Per crucem ad lucem

If gentle reader has been aboard a sailboat during a good blow, he will appreciate the stress on windows. This increases dramatically with the size of the window — a serious problem in structural engineering, compounded by the need to support the 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, and traceried stone, integrated into the design of the great Gothic cathedral windows.

One thinks of Saint-Chapelle, that glorious lightbox on the Île de la Cité, in Paris. At first it seems all glass, and no stone. There has been, recently, a magnificent restoration (paid almost entirely from private donations); I have just learnt about this, and long to go there right away. I can’t, but I can see from the pictures what has been done, to restore the chapel’s original lucidity. For a man of the thirteenth century, as I pretend to be, it looks like home.

A remarkable amount of mediaeval glasswork remains; this because there was once so much of it. Most has been lost, however. Yet surprisingly little was lost to “natural causes,” such as wind storms, for the men who constructed these windows knew what they were doing, and their patrons — in this case Saint Louis IX — were themselves often infused with the Gloria. This Capetian king had bought from the bankrupt Emperor at Constantinople what mediaeval men believed to be the Crown of Thorns. (Perhaps in due course we will discover that it was as advertised.) Thus he had to build a worthy place to keep it. No expense would be spared, for so precious a relic.

The chapel had to embody the meaning of that Crown; to declare the full Gloria, without the smallest hint of austerity. It must be an explosive blast of holy, glorious light. Designers and workmen had to be found whose skills were adequate to this intention.

Survival is never an accident, in this world. The story of the survival of Saint-Chapelle, to the present day, nearly eight centuries after its conception, is so tangled that I won’t begin. The miracle is that it is still there, right in the centre of Paris, notwithstanding such facts as the French Revolution; that it has been preserved and repeatedly repaired. God is surely mixed up in every turn of this unlikely story.

Tourists still flock through, with the tour guides, trudging the way tourists trudge. Except, the chapel explodes before them, and in the brilliant light of midday they are stunned. Human eyes are not prepared for such beauty: it is like looking into the Sun. They could not have imagined that such a shrine could be built with human hands. They are looking at the product of a civilization almost infinitely greater than their own. It is like an encounter with the extraterrestrial.


It is a bleak fact that most of the great works of art in the highest phases of civilization have been, over time, destroyed — either pointedly and purposefully, 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 a destructive force, is by far the worst enemy of great art.

“Modern man,” in his tower flats and suburbs, who thanks to “progress in education” may not realize that milk comes from cows, needs to have these things explained to him. The grand minsters and shrines whose ruins may enchant him, did not dissolve like cakes in the rain. They were wrecked on purpose, and the missing stone was “privatized.” They became stone quarries. For without protection, founded in love, nothing survives.

A naïve hippie of my then acquaintance, decades ago, asked a thoughtful question. Why did sculptors, in times gone by, so often leave the heads off statues? What got into them, to depict gods and people headless?

We were in northern India at the time, where every head is missing from every statue (unless I missed one) for a thousand miles. There was a reason for this. The sculptors had originally remembered to include the heads, I explained. But later, certain iconoclast fanatics, while conquering Hindustan, removed them with big hammers. Rather as today, their spiritual descendants have smashed what remained of Palmyra, and Bamiyan. (I think that may have been the first time, in India all those years ago, 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 (and mine) had performed the same service for the Caledonian statuary. They derived their pleasure, too, from smashing stained glass windows, melting chalices, shredding elegant liturgical garments, defacing murals, torching libraries, and so forth. To the Scottish mind, at the Reformation, the more beautiful an object, the more flagrant an example of “popery” it was.

And yes, the Puritans “did England,” too, only a little less thoroughly, reaching their peak of violent destruction under Cromwell. 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, and in less than a century, their own descendants were decorating again. By this time continuous Western traditions that had engendered such monuments as Saint-Chapelle, had been fractured. The “reformed” mind can take pleasure in contemplating the fact that little of great beauty was ever erected, on this side of the Atlantic, north of the Rio Grande. For just when the new folk art traditions were beginning to coalesce, into something deeper and broader and larger, and the impulse to high civilization was stirring again, the Industrial Revolution came to knock it flat.

Now here is a curious thing about religion, or rather I have noticed two curious things over the decades through which I have considered 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 soul — telling him how to live, and what to do; what is noble and ignoble, and why — it has profound communal implications. This is true not only of Christianity, but of all the “world religions” including, paradoxically, our contemporary “Secular Humanism” — that vicious parody of religious bigotry and blind intolerance.

Obvious as this may be to some, it is not accessible to the post-Christian mind, taught in our schools that Secular Humanism is “not a religion” but rather the cure — that it is unadulterate sweet reason. This forms minds more thoroughly atomized and iconoclastic, than any in history. It is an axiom of the post-Christian pedagogue, that children can be raised in a culturally “neutral” way; that “freedom” commands they be left to decide their own affiliation as they grow up — so long as it is with Secular Humanism.

This teaching has unleashed one of the most powerful forces in nature: that very human narcissism that the religious try to tamp down. Today we celebrate our self-esteem. Sometimes this is called, “the American Dream,” though any other secular nationality can be substituted for “American.” It is the dream of an empty but unlimited self-creation — of the “creative destruction” that, like Hell, goes on forever.

But people did not create themselves. Nor, as a certain U.S. president avers, are they created by government departments. They did not in the first instance even give themselves their own names, and could hardly have acquired a language by wandering in the wilderness alone. Survival itself requires parenting in our species; and that is where “cultural neutrality” ends.

Every identifying quality in a human being, that raises us above the naked animals, is inculcated, given or endowed; everything you are, beyond an “accident of nature,” is a product of family and society, resting finally upon the Grace of God. All human thought is interplay, and the most isolated eremite has taken with him a mind formed, and delineated, by other minds. In the most remote location this continues: a song between soloist and 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, half a century ago) ever said this to anyone, in an “art class” or elsewhere. She did not need to; her eyes said it for her. Her principles were the precise opposite of those now enforced by the immense, Kafkaesque, education bureaucracies. She inspired little children, barely ten years old, to rise out of their “natural” condition; not, as today, to relax into depravity. (I allude, for instance, to the new “sex ed” curriculum in the Province of Ontario, wherein children about that age are now to be taught the joys of masturbation.)

No one, in particular no artist, has anything to express “from within,” except crude, often perverted appetites, and a more general propensity to sin. That is what “is in man,” as Christ perfectly knew. To get better from us requires some hold, some purchase, on what lies finally outside us.


For a break from this rant, or perhaps to review, let me link a short tour of Saint-Chapelle. (Here.) It is conducted by a very knowing tour guide; a man whom I admire. Perhaps, tomorrow being the fourteenth anniversary of 9/11, I shall return to the topic of stained glass.