If one has been aboard a sailboat during a good blow, one will appreciate the stress on windows. It increases dramatically with the size of the window, a potentially catastrophic problem compounded by the need to support the accumulating weight of the window itself. The lead joining the coloured pieces in the transparent mosaic of stained glass — is soft, to say nothing of heavy. Hence the iron bars, & traceried stone, integrated into the design of the great Gothic cathedral windows.
Much of this work survives. Most has been lost, however. Yet surprisingly little was lost to nature, for the men who constructed these windows knew what they were doing.
It is a curious fact that most of the great art of the highest phases of civilization has been, over time, destroyed either pointedly & intentionally, or as “collateral” from some larger intentional act of destruction: war usually, or riot. Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, can be troublesome, too, in districts that are prone to them. But man, as we should have grasped by now, is a considerable destructive force, & by far the worst enemy of great art.
“Modern man,” in his tower flats & suburbs, who thanks to “improvements in education” may not realize that milk comes from cows, needs to have these things explained to him. The grand minsters & shrines whose ruins may enchant him, in the Albion countryside for instance, did not dissolve like cubes of sugar abandoned in the rain. They were wrecked on purpose, & the missing stone was “privatized.”
A naïve hippie of my then acquaintance once asked a thoughtful question. Why did sculptors so often leave the heads off statues, in times gone by? We were in northern India at the time, where almost every head is missing for a thousand miles. There was a simple explanation. The sculptors had originally remembered to include the heads, I explained. But later, certain iconoclast fanatics had removed them, with big hammers. (I think that may have been the first time I used the expression, “Devils in human flesh.”)
She was a Glaswegian hippie, slightly prejudiced against one religious group, so in the interest of world peace I explained it was not just the Muslims. Back home she would find that her Presbyterian ancestors (& mine) had performed the same service for the Caledonian statuary. They were also into smashing stained glass windows, melting chalices, shredding elegant garments, defacing murals, burning libraries, & so forth. To the Scottish mind, at the Reformation, the more beautiful an object was, the more flagrant an example of “popery.” And yes, the Puritans “did England,” too, only a little less thoroughly. Nor can one study mediaeval art, across the Continent of Europe, without frequent reminders of what the Reformation was really about.
In America, the Pilgrim Fathers had it easier. They were taking possession of virgin territory (from the virgin inhabitants). Their task was more simply to prevent beauty from getting started. But it keeps coming back, & after a century or two, their own descendants were indulging the human weakness for frivolous decoration. By this time the continuous Western traditions which had engendered such monuments as Chartres, were fractured. The “reformed” mind can at least take pleasure in contemplating the fact that nothing very beautiful was ever erected, north of the Rio Grande on this side of the Atlantic. For just when the new folk art traditions were beginning to coalesce, into something impressively larger, & the impulse to high civilization was stirring again, the Industrial Revolution came along to knock it flat.
Now here is a curious thing about religion, or rather, two curious things I have noticed over some decades of considering its phenomena. The first is that religion is the binding force that enables a race of barbaric savages (such as occupied Europe, in the decline of pagan Rome) to rise out of their condition. Or prevents them from doing so; it depends on the religion.
The second is that, while the appeal of religion is ultimately to the individual person — telling him how to live, what to do, & why — it has profound communal implications. This is true not only of Christianity, but of all the “world religions,” including paradoxically enough that vicious parody of the worst kind of tyrannical religion, called “Secular Humanism.”
Obvious this may be in itself, & yet, not obvious to the post-modern mind, which is taught that Secular Humanism is “not a religion” but rather, sweetness & light in its purest form. It is a mind more thoroughly atomized &, in a generic sense, iconoclastic, than any in history. It goes without saying, to the post-modern pedagogue, that children should be raised in a culturally “neutral” way (even though this is impossible); that “freedom” commands they be left to decide their own affiliation as they grow up (so long as it is with Secular Humanism). In other words, nothing resembling the development of a high civilization should be allowed, nor any civilizing act long tolerated.
This has proved a successful teaching, for it unleashes one of the most powerful forces in nature: that of human narcissism (which most other religions had tried to tamp down). In its broadest, most exploitably collectivist form, this consists of the self-celebration of man, considered as if he were his own creation. Another expression for this might be, “the American Dream.”
People did not create themselves, however. Nor, as a certain U.S. president avers, are they created by government departments, even today. They did not in the first instance even give themselves their own names, & could hardly have acquired a language by wandering individually through the primaeval forest. Survival itself requires parenting in our species; & that is where “cultural neutrality” ends. Every identifying quality in a human being is inculcated, is given or endowed; everything you are, beyond an “accident of nature,” is a product of the family & society through which you were raised & in which you function, unless we include the Grace of God. All human thought is interplay, & the most aloof eremite in the desert has taken with him a mind formed, even bounded, by others. The interplay also continues at these most remote locations; a conversation between the soloist & the choir.
