Stained glass

We would argue, my papa and I, about everything; even about stained glass, which was his hobby and not mine. Each enjoyed playing devil’s advocate to the other, whatever position he took up: a form of kitten play. In one of these (invariably affectionate) disputes, we reached towards an important truth about stained glass, not then known to either of us, yet stated with comprehensive precision in e.g. so classic a work as that by Hugh Arnold, entitled, Stained Glass of the Middle Ages in England and France. (Illustrated, not with useless photos, but with the carefully executed coloured plates of Lawrence B. Saint; and first published in the antediluvian year of 1913.)

Stained glass does not work like watercolour, but is parallel in some ways. It cannot accommodate “washes.” The extraordinary effects produced by the (often anonymous) artists of the thirteenth, then fourteenth, then into the fifteenth 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.

The new methods gave the artist too much freedom. It would give him a life of too much ease. I think here once again of the droll aphorism of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, that: “As some Roman said, debauchery isn’t going into a whorehouse, it is never coming out.”

Instead, the artists, right across Gothic Europe, used paints — “enamelled” into the glass — only to introduce opacities. Features of face, figure, and garment could be drawn or, as it were, “inscribed” onto the flat surfaces in this way: a purely graphic touch, leaving the colour essentially “within” the glass pieces of the mosaic.

This method — together with the conscious and increasingly confident integration of the structural iron bars as divisions within the greater composition, and the commission of elaborate masonry to frame it — raised decorative flourish to high art, dimensionally beyond the glasswork of all previous ages (or any since). Transparent “window painting” would only sap these effects. The craftsmen did not fall for it.

Indeed, they often went backward, as was the case with those iron bars. For after a couple of generations of experiment, with twisting the bars to shape them into an element of the composition, artists across Europe returned to straight. And this not only for structural reasons: for the counterpoint attracted them, of the organic with the geometric. If I am not mistaken (for I think I am alone in saying this), they learnt from the Islamic calligraphers and architects, who combined these two modes with startling genius in their own religious decoration: geometric and organic patterning, in harmonious mutual overlay. For it is a principle of Christianity that we can always learn — from whatever is good, true, and beautiful.

An analogy I found was to postage stamps, where designers fell, and 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 drool oceans of mud. The sharp precision of engraving had instead required great skill; it was extremely unforgiving of mistakes. But it did make possible something that could stand up under magnification to the minutest scrutiny; and in the hands of a master could be extraordinarily beautiful. It was not, as 99 percent of postage stamps now are, the loud squelching mucky rubbish of a pixelated cacophony, with nowhere a sharp edge.

Photography is so often disgusting; art without line is morally impure.

The Sainte-Chapelle, which I mentioned yesterday, is one of the high achievements of the Gothic era, but to begin to understand the Gothic, we must appreciate its range.

My heart was never lifted as it was on the discovery — with my eyes and tears, not through some photograph — of what had been done at Chartres. Something so glorious, so perfect. It is, I still think, the finest building ever erected; its chief competitors being other Gothic cathedrals, abbeys, and shrines, not one of which is a copy of another.

At Chartres, one will find a nobility that is the opposite of the jewelled Aladdin’s cave at Sainte-Chapelle. Broad borders are set around the medallions and pictorial compositions, in the glass itself, and the intentional “gloom” of flat stone further set between the windows, to focus the mind on each element in its turn. Schemes of liturgical colouring vary in the course, so that now a blood red, now a marine blue, now an earth yellow can speak to us in their sequence, and we have in their variety the characters in a huge drama. It is as if all history has been brought before us, and the dimension of time is being anointed — baptized, canonized — and thoroughly expounded. One hundred and seventy-six windows, I believe, if they are counted — made large, thanks to the disposition of the magnificent flying buttresses on the outside — and each one a parable to the Christian life.

Whereas, in Sainte-Chapelle, we trip into a dimension that escapes time, and all the painted light is gathered in an explosive single moment, and the overlaps, for instance of medallions into margins, within the narrow vertical panels — pull the Creation together, in the ring of that Crown of Thorns. It was built to convey the sudden shock of recognition. The suffering of Christ has been transformed in the redemption of our humankind, and what we now see is the splendour of its beauty: the Gloria released from all earthly bonds.

That is the thirteenth century for you: the incredible range, from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, to Sainte-Chapelle, so vastly exceeding what we can now imagine, set in an accomplishment of glass and stone.

Let me explain the moral.

Great art is not a pile-on of effects, but their careful selection to one end. It depends as much or more on what has been excluded. It requires intense discipline of form, and exacting craftsmanship. There is not, and 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 over time, made possible when men become civilized.

And this creative force is integrative. The studied craft, the necessary science of an art, the very narratives and symbols chosen for depiction — are intimately related. They will be in some sense domesticated, and we will grow in the simple domestic virtues that these arts have embodied in a heightened and more spectacular form.

“Progress,” in the sense of improvement — directly opposed to decadence and degeneration — requires the ingenious coordination of all these things, to ends that are not restless, but enfold, in an interpenetrating stasis; in a stillness passing beyond this world.

And yet in every angle, pregnant with immortal Life.

The development of the art of stained glass, through more than two centuries in the Middle Ages (later twelfth to later fourteenth, in my opinion), is deeply thrilling: consistent gains with nothing of irreplaceable value lost along the way. Though alas, in the end, almost everything can be lost, for nothing in return but dust and ashes, through human depravity.


It was in later life that my father took up stained glass, as a hobby. He had no grand ambitions. He found the pieces of broken glass in his walks; the lead from an art store. He would collect glass fragments beautiful in themselves, and let them suggest to him how they should be used.

He had started as a child with watercolour, and perhaps had doubled back to a mysterious appreciation of patterned colour, transparent to backlighting in a new way. His inspiration was not expressly religious, though he collected photographic slides of religious works of art, and insinuated them into the slide shows he prepared for his industrial design students, as almost an unconscious provocation; for he was not himself religious until the very end of his life. (He merely believed that there is God, who created man to be immortal.)

Just now, I am looking at a small rectangular frame — fifteen inches by nine — in which he constructed the reaching arm of a crab, abstractly patterned. He did this by articulating found pieces of coloured, pharmaceutical bottle glass, red-orange browns with a gem yellow highlight; and textured shards from sliding bathshower panels for a surrounding grisaille. It is a modest small composition, that I have leaned against a window over my sloping work table. In the corner of one’s eye it often seems to move, for there is life in it. I think of it as my father, in his characteristic modesty, reminding me as a teacher of all that we discussed.

This is a small item, but as I say, it has life, in both stillness and breath of movement. It recalls a Culture of Life that has been snuffed in the pillowing of our falsely upholstered consumerist ease: the death-in-life into which we have tumbled, choking and ensnared. Instead, it is like Christ, in the sense that we cannot keep Him dead, and no matter what we do, He will be Resurrected.

For to my mind, in the revived faith of a restored, Christian, Culture of Life, we will not only have living babies, born and not aborted; loved and not chopped up to supply body parts to the Moloch of Science. We will also have Art that is living and awakening, and a music to sing of the light, mysteriously yet unmistakably shining, beyond the vast region of the grave.