Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A rose is a rose is a rose

At left above is a computer-generated, artificially-colored cross-sectional view of a strand of DNA. On the right is the rose window at Chartres Cathedral. The likeness is coincidental, but there is a sub-story that links the two images in a meaningful way.

The Gothic builders sought to reflect in the visible structures of their cathedrals the unseen world of spirit. When we enter a Gothic cathedral, we sense that every visible component has a job to do; the architects achieved a unity of form and function that has seldom, if ever, been surpassed. Something similar is afoot in the computer images of DNA. Here too we have visible expression to invisible realities. Here too is an almost mystical vision of a hidden harmony established throughout the cosmos -- the unsuppressible capacity of substance to generate self.

Gothic style was constrained by medieval materials -- stone and mortar, which bear compressional loads only -- and (as Otto von Simson has taught us) by the twin theological objectives of height and light. Although alike in style, each cathedral is unique. Within the spiraling helix of the DNA we have something of the same capacity for variation within unity.

Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, one of the greatest of the Gothic builders, hoped that his cathedral would reveal the divine harmony that reconciles all discord, and inspire in the faithful a desire to establish that same harmony within the moral order. Perhaps the electronic images of the molecules of life might achieve the same effect. They give expression to invisible harmonies of form and function, complexity and simplicity, sameness and variation that bind all life together in a common chemistry -- yet allow the uniqueness of every self.