“But my darling, there is nothing about your little ‘self’ that is worth expressing.”
I do not think Mrs Wrigglesworth (a backward-looking teacher who once inspired me) ever said this to anyone, in an “art class” or elsewhere. Yet she was the embodiment of this idea, & I’ve constructed the phrase to describe her being. She did not anyway need to say such things; her eyes told you. Her principles were the precise opposite of those now enforced by the immense, Kafkaesque education bureaucracies.
No one, in particular no artist, has anything serious to express “from within,” except crude, often murderous appetites, & a more general propensity to sin. There is nothing in there that was not shaped in peculiar reflection of what lies outside. The soul is real, & individual, but it is fully interactive. Alternatively, it is comatose.
Indeed the collapse of modern art, which was showing some real promise here & there in the earlier decades of the last century, had everything to do with unsustainable heroism. Each major artist tried to fashion for himself a kind of civilization, a language & a style, from the broken fragments he found in his environment. Each, in effect, had to reinvent the wheel — to imagine a whole civilization for himself, & then try to produce its archaeological remains. “Art movements” linked the works of some artists — in group efforts to achieve some cooperatively imagined ideal. But these merely came & went out of fashion. In the end the most magnificent talents were like wheels spinning in gravel, digging a rut. A magnificent rut, in some cases.
In later life my father took up stained glass, as a hobby. He had no grand ambitions in this. He had started as a child with watercolour, & perhaps had doubled back to a mysterious appreciation of patterned colour, with backlighting effects. His inspiration was not expressly religious, though he collected slides of religious works of art. I am looking just now at a small rectangular frame in which he constructed the abstractly reaching arm of a crab, by leading together found pieces of coloured bottle glass, & textured shards from sliding bathshower panels & the like. There is some life in the little composition. It seems to move when one is not looking.
We would argue, my papa & I, about everything; even about stained glass. We both enjoyed playing devil’s advocate to whatever position the other took. (“Interplay.”) In one of these conversations we reached towards an important truth about stained glass, not then grasped by either of us, yet stated with comprehensive precision in e.g. such a classic work as that by Hugh Arnold entitled, Stained Glass of the Middle Ages in England & France. (Illustrated not with useless photographs but with the carefully executed coloured plates of Lawrence B. Saint; published 1913.)
Stained glass does not work like watercolour. It cannot accommodate “washes.” The extraordinary effects produced by the (often anonymous) artists of the 13th, 14th, then 15th century, were possible because they actually rejected a technological innovation. When the means were found to paint transparently on clear panes, then fuse that to the glass in the furnace, it was also found that the method produced glib, mediocre, unsatisfying results. It gave, in effect, too much freedom. Instead, they used paints — “enamelled” into the glass, as it were — only to introduce opacities. Features of face & garment could be drawn or, as it were, “inscribed” onto the flat surfaces in this way: a purely graphic touch, leaving the colour entirely “within” the glass pieces of the “mosaic.”
This method — together with the conscious & confident integration of the structural iron bars as divisions within the greater composition, & the commission of elaborate masonry to frame it — raised decorative flourish to high art, dimensionally beyond the glasswork of all previous ages (or any time since). Transparent “window painting” would only sap these effects. The craftsmen didn’t fall for it.
An analogy I found was to postage stamps, where designers fell, & fell hard, for the technical possibilities of colour photo-lithography to replace the older techniques of engraving. It gave them much greater freedom: the freedom to create mud. The sharp precision of engraving had required great skill; was extremely unforgiving of mistakes. But it did make possible something that could stand up under magnification to the minutest scrutiny, & in the hands of a master could be extremely beautiful. It was not, as 99 percent of postage stamps now are, mud, rubbish, crap.
The moral in this case was plain. Great art is not a pile-on of effects. It depends as much or more on what has been excluded. It requires intense discipline of form, & tremendous craftsmanship. There is not, & there will never be, an easy way out. There may well be technical innovations that contribute to this craft: such as the flux to melt silica at lower temperatures, making glass more ductile in the craftsman’s hands (the very ancient discovery, that made glass-blowing possible). But there will never be an innovation that obviates the continuity, in apprenticeship, of one generation to another — the “interplay” within human society, not only through space but also over time, made possible when men become civilized.
The creative force, the fine craft, the necessary science of an art — the very narratives & subjects for depiction — are intimately related. “Progress,” in the sense of improvement — as opposed to decadence & degeneration — requires the ingenious coordination of all these things. The development of the art of stained glass, through the later centuries of the Middle Ages, is deeply thrilling: consistent gains with very little lost along the way. Though alas, in the end, almost everything is lost, at least to this world, through human depravity.