A stained-glass apology and other reconciliations

Join the discussion
Are expressions of remorse by public figures steps toward healing, or are they acts of cathartic self-indulgence?

Anatomy of an Apology
Reflections on the 1997 presidential apology for the syphilis study at Tuskegee

An image of the stained-glass window at the cathedral of Soissons.

The full text of Lucas Carpenter's "Apology for an Apology"

The full text of the interview with Frans de Waal

The full text of Elizabeth Pastan's "King Philip Augustus's Stained-glass Apology at Soissons"

Academic Exchange September 1999 Contents Page

How does a medieval French king apologize to bride and country? The answer may lie in a twenty-two-foot-high stained-glass window in the Gothic cathedral of Soissons in northeastern France. According to Associate Professor of Art History Elizabeth Pastan, the window's creation suggests that a complex combination of sacred and political meaning imbues an act of atonement with symbolic power. The Academic Exchange asked Pastan and several other scholars to offer their viewpoints on the nature and meaning of "apology."

Pastan's story begins with King Philip Augustus of France, whose initial repudiation of his third wife, Ingebourg of Denmark, was blamed for the famines, fires, and floods then raging across the land. Pope Innocent III told the bishop of France that the natural disasters were God's punishment for the king's actions. He put the churches of France under interdict to force Philip to reunite with his bride. Finally, a council in Soissons officially reinstated the queen in 1201, around the time Philip gave a stained-glass window depicting the Tree of Jesse, a genealogical map of Jesus' lineage based on Isaiah 1:11, to Soissons Cathedral.

Pastan says art historians have recently interpreted the window as a stained-glass apology from the king. The prominent position of the Tree of Jesse window between depictions of the Last Judgment and the Fall from Eden suggests that it was an expiatory gift. "The window functions on several levels--as biblical subject, as a
royal allusion, and, as art historian Madeline Caviness argues, a political commentary," Pastan says. "The power of its statement would in fact be enhanced by the indirectness or allusive nature of its message."

Professor of Psychology Frans de Waal, who studies peacemaking in non-human primates, would perhaps point to the king's implied submissiveness as significant in his gift. "I would look at apology as a temporary submission," he says. "Normally, submission is shown by lower ranking individuals; it signals that they're afraid or seek to appease the dominant. Human apologies use signs of submission but are not strictly bound by the hierarchy (although apologies do also in our species come a lot more difficult to dominants than to subordinates)."

DeWaal distinguishes an "apology" from "reconciliation," which may not necessarily imply submission. He has observed primates embrace and kiss, have intercourse, or groom after a fight. "Many animals survive through cooperation," he says. "In order to maintain cooperative relationships despite occasional conflict, some way of repairing relationships is needed. Many animals are far too smart to simply 'forget' what happened between them, so they need a more active process of repair. It involves a complex psychology that we often assume to be uniquely human. But I believe it's much more ancient than we assume."

That fundamental cooperation for survival has found powerful expression as human cultural value, according to Oxford College Professor of English Lucas Carpenter. Carpenter argues that in a recent memoir, In Retrospect, Robert S. McNamara, US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, offers "an apology for what many might term his complicity in the death and suffering inflicted in the course of the war."

McNamara writes that makers of US policy in Vietnam knew they were misguided, yet they chose to continue the war rather than admit they were wrong. "In Retrospect is an eloquent and presumably sincere apology for his role in helping determine the tragic course of America's only lost war," says Carpenter, who is teaching a graduate seminar in US literature of the Vietnam War at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium this year on a Fulbright grant. "There is, of course, no means by which the war's many victims could collectively express a public forgiveness, even if they were so inclined, but his moral standing in the public eye can only be enhanced by the appearance of In Retrospect. It validates and affirms our cultural maxim that the acknowledgment of responsibility and expression of remorse for harmful or otherwise erroneous actions indicates courage and honor in the apologist and will probably be viewed as at least token compensation for the damage done."