Miracles and glass politics

Medieval and Renaissance Stained Glass in the Victoria and Albert Museum - The History of Stained Glass
August 20, 2004

Brian O'Callaghan glimpses history through stained-glass panels.

In the Tale of Beryn , an anonymous supplement to The Canterbury Tales , Chaucer's pilgrims enter the cathedral. In an interlude, the Pardoner and the Miller comically misread the stained-glass windows: "He bears a stout stick," said the one, "or else a rake's end."

"Thou failest," said the Miller, "thou hast not well thy mind/It is a spear, if thou can see, with a prick tofore/To push down his enemy, and through the shoulder bore."

Elsewhere they are accused of "counterfeiting gentlemen" for attempting an interpretation of coats of arms in the windows. If the Pardoner or the Miller are unable to read the images, then who was the intended audience for these windows? The answer must be that there were many audiences and that viewers read the glass in various ways, taking different meanings from what they saw. Even allowing for this notion of the audience, we still need to learn to read stained glass. These two books will help in different ways.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, many windows were given over to complex narratives, comprising multiple panels of diverse shapes, telling of the lives, miracles and martyrdom of the saints. Others, perhaps aimed at more erudite readers, established the theological relationship between biblical events.

In the upper parts of churches stood imposing representations of apostles, prophets, saints, kings and ecclesiastics. The various readings of these windows depend not only on the relationship of one panel or episode to another, but also on the sequence of windows or their relationship to the whole building. Windows might be seen both as self-contained stories and as parts in a series.

From the 14th century, the number of scenes within a single window was typically smaller, with the result that episodes had to be more selectively chosen and the narrative reduced to a smaller number of instantly recognisable images. During the Renaissance, whole windows might be given over to a single scene, thus closely resembling contemporary paintings.

Religious imagery was by no means the only subject matter for the stained-glass artist. Heraldry was ideally suited to the medium and was employed in churches and secular buildings. Armorial glazing continued after the Reformation, but prohibitions against images brought to an end the art of the glass painter and saw the destruction of vast numbers of windows through iconoclasm and neglect.

The revival of interest in things Gothic in the 18th and 19th centuries encouraged a new appreciation of ancient glass. Collectors acquired it where they could, frequently from continental sources. The ethics of restorers of the time would not be acceptable today. Medieval panels were often removed and replaced with copies, the originals later finding their way onto the art market. Alienated from their original contexts, panels of stained glass took on new meanings for new audiences. Collections adorned the houses of the wealthy or were decoratively arranged in parish churches.

Consequently, glass from some of the most prestigious continental sources can now be seen in English houses and churches, or has found its way into museum collections in Britain and the US.

Paul Williamson catalogues some of the best examples from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The introductory essay describes how this was formed by the acquisition of various private collections.

The full-page colour photographs are the catalogue's chief glory. These occupy nearly three-quarters of the book and are of excellent quality. The plates are followed by a commentary in which the original location is identified, the panel dated and the subject matter explained. There is often an extensive provenance, establishing the importance of the glass and its journey, through various owners, to the museum.

Glass in a museum can often be studied more closely than in its original location. As a general rule, Renaissance glass sits more happily in a museum than the Gothic. It is easier to regard individual panels as one would a painting. A panel from the cloisters of the Abbey of Mariawald (Lower-Rhine, 1521) illustrates the point. The scene depicted is Esau giving up his birthright. In the foreground, Jacob steps out of a kitchen door offering a bowl of soup to his brother Esau. These are the protagonists, but the interest lies elsewhere. Esau's dog peers through an opening into the warm kitchen. Inside, we see a roaring fire with soup cooking. A child bastes a joint that he is spit-roasting. Herrings, hanging by their gaping mouths, are smoked in the chimney. In the cloister, this image would have been read alongside its companion, the Temptation of Christ.

The scope of Virginia Raguin's book The History of Stained Glass goes a long way towards justifying its ambitious title. This is a history of the medium from the 12th to the 21st century. The text is scholarly and lavishly illustrated. More than half the book is devoted to medieval and Renaissance glass, which is more than justified by the importance of stained glass before the Reforma-tion. There are useful and significant chapters covering Gothic revivals in Europe and America, and the contribution of stained glass to the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau. However, in the modern era stained glass can no longer be regarded as a major art form. Its contribution to modern buildings may be beautiful, and sometimes technically breathtaking, but this is the world of interior design.

Just as when observing the Pardoner and the Miller attempting to read the windows of Canterbury Cathedral, one is bound to ask: how are these books intended to be read, and who are their intended audiences?

Raguin's book is certainly excellent value for money and might thus be aimed at a general, or student, audience. Little previous cultural knowledge is assumed (for example, basic elements of Christianity, such as the Trinity and monasticism, are briefly explained). The chapters are broadly chronological and occasionally subdivided geographically. Each chapter is divided into short, thematic sections. This invites the reader to dip in, rather than to read whole chapters, and the lavish illustrations support such an approach. The captions are long, often tackling a number of themes, and offer the reader a further chance to skip between images, extracting nuggets of information. These image-linked micro-texts are of little help to the reader of the main narrative and in effect provide an alternative way to read the book.

Williamson's catalogue, by contrast, resembles a museum display. The emphasis is on the pictures of individual panels, and the presentation is chronological. The pictures are economically captioned with subject, original location and date. Those seeking scholarly information must turn to the back. Most of the panels illustrated are on display in the V&A, but only a devotee would find them all. Many are placed high above objects from the same period, others may be found in obscure darkened corridors. This book does not present the collection as it really is - rather, it extracts the glass from its context and presents it in a new one. This is by no means a criticism. It enables the visitor to take this version away and examine it at leisure, just as a pilgrim might relive a pilgrimage by means of suitable contemplative imagery.

Brian O'Callaghan is senior lecturer in history of art, Reading University.

Medieval and Renaissance Stained Glass in the Victoria and Albert Museum

Author - Paul Williamson
Publisher - V&A Publications
Pages - 160
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 1 85177 403 3

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