Friday 15 November 2013

Of Glass and Gold II: St Etienne, Notre-Dame and the Stained Glass of Marc Chagall

James Waller
This is the second part of a paper given by James Waller at the Carmelite Centre on Tuesday evening, the 12th of November 2013. James’s paper contrasts his discovery of the Trinity Sergius Monastery in Russia, a spiritual centre of Orthodoxy, with Metz Cathedral in France, a remarkable example of Western Catholic spirituality. All images in this presentation come from the camera of James Waller. A bibliography, with links, is at the end of Part III.
"To me, stained glass is the transparent wall between my heart and the world’s. Stained glass is uplifting, it requires gravity and passion. It must come alive through the light it receives. The Bible is light already, and stained glass should make this obvious through grace and simplicity."  Marc Chagall

Those are the words of Marc Chagall, whose stained glass windows adorn the magnificent cathedrals of Metz and Rheims in France. Just as Andrei Rublev drew me to Sergiev Posad, so did Chagall draw me to Rheims and Metz. For both these artists are kings of my colour-loving heart.

The stained glass windows of Chagall in St Etienne and in Notre-Dame de Rheims are haunting embers of romantic modernism, smoldering within soaring structures of Neoplatonic  Christian thought. They are visions of the Romantic spirit nestled within the marching vertical lines of an essentially Classical vision; a vision which sought to fuse the rational, even the scientific, with the mystical. It is a vision we call Gothic.

Before exploring the glass of Metz and Rheims, it is, I think essential, to have some idea of what inspired the Gothic vision, of what drove such sublime constructions of stone, lead and glass.

As is the case with all artistic revolutions, the Gothic emerged from the Romanesque style of architecture through a convergence of technical innovation and conceptual inspiration. Advances in stone masonry dovetailed the emergence of translations of key mystical works by Plato, Plotinus, St Augustine, Boethius and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The writings of St Augustine from the 4th century, in particular De Musica, enflamed the imagination of 12th century French bishops, abbots and theologians.   St Bernard of Clairvaux ,  Abbot Suger of St Denis and Thierry of Chartres were some of the principle figures who developed and championed the aesthetics of St Augustine, as well as the ideas of Plato and Pythagoras, with profound implications for French ecclesiastical architecture.

Pythagorian and Neoplatonic number mysticism, and the mystical significance given to the substance of light were the keystones of the Neoplatonic texts. According to the aesthetics derived from Augustine’s treatise De Musica and and Plato’s work, the Timaeus, the divine could be accessed via principles of mathematical order and a system of ideal ratios. St Augustine, in his treatise, was thinking primarily of music, but his thought extended also to architecture, for as Otto Von Simson states, for Augustine, “…architecture mirrors eternal harmony, as music echoes it.”

Thierry of Chartres, a leading, influential thinker amongst a group of Platonists, went so far as to attempt to explain the Trinity by way of geometry. The key to God, it was thought, was to be found in mathematics. This may sound somewhat off the wall to us now, but as Von Simson states “Gothic art would not have come into existence without the Platonic cosmology cultivated at Chartres.”

If a rediscovered enthusiasm for sacred geometry became the basis for a new and more expansive architecture, it was the potentiality of glass to embody Neoplatonic concepts of light that accelerated the shape and character of that architecture. According to Von Simson, for the medieval follower of St Augustine, "Light and luminous objects, no less than musical consonance, conveyed an insight into the perfection of the cosmos, and a divination of the Creator."

A combined vision of theophanic light and sacred geometry, created, as Von Simson so beautifully puts it, “a transparent, diaphanous architecture.” This vision spurred the stonemasons of the 12th century to evolve new solutions in vaulting, buttressing and stone tracery that would support unprecedented fields of stained-glass, where before there had only been small windows, in ever-more complex geometric patterns. The great rose windows of High Gothic and Rayonnant architecture, that evolved from the mid 13th century onwards represent the apex of that geometric complexity.

Painton Cowen, in his work The Rose Window makes a very interesting observation about what he calls “the race to thinness”; that is the increasing elaboration of stone tracery and window design:

In a sense this was a trend toward decoration…Rayonnant roses may seem more ethereal, but lack the mystical – some might say interestingly erratic – qualities found in earlier, more inventive, roses. The perfection came at a cost.
Instead they were hierarchical, ordered, orthodox, relentlessly linear. Everything was logical, ordered, almost standardized. Aristotle had seemingly triumphed over Plato, Reason and Dogma dominated Faith, Orthodoxy over Heresy.

