Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Engraved Glass Door at St Birinus'

We have mentioned the beautiful gem of a church that is St Birinus in Dorchester-on-Thames before on the NLM, and the enchantment of this church continues apace.

 Many churches are accessed through a porch on the south side, and this little space is often used for notice boards as well as to provide shelter from the elements for those about to enter the church. Often the porch itself will have a door, and this is distinct from the door of the church proper that gives direct access into the nave (or south aisle). This door is necessary to distinguish the porch from the church and also, more importantly, to keep the cold out (and the warmth in), and to minimize the noise of those entering the transitional space that is the porch.

In the little church of St Birinus, there had not been a door to provide this function, merely the solid wooden door of the porch itself, and then an arched opening into the body of the church, as the photo below shows. 

 Recently, this lack was solved by the addition of a glass door which would cut off the cold and noise in the porch but would still let in light. However, this was not to be a merely functional door, but also a thing of beauty.

For the door is engraved by Philip Lawson Johnston with a beautiful image of Christ as Pantokrator. The inspiration for the St Birinus' door is Sir Ninian Comper's design (shown on the left) for a stained glass window in the east end of Downside Abbey, which dates to 1934-6. In his left hand Christ holds a book inscribed in Greek, 'I am the Light of the World". This is especially apt when rendered in engraved glass as the light shines through the engraved image.

Engraving is an art form that was first practised in ancient Mesopotamia, some 3500 years ago, and fine examples of engraved jewels and glass survive from the Roman empire. However, the art of glass engraving declined in the West after the fall of the Roman empire, although there are a few rare examples of medieval engraved gems and rock crystals. However, the cost was prohibitive. Indeed, in the Middle Ages,  engraved glass in the form of cameos from the Roman era were so highly-valued that they were used to adorn the most precious objects – crowns, reliquaries, and Gospel books – regardless of the pagan images engraved on the actual cameos!

However, engraved glass continued as a decorative art in the Middle East where the skill shown in classical cameos was imitated and developed. The skill of glass-making and engraving thus returned to the West through Venetian trade with Islamic lands, and by the end of the 16th century the art of glass engraving was revived in the West, especially in Prague. New techniques developed in the 19th century have made engraved glass more affordable, and it is currently experiencing a revival.

Because of this history, engraved glass is unknown in Gothic churches, and certainly not of the size and scale possible today. Quite simply, to the people who first built Gothic churches, the quality and expanse of glass that we can produce today would seem miraculous. As such, its inclusion in a Gothic revival church is unusual, and maybe, even antithetical if we wish strictly to follow Western medieval techniques and technologies. But we clearly do not wish to do this since most churches now have recourse to central heating and electricity! So, the installation of a beautifully engraved glass door in a Gothic revival church seems to me more like an expression of Comper's principle of "unity by inclusion", and, given the continuous development of the art of glass engraving which reaches back to the classical world, it also is an expression of organic development.

Personally, I would like to see more of such examples of organic development rather than pastiche in architecture and the decorative arts, which is not infrequent in our day. But I leave you, the reader, to judge for yourself whether this is a welcome addition and harmonious development in church architecture and art. It seems to me that this art form is best used to depict the angels because it captures something of their spiritual natures for engraved glass images seem quite ephemeral, sensed in the changing light rather than seen directly. 

Nevertheless, to my mind, the parish priest of St Birinus' has shown a way forward with this depiction in engraved glass of the Lord of All. Fr Osman's attention to detail includes the door handles, which are octagonal to point to the Resurrection, for one enters the risen life of Christ as one enters the church and participates in the sacred Mysteries. And these octagonal handles are marked with the Alpha and Omega, as a reminder that we enter through Christ into our beginnings and our endings. I think Comper himself would have been proud of the work to be seen at St Birinus'.

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