The Wheel of Fortune at Beauvais



The cathedral of Beauvais (northwest of Paris) is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture but the older church of St Etienne is of even more interest for a particular reason. The north rose is known as the “Wheel of Fortune” window because it is thought to represent the medieval notion of human life (also seen on tarot card number 10). Four hapless figures climb in fortune on the right rim of the wheel, which turns in an anticlockwise direction, and four prone figures descend on the left. They are separated by “Dame Fortune”, at the top.

Three other figures make up a total of twelve. One (difficult to make out) lies at the bottom as if asleep or uninvolved in the cycle and another stands at the point where the wheel starts to ascend, although he isn’t in motion. These two are ambiguous but at least they are aligned with the direction of travel. Another standing figure, on the left, defies the logic of the composition with his head pointing against the flow.

The message of the Wheel of Fortune may seem to be “it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, if you are on the way up now you’ll be going down before long” but in the middle ages this fatalistic myth was not seen as discouraging. The window is set into the north wall for a reason: this is the cold side of the church that hasn’t yet received the light.

Material life may be a treadmill but the life of the spirit is a linear progression driven by hope. The unfortunates depicted on the Wheel are on its circumference: they have invested in the outer world not the luminous inner world and are far from reaching the still point at its centre.

Extract from Mystical France by Nick Inman – Travel guides to France & Spain

Published by Findhorn Press/Inner Traditions

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