The Gothics set stone upon stone, ever higher, not as the giants did, to attack God, but to reach up to Him. And God, as in the German legend, rewarded the merchants and the warriors, but to the poet what was granted?
—Auguste Rodin, Cathedrals of France
To the poets in stone and glass who created the great Gothic cathedrals of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, God granted the grace of anonymity. To us moderns, that seems a double-edged, if not bitter, grace. Nevertheless, it was an actual one. It enabled unnamed tradesmen to ennoble the corporate worship of their own time and endow future generations with architectural testaments to a transfigured world.
The modern poet/artist is pummeled, hustled, ultimately doomed to create an inflated entity: himself. By contrast, those peripatetic, calloused teams of gifted geniuses—and genius they had—were exempt from the crushing necessity to forge a marketable individuality. That freedom, difficult as the living of it was, yielded powerful expressions of the Christian vision, radiant in stone and pierced by deathless light.
That thought lodged with me standing in front of the unsigned grandeur of the windows that comprise “Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at the Cloisters.” These six Romanesque windows have never left the cathedral since they were created in the late twelfth century. They are here now only because they had to be removed from their settings to accommodate repairs to the stonework holding them.
If there exists any art that can be called Christian, it is stained glass. The term “Christian art” applies most frequently, and accurately, to Christian themes. But the term does not encompass methods of execution. Stained glass—more precisely stained-and-painted glass, a product of the marriage between master glazer and painter—belongs thoroughly to the Christian era. The splendor of stained glass depends for effect on its actual materials and techniques, distinct from subject matter.
The art of glass making itself is ancient. Pliny gives a story, possibly apocryphal, of the invention of it. It was certainly known by the Egyptians in very early times. However, it was not until early in the Christian era that anyone thought of using glass to fill windows.
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Remnants of glass windows have been found at Pompeii. Caligula had his palace windows glazed. Seneca mentions glazing as one of those contemporary luxuries that adds nothing to contentment of mind. It took several centuries more for the glazier to unite with the Venetian enameller in giving birth to the art of painted-and-stained glass, which is stained glass as we know it.
Figuration on the glass is thought to date back to the Carolingian era. While little material evidence from that age survives, textual references do. And it is indisputable that by the early thirteenth century, stained glass was a preeminent European art form. England and France produced the jewels of their time: Canterbury, Chartres and St. Denis.
Of the stained glass that was once the glory of Canterbury, only a remnant escaped Puritan demolition. History tells of one Richard Culmer, overseer of the cathedral under the Commonwealth, who climbed a ladder sixty steps high with a pike in his hand and “rattled down
Beckett’s glassie bones.”
A stained glass window is a transparent mosaic. Every change of color requires a separate piece of glass. From 350 to 450 pieces of glass per meter have been counted in windows of the period. This is a stunning multiplicity of refractive surfaces, each one behaving differently. Irregularities in the glass—air bubbles, flaws—fracture the daylight coming through, and split the color of each individual shard into the dancing, vibrating glory that was medieval stained glass.
Matisse’s celebrated windows in the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence are crude by comparison. Sublimity is gone; what is left is a see-through painting by a well-known name. Tourists make day trips to Union Church in Pocantico Hills to see his rose window [ above] and Chagall’s “Good Samaritan” window. Neither leaves the visitor feeling what medievals felt when they entered their cathedrals. The Vence Chapel and Union Church are sacred spaces, to be sure. But the object of devotion is the artist in whose name the visitor arrives and stays awhile. Guests are moved to appreciation, not to wonder, a prerequisite for prayer.
• • • •
An old catechism from the diocese of Tréguier in Brittany asks the question: “What should you do upon entering a cathedral?” The answer reads: “Take holy water, adore the Blessed Sacrament, then walk all around the edifice and look at the stained glass windows.” We can say that the anonymous masters of the Canterbury windows, too, contributed to the catechism. Their modern, acclaimed descendents, lovely as they are, contribute only to guide books.
The Canterbury windows remain on view through May 18th.
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