The essential thing to grasp in all this is that figuration within the stained-glass ensemble became utterly subordinate to the geometric impulse. And in later Rayonnant design it disappeared completely. Cowen’s reference to the “triumph” of Aristotle is a nod to the ‘Unmoved Mover’ of Aristotlean metaphysics; a disinterested God emanating a disinterested Divine Light, perceived through perfect geometric order. This is an important point that we’ll come back to, as it represents a complete antithesis to the icon and to Eastern Orthodox aesthetics.

With all that in mind let us return to St Etienne and Notre-Dame de Rheims. As I mentioned earlier, I came to these cathedrals seeking Chagall, whose aesthetic is completely opposed to any kind of order or geometric perfection.

I made my way to the ancient city of Metz by train, a one and a half hour trip from Paris, in the direction of Strasbourg and the German border. Metz itself is a beautiful town with a fascinating history. The capital of the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, it has variously been part of Germany, France, the kingdom of Lotharingia and Gaul, as well as once having been its own independent republic.

St Etienne is a towering Rayonnant Gothic edifice, located in the centre of Metz. Its construction began in the 13th century within the walls of a 10th century Ottonian basilica, which itself had been built on the site of an ancient shrine to Saint Stephen (or St Etienne) dating from the 5th century AD.

On my arrival I could hardly wait to find the Chagall windows which, for years I had looked at in books. My anticipation was heightened by my frustration at not having seen a single Chagall, from the Met in New York to the great galleries of London, Paris, St Petersburg and Moscow, throughout the previous three months. There was, I thought, some diabolical conspiracy afoot, until I discovered that a huge Chagall retrospective had just finished in Paris only one week before my arrival. Such, at times, is life.

As it turned out it took me some time to find the Chagall windows, tucked away in the ambulatory, as there was so much else to take one’s breath away. Chief among them were the windows by Jaques Villon, created for the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in 1957. Villon’s highly expressive contructivism, divided into powerful sections of colour makes a startling impact within the medieval interior. His stained-glass compositions of the Crucifixion (centre), the Jewish Passover and Last Supper (left), and the Wedding Feast of Cana (right), recalling to my mind the work of Franz Marc, flare brilliantly, even on an overcast day, drawing all eyes towards them.

Fig. 1. Windows for the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament,  by Jacques Villon, 1957.

Turning back towards the West façade my vision was engulfed by the great 14th century rose window, by Hermann de Munster. It is a cosmic, largely geometric vision, which pushes all figuration out to the peripheral quadrifoils and trefoils. Below it, large arched windows depict two rows of saints, set amidst elaborate High Gothic ornamentation. Glancing, then, up to the left and right one could see two entirely modernist abstract compositions: two small window sections by Bissierre from 1960, the glass segments of which looked for all the world like mosaic tiles, which had been transported miraculously into lead cames and stone portals.

Pulling myself away from this avalanche of eclectic treasures I eventually found myself in the ambulatory, where I stayed for most of the afternoon. The ambulatory windows by Chagall date from 1960. They were made in collaboration with master glassmaker, Charles Marq, in Rheims, who also facilitated the work of Jaques Villon. 

Fig. 2 & 3. Ambulatory windows, by Marc Chagall, 1960.

The windows, above the door of the Treasury depict scenes from the Old Testament, brought to life with Chagall’s trademark arabesque and filled with his personal iconography of birds, animals, torahs and entwining figures. Where Villon is all constructivist angles and flat-colour planes, Chagall is all curves and tonal flares. His modulation of tone, within the fabulously fragmented and flowing glass panes lends his colours a deeper, more smoldering dimension.

Chagall’s searing, romantic vision, is a stunning contrast to the South and North Transept windows, created in the 16th century by two different masters. The South Transept is a vast Renaissance ensemble, with a rose window at its apex, created by Valentin Bousch. Here we find the stained-glass in the service of an illusionistic aesthetic. Where the modernist compositional devices of Villon and Chagall agree with the translucent and fragmentary nature of the medium, the realism of Bousch seems to be in conflict with it. The illusion of solidity which Bousch achieved contradicts the immaterial nature of the light which the Gothic vision sought to celebrate.

Fig. 4. South Transept windows by Valentin Bousch, 16th century.

The North Transept window, by Thiebaut de Lixheim, is different in tenor again. Its vision is more truly Gothic, integrating as it does elaborate ornamentation, in white and grey glass, with figures of saints – complete with medieval haloes – saturated in reds and blues. The three rose windows at the apex of the arches absorb all figuration into a crystalline Rayonnant scheme that is truly stunning.

