures, she is not necessarily associated with Dominicans. “She was probably significant to the French,” Lariviere explained. “So we have a combination of Dominican ancestry and French ancestry” represented in the window.

The last figure, in the western position, is more detailed than the others, holding a pen in his right hand, a book in his left and with a dove over his right shoulder. “He’s got a lot more decorations,” Lariviere said. This figure is also more mysterious and difficult to identify.

Some have speculated that he is St. John Chrysostom, who is considered the Eastern counterpart to St. Augustine. Chrysostom was a prolific writer who is often seen with the tools of his trade — a pen and inkhorn. He spoke out against abuses of wealth and power, penned the still-referenced “Against Those Who Oppose the Monastic Life” around 386 A.D. and espoused many of the same ideals and principles as the Order of Preachers.

But the figure is most likely St. Thomas Aquinas. “He was also a very important Dominican saint,” Lariviere said. A Dominican friar, Aquinas defended the church against heretical works and famously wrote “Summa Theologica.”

Aquinas is often depicted in stained glass as a monk writing in a book or scroll with a hovering dove. In the Basilica’s west panel, the figure wears a notched halo that distinguishes him from many other saints and bishops.

Over his breast is a sunburst with an eye in the center of it, a symbol specific to Aquinas. There are many theories for why it is used to represent him. Pope Pius XI explained it is because “he both brings the light of learning into the minds of men and fires their hearts and wills with the virtues.”

In addition to the four figures, the rose window at the basilica is decorated with roses, quatrefoils, crosses and spherical triangles. The four-sided clovers or quatrefoils are prominent elements in Gothic art, architecture and traditional Christian symbolism.

The design of the rose window is said to borrow from the mandala, a symbol that has existed in Eastern religion and philosophy since the 12th century. According to scholars, mandalas represent the expression of human aspiration toward wholeness, and the rose window operates on a similar spiritual level. When one stands beneath the giant window and watches the play of light through its colored glass, it can be an emotional experience.

Geometry defines the placement of a rose window’s features. The number 12 is significant in most windows, but the number 8 forms the theme in the rose window at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. Circles, squares, triangles, stars and, of course, the eight major divisions in the window all point to the finite and infinite, earth and heaven, matter and spirit.

The significance of the window’s details and geometry is more intellectual than emotional or spiritual. One does not need to recognize its symbols or understand the importance of its saintly figures to appreciate the beauty of the window and stand in awe of it, though such knowledge just adds to its impact. “It’s a magnificent structure,” said Lariviere.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

The Sun Journal is celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, which was completed in 1936-1937. For a year, we are taking a close look at the iconic structure, its history and even some of the people who built it. We will explore rooms behind the high altar, crawl along the catwalk, explore the cellars and rooftop carvings, and peek into drawers and cabinets in the sacristy. We’ll show you historical photos and compare them with current images of the basilica. We’ll also speak with basilica experts and comb through historical documents to uncover some of the 80-year-old church’s enduring myths and mysteries.

If you have any memories, recollections or photographs of the Basilica you’d like to share please contact writer Julie-Ann Baumer at jabaumer@gmail.com or at 207-353-2616.

The entire series is being archived at sunjournal.com/basilica.

The Basilica’s stained-glass rose window is seen from the front of the church.

The Basilica’s rose window faces southeast, illuminated by the morning sun.

The image at the top of the rose window is believed to be of St. Augustine, a fourth-century saint whose rule laid the foundation for the Dominican Order.

The figure depicted on the right side of the rose window is believed to be St. Dominic, a fitting image given the Dominicans oversaw the construction of the Basilica. Stars visible in the image are among the symbols commonly associated with St. Dominic.

The image at the bottom of the window is believed to be Saint Therese of Lisieux, holding a crucifix and roses. She was a Carmelite nun, not associated with the Dominicans, it is believed her presence in the window reflected her importance to the French culture and the many Franco-Americans attending the church.

The fourth image in the window, positioned on the left side, is likely St. Thomas Aquinas, a well-known Italian theologian and significant Dominican saint. He is often depicted in stained glass as a monk writing in a book or scroll with a hovering dove. 

At the center of many rose windows is an image of Jesus or Jesus and Mary. The Basilica’s window features a simple red cross.

Another view of the center of the Basilica’s rose window.

A closeup of one of the many stained-glass images in the Basilica’s rose window.

A close view of the rose window from the outside of the Basilica. A protective screen has been placed over the window.

A more distant exterior view of the basilica.

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