Friday, 16 March 2012

Medieval Stained Glass Pattern Work

Illustration: Stained glass window pattern from Lincoln Cathedral.

It is sometimes tempting to think that all ecclesiastical stained glass design work tells a figurative story. However, a considerable sum of stained glass production over the centuries has been of a non-figurative pattern type, a style for which the medium is aptly suited. Although a fair proportion of this abstract pattern work has been in the shape of 'filler' for the main event, as in border and demarcation of figurative work, often the borders being made up using left over glass from the main window display, sometimes these little vignettes of the medieval interpretation of pattern can be more interesting, and certainly more inspiring than that main event.

Colour has always had a relatively dominating aspect within the craft of stained glass window design, and in many ways it has defined the traditions and journey of the discipline. Colour, as it so often does, has helped to add dimension to non-figurative pattern work over the generations with many traditional patterns being transformed from generation to generation as the shapes, but also the colours, changed and evolved with a succession of tastes often dictated by culture, rather than personal creativity.

Illustration: Stained glass window pattern from Camberwell Church.

However, it is not only colour itself that came to dominate stained glass decoration but that of the particular and peculiar aspect that highlights this individualised form of craft, the luminescent quality of the glass itself. Through the use of light being cast through various forms of colouring, stained glass has become one of the most successful and creatively inspiring of the glass crafts. Although having certain technical similarities with mosaic, at least as far as assembly is concerned, it is the added natural quality of daylight that makes this particular craft unique.

The five examples of English medieval glass illustrating this article were not chosen for any specific quality apart from that of non-figurative pattern work. English medieval stained glass was certainly no better than that found in France or Germany for example. However, by choosing examples from large and relatively small ecclesiastical buildings, both cathedral and parish church, from one specific European country, it does give a fair indication of the creative cross-section of quality that was abundant and clearly readily available across England as well as the continent in general.

Illustration: Stained glass window pattern from Salisbury Cathedral.

Interestingly, a number of the examples, although largely abstract in nature, do have elements that tie them to their surrounding environment. Leaves, both natural and stylised seem particularly abundant and in many cases the stained glass window would have both highlighted and complemented the ornamental and painted work that filled most churches, abbeys and cathedrals with colour and decoration.

It perhaps should be noted that medieval ecclesiastical life was by no means one that was dominated by the black vestments and white-washed interiors of the protestant reformation. Medieval churches, abbeys and cathedrals could and were dominated by figurative and non-figurative decorative work on walls, pillars and roofs, both internally and externally. Sculpture would have been coloured, walls would have been painted with various biblical scenes and pