Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Parisian Stained Glass from the Sainte Chapelle and St Denis... In A Church in England!

Lessons for Students of Sacred Art from Gothic Masters

I was delighted to receive an email from reader Dr. Simon Cotton, who directed me to a stained-glass depiction of the Presentation that was originally in the abbey church of St Denis outside Paris. St. Denis, built by Abbot Suger in the mid-12th century, is often described as the first Gothic. Intriguingly, the window can be viewed now at a church in Twycross, Leicestershire in England, along with more glass from St Denis and from the Sainte Chapelle. A historian might classify them as early Gothic, but stylistically, these images are consistent with the iconographic tradition, and in that regard have more in common with Romanesque imagery.

The Presentation, 12th century, French (c) Copyright Painton Cowen 2008
Stained glass from this period is worthy of study, especially by those who are learning to paint icons or early Gothic style sacred art. The limitations of the medium at that time forced the artists to rely on the basics, and therefore master them. To produce beautiful sacred art of this simplicity well requires great skill. The image is described through line and flat color. There was little scope, it seems, for the controlled and graded blending of color within a single piece of glass, for example, red and blue merging to form a third area of purple. There is some possibility of shading, but it is limited and seemingly difficult to control, and therefore used sparingly. We see some black overlaid to create darker areas, and also some areas where the pigment is more concentrated, turning a pale green into a darker green. These devices, it seems to me, are at best subtle modulations overlaid onto the broad standard, which is the description of form by line and by contrast between areas of flat color. Line and flat color are basic tools of the artist in this tradition - the harmony and counterpoint - of iconography.

The color harmony is achieved, incidentally by sticking to natural pigments, which are ground from naturally occurring minerals. It is like working with flowers in a garden. Color can be used consciously to great effect - the design principle of using “drifts” of color employed in the English cottage gardens that was pioneered by Gertrude Jeckyll around the turn of the last century - but it is very difficult to find any colors in foliage and flower that actually clash when placed together, no matter how strong the colors.

The garden designed by Gertrude Jeckyll at Lindisfarne, off the Northumberland coast in England, (home of St Aidan of Lindisfarne). Notice how it starts with orange at the bottom right, drifting into dark yellow flowers with orange centers, then into pale yellow, and finally white at the top right.
Some chemically created pigments, however, can have a bright plastic look that is not necessarily ugly in itself, but stands out like fluorescent light contrasted with daylight. Today, we have a wide range of artificially created pigments, but medieval artists, of course, had no option but to use naturally occurring pigments. Anything that increases the range of colors available to artists is a good thing, but we must recognize that man has the capacity to do things well or badly. So, if you choose a chemically produced pigment, think about its quality and make sure it is going to sit happily with the others you choose!

All the photos below are from a website which is a treasure trove of images of stained glass, therosewindow.com. I am grateful to Painton Cowan for his kind permission to post his photographs from this wonderful resource. He has spent years taking these photographs and steadily building up the library of images. I encourage you to take a look, and if any of you think that this unique resource is important, consider making a donation as a contribution to the maintenance costs. You can contact Painton through the site.

Dr. Cotton wrote the following in his email:
Here is part of the famous East window at Twycross (Leics.) more famous for the zoo. This glass came from France after the Napoleonic wars. The east window at Twycross comes from a number of sources – the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, Le Mans cathedral, Saint Denis.

This pane is believed to originate at S. Denis c. 1140 (obviously showing the Presentation in the Temple). Said to be the oldest glass in England. Beautifully simple design. For more pictures of the window see here  
This glass was likely imported by John Christopher Hampp (1750-1825), who was from Württemberg in southern Germany and came to Norwich because of the weaving trade. He did so well that he became a Freeman of Norwich in 1793. Hampp bought glass for a song on the continent and sold it on at a good profit. Many medieval churches in France and Germany were either closed or ruined by the fighting during the French revolution and by the Napoleonic wars.
Hampp is buried in the south aisle of S. Giles’ Norwich, where one Simon Cotton was once the churchwarden, in his Anglican days.
Here are some more images of that east window. The upper panes are a random mish-mash of glass fragments. (All images Copyright (c) Painton Cowen 2008)
The Crucifixion

The Israelite spies carry grapes back to Moses from the Promised Land
The Emporer Domition talking to St John the Evangelist (from the Sainte Chapelle).
A kneeling monk
Moses with the 10 commandments (from the Sainte Chapelle)

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