Stories in Light: The Seven Radiating Chapels

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame contains one of the largest collections of late nineteenth-century French stained glass outside of France. Stories in Light by Cecilia Davis Cunningham and Nancy Cavadini describes the windows according to their location in the building, from the narthex at the entrance to the Lady Chapel behind the altar. More than 100,000 visitors tour the basilica each year to admire its architecture. Today, the Notre Dame Press brings the Basilica to you.

In celebration of the Advent season, the Press brings you a seven-part series to tell the unique story of the stained-glass windows – the improbable creation of a glassworks by cloistered Carmelite nuns in LeMans, France.

A radiating chapel is a small, semi-circular chapel that projects out, or radiates, from the area behind the altar. Radiating chapels appeared in the Romanesque period and provided further, discreet space to accommodate an additional altar for the celebration of Mass. Twelfthcentury structural innovations marking the emergence of the Gothic period allowed for thinner and taller walls and resulted in the great development and multiplication of stained glass. Radiating chapels are commonly found in French Gothic churches. Although constant financial shortfalls marked the construction of the church at Notre Dame, it boasts seven radiating chapels, an unusual attraction in America that elevated the status of Notre Dame’s church. Notre Dame’s Thomas Stritch noted that even as late as the 1930s the radiating chapels were “the first such many of us [students] had ever seen.” (Chapter 6)

Church fresco cycles of the life of the Virgin, found as early as the ninth century in Eastern Europe, presented various narratives of Mary’s life. Of the six scenes in this chapel, the first four are selections from traditional narratives and come from apocryphal literature. The final two scenes extend the Virgin’s narrative to include the modern proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The tympana honor Mary as Sancta Virgo Virginum, “Holy Virgin of Virgins,” and Regina Virginum, “Queen of Virgins.” In 1880, on the Feast of the Purity of the Blessed Virgin, Fr. Sorin wrote to the members of the Congregation of Holy Cross: “May the glorious Queen we all love with our whole soul, and whose purity permeates our hearts today with such a veneration, purify more and more our mutual feelings, and thus make us more worthy of each other, and, above all, more worthy of our Divine Brother’s Virgin Mother!” (Chapter 6)

In the plans for the chapels, Fr. Sorin did not identify this chapel as the Stations of the Cross chapel, as it has come to be known, but as la santé croce, the chapel of the Holy Cross. Fr. Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, instilled a love for the cross of Christ in members of the Congregation. This love of the cross, characteristic of nineteenth-century spirituality and especially of the Congregation, sprang from devotion to the Eucharist and the Sacred Heart, as well as the frequent practice of the Stations of the Cross. (Chapter 6)