It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
What gives stained glass
its impact, and can it survive in a
Reading Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Romantic poem God’s Grandeur I feel it confirms what I have attempted to express throughout this essay. He compared the glory of God to being like the light ‘shining from shook foil’. Like the Romantic painters mentioned, he recognised how light and the Divine are linked. His phrase ‘generations have trod, have trod, have trod’ is an acknowledgement of the importance of time passing. He then said that all this ‘greatness’ has been ‘seared with trade; smeared, bleared with toil’ which echoes my thoughts on the impact of the Enlightenment in Chapter Four. In Resurgem, Hopkin’s voice is echoed once more as he says despite this fall, ‘nature is never spent’ as it continues to be an inspiration for the sublime in religion’s absence.
When I set out to write this essay I considered history and light to be the most essential elements of stained glass, and that they are what will allow it to endure. I still consider these to be the fundamental elements, however I now see that religion is not necessarily the reason why they are fundamental. History exists outside of religion, and that I feel is what draws people to the Church now. It is not necessary to be religious to appreciate the impact of history when entering a church.
The sublime aspect of light in stained glass endures because we, as human beings, seem to have retained this desire to transcend reality. This is evident in looking at prestigious contemporary art that has a reliance on the sublime. I have looked Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, which was in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, 2003, as an example of this. Using the medium of light Eliasson created an atmosphere of meditation in his installation. Filling the whole hall was a representation of the sun and sky, a giant semi-circular form made up of hundreds of mono-frequency lamps repeated in the mirror overhead. Described as a ‘modern day Caspar David Friedrich’, (see figs. 22 & 23) Eliasson in my opinion is an artist who demonstrates how a manipulation of light can have a sublime effect without reference to religion.
My experience in the Turbine Hall was not dissimilar to visiting one of the most well known Gothic Cathedrals in the world, Notre Dame in Paris.
A congregation of busy tourists is hushed by the serenity of Notre Dame.
I feel humbled as I walk slowly down the aisle, arches rise up on either side of me like poplar trees. Columns and arches rise upwards with a sense of great purpose towards the calm, empty ceiling; towards the heavens. The walls are lined with rows of windows, which I note to be grisaille, which give a serene and elevated sense.
Soft choir music drowns out the shuffle of tourist’s feet and hushed whispers. As I reach the alter, I feel a great quietness creep over me. To my left and right are the ‘rose-windows’, big circular windows, 19 yards in diameter.
The afternoon sun is shining right directly through the glass, and transforms the window from being a beautiful design, to something truly sublime. Each colour really does glint, like a ‘gem’ as the sun moves over it, as Abbot Sugar observed. For the first time I really understand, what the word sublime means. Although this, I realise now is impossible to put into words. No matter how many philosophers and scientists have tried to do so, this is fruitless, because the sublime is just an experience. The word sublime encompasses only that which ‘inexpressible’.
As the sun brings each pane to life, one by one, as it moves across the window, I am overwhelmed; not by the artists’ fine handiwork, or the perfect geometric aesthetics, or by the sense of history; I am simply overwhelmed.
The sun is shining though the window and creating a prism effect on the adjacent wall, and a small child points up at the light, saying to her mother “Look up there… there’s a light, but where’s it coming from?” Her mother has no answer, and neither do I.
It is apparent that stained glass can still have the transcendent impact, even to the non-religious such as myself. Not only does stained glass made hundreds of years ago retain its relevance, but also after looking at the work of Piper and Clarke, it became evident to me that stained glass is still being created and is alive in the 21st century. It didn’t, as I feared, fall to the wayside after the Age of Enlightenment. This gave me hope that stained glass wouldn’t lose its relevancy.
However my interviews in St Andrew dampened this hope, as they suggested that stained glass is now only relevant in the art world. My evidence revealed to me that those who are actually experiencing the stained glass on a regular basis for religious reasons do not see the windows as such an integral connection in understanding God. It seems stained glass is no longer a necessity, and it is seen more as having an aesthetic purpose and is even being taken for granted. Perhaps this provides an answer to Piper’s question concerning whether stained glass is ‘art or anti art’.
Does this realisation that stained glass is becoming an art form devalue its impact? I am inclined to say no. Because of my investigation into Piper and Clarke in comparison to Elaisson’s work, I conclude that the essence of what they are trying to express still thrives; both seek a connection with some sort of sublime, either through a spirituality or through self exploration of emotions. The very essence of humanity seems to me to be this striving for a connection with something beyond reality, and whether stained glass is considered in a religious context or purely as an art form, it will always retain this awe inspiring capability, and therefore continue to endure and thrive.