In chronicling a global quest that challenged fiercely held beliefs and opened his heart in To the Last Breath, author Francis Slakey, Upjohn Lecturer on Physics and Public Policy at Georgetown University, discovered that “the universe is clothed in formulas, but it speaks in stories. And we need to be attentive, mindful of the words.”
We may think the venerable Australian, Steve Denning, and the Millennial Generation invented storytelling in this age of internal branding. In truth, you only have to make your way to the rolling plains of France that envelope the majestic Chartres Cathedral to experience storytelling in the 13th Century.
And the story of the trades windows is worth telling.
Inside Chartres, a UNESCO World Heritage site (and arguably the country’s most beautiful gothic cathedral), pilgrims and visitors today are still in awe of its sculptures, the graceful proportions of its soaring nave and the quality of its stained-glass windows. Of its 170 windows, there are no fewer than 42 “windows of the trades,” according to author Philip Ball in his biography of Chartres, Universe of Stone. These windows contain 125 images of at least 25 different tradespeople – bakers, winemakers, wheelwrights, fishmongers and money changers, among others – and it has been argued by some historians that the windows were given by the workers to honor and celebrate their trade, their community, their cloister and their faith.
Others see the images portrayed in the trades windows through a different – and darker – lens.
Some believe the glorious glazings like the “Assumption” and “Miracles of Mary” windows were donated not out of a cooperative spirit or community pride but under protest to the high taxes assigned by the clerics of Chartres – a constant source of discord for the tradespeople at the core of the community.
Art historian Jane Welch Williams, in Bread, Wine & Money: The Windows of the Trades at Chartres Cathedral, has written that the Chartres trades windows actually portray a highly regimented life, with “each worker submissively and eternally” repeating his tasks with bowed back and exaggerated, anguished movements that communicate “endurance in one’s labor in life” and the acceptance of the impossibility of change. That meant long, grueling days, no hope for altering your social station or life conditions, and ever-growing taxes and assessments that would drain very meager earnings.
Moreover, it’s not lost on social historians that the tradespeople depicted are only shown in work scenes in the lowest windows while upper classes and clergy are pictured above them praying – except for the knights, counts and kings of fighting age appearing in armor on horseback. Even in medieval society, class distinctions were clear.
At Chartres the trade windows are placed low down in the side aisles – “potentially the best advertising spots where they would be clearly visible to the milling crowds,” Ball writes. He says the windows of Chartres served “a very practical purpose as storytelling devices for moral instruction.” Seeing images of the trades, one can only imagine the stories that were woven from the stylized images of men at work as the parishioners and pilgrims congregated together.
Stories are an intrinsic part of our societies and culture. The more we observe about the past, the more we learn about ourselves. As Slakey said, we need to be mindful of the words that spring out of stories like those told by the trades windows of a great cathedral. Then, as now, stories are often used to explain important but often confusing events, life experiences, how we treat others and what we believe and practice as opposed to what we say.
As Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, once remarked to his executive leadership team during a period of intense challenge, stories are "what people say about us when we’re not in the same room with them.” Stories that executives and their people share can be an important barometer on the health and effectiveness of an organization and a touchstone to the corporate values and culture. They can bind us together or predict a decline in trust, organizational health and employee engagement.
We can never let it be through a glass lens darkly.