Rose Windows: Definition, Design & Symbolism

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever stood in a vast cathedral and looked up at a large circular stained glass window? Did you know it was called a rose window? In this lesson, we explore the background and symbolism of rose windows in Gothic architecture.

What Is a Rose Window?

If you've ever visited a cathedral, you might have noticed a dramatic circular stained glass window dominating one of the walls. This type of window is called a rose window or a wheel window. Both names refer to the fact that it's made of a series of smaller windows radiating out from the center like wheel spokes or flower petals. Rose windows are usually found in two locations in a church, at the west end of the nave--or the main body of the church--and at the ends of the transepts, the shorter sections of a church's floor plan that give it the shape of a shallow cross.

Example of a wheel-style rose window with twelve radiating spokes
rose window in a wheel pattern

The rose window developed out of the oculus, a small round window found in Ancient Roman architecture. But it was during the mid-twelfth century with the development of Gothic architecture in France that rose windows came into prominence. Later they spread to many places in Europe, notably Spain and England.

During the Gothic period, the emphasis in church architecture was on soaring height and a greater sense of light. Taller window-filled churches were made possible by advances in building techniques such as the development of tracery, supporting stonework in the form of bars or ribs between glass sections. Tracery allowed windows to become larger and more open. It could also be very decorative and elaborate.

Symbolism of Rose Windows

Every element of a Gothic cathedral had meaning. Even the effect of light pouring through the stained glass was not simply decorative but meant to convey and heighten a sense of the divine pouring in from above.

The same is true for rose windows. Their symbolism lies in geometry and the sense that many parts make a whole. When you study them, you begin to realize that rose windows are made of geometric shapes. They have a specific number of radiating forms, subdivisions of smaller forms, and sometimes more division in the numbers of arches or other forms. Every element has a degree of meaning. Whatever the style of window, all elements come together in a single cohesive design, the real and symbolic whole. Think about the importance of specific numbers represented in the bible. For example, sometimes windows have twelve sections or spokes, which might relate to the twelve apostles. In terms of a symbolic whole, think of the Trinity, or the concept of God the father, God the son, and God the holy spirit as three in one. The rose window was a way to make ideas such as these ones concrete.

Design of Rose Windows

As Gothic architecture developed, so did many different designs for rose windows. Shifting designs often reflected changes in tracery. One of the earliest types of rose windows was done with plate tracery, where simple shapes were enclosed in a round space. These windows featured thick stone tracery that was often more prominent in the design than the glass itself. As the name implies, they look like simple shapes have been punched out of a circular plate.

Example of a rose window done with plate tracery
plate tracery in a rose window

Many rose windows had patterns that resembled wheels. In these designs, the centermost window segment held an important figure like the Virgin Mary or Christ. The radiating spokes of the wheel then held lesser figures. Some windows had more elaborate outer edges than others, while other windows looked like they were interlaced with a series of smaller connected spokes forming a wheel within a wheel. Other rose windows incorporated trefoil arches, or three-lobed arches at the tip of each radiating spoke, into their design.

Example of a rose window with a design that resembles interlaced wheels
interlaced wheel

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