Faced with the relentless verticality of Thiebaut’s ornamentation, the dynamic and flowing arabesques of Chagall’s window to its left come as a relief. Chagall represents the Creation of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden and the Expulsion from Paradise with a joyous explosion of yellow panes, pierced by fragmentary fields of blue, red and green.

Fig. 5. Genesis window by Marc Chagall, 1960.

Sitting on the cold stone of the ambulatory, on that cloudy day, I truly felt transported beyond time. The dark silhouette of the stone tracery, lending the stained glass a midnight radiance, magnified the feeling that a timeless paradise of sorrow and joy was open before me. To me it felt like the most magical place in the world. The cathedral was a cosmos where one could find the most bewitching and unique planets. And those unique planets were held together by the gravity of the Gothic design.

Three quarters of an hour from Paris I entered another cosmos, just as startling and bewitching. This was the High Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame de Rheims. Now, I had intended only to discuss Metz, but Rheims, being a centre for stained glass production, its cathedral having facilitated the coronation of kings, and being a bastion for the most modern, as well as the most ancient, stained glass, really can’t go unmentioned! Added to this, the work of Chagall forever links St Etienne and Notre-Dame de Rheims in my mind.

Rheims is the home of the Jaques Simon Stained-Glass studio. It was here that Chagall and Villon worked with master glass-maker Charles Marq. And it was here that Chagall created much of his legacy in stained-glass for churches, synagogues and concert halls around the world.

In 1971 Chagall was approached by the Building Federation of Champagne Ardenne, to help them complete the process of restoring Notre-Dame de Rheims, which had been severely damaged in World War One. He was invited to create some of the most important windows in the cathedral: those of the apse, in central view from the entrance portal, hovering behind and above the Sanctuary.

On entering Notre-Dame de Rheims, the fruit of this invitation glows like a distant fire of soft sorrow, a deep blue flame of lancets and roses, its painted figures smoldering in whites, ceruleans and pinks. Charles Marq had rediscovered an ancient chemical process for the forging of the deep blue glass which was used in these windows, the same blue, so I’ve read that was used in Chartres Cathedral many centuries before.

Fig. 6. Apse windows by Marc Chagall, 1974.

In true Chagall style, the narrative scenes in the windows interpolate. In the right lancet of the central window the crucified Christ hovers above scenes from the story of Abraham. In the left lancet Jacob and his ladder dovetail The Descent from the Cross, with The Sacrifice of Isaac pictured directly underneath.

The left window is a veritable cascade of glowering ultramarines and ceruleans. The lead cames form swirling rhythms, sketching in the Kings of Juda, the Prophets, people in prayer, and a towering Virgin and Child, shown at the top of her lineage, the Tree of Jesse.

The right window is suffused with deep purples, reds, blues and greens. Depicted are several of the kings of France, including Charles VII and Saint Louis, together with Joan of Arc. Also included are scenes depicting The Parable of the Good Samaritan and of The Kingdom of Heaven.

The windows are all beautifully fused by Charles Marq’s chemistry of blues and by the swirling, fractal rhythms of the lead cames. There is one other window in this cathedral with a comparable rhythm, and that is by Brigitte Simon, the artist-wife of Charles Marq. Her work is a song of glass, in semi-abstract grisaille, her forms based on the rhythms of nature and the harvest of grain. The splendid tonal modulations and the use of grisaille provide a link between the new modernist windows and the somber grisaille windows of the Gothic period.

Fig. 7. Modern Grisaille windows by Brigitte Simon.

What I find so arresting about the cathedrals of Metz and Rheims is the sheer variety of the stained glass, as opposed to the unity of vision revealed in cathedrals such as Sainte Chappelle in Paris. That variety reveals a history of tensions in Western culture between the extremes of ascetic rationalism (geometric abstraction and Renaissance illusionism) and unbridled Romanticism (poetic modernism). These two extremes could otherwise be personified by the ancient figures of Aristotle and Moses: Inspired logic and reason opposed to ecstatic vision and intuition.

The tempestuous, magical and smoldering energies of Chagall, Simon and Villon, are thus balanced and held, in a mystical equilibrium, by the beautifully ordered ratios of Plato and Pythagoras, as they are applied to the Gothic vision. The one held so surrealistically, within the other, becomes a unique symbol for the human soul. The “bright-haired wave” of the collective unconscious enters the portal of the supremely ordered mind, awakening both to a greater level of being. This, to me, is the great message of two cathedrals that have never stopped evolving.

No comments:

Post a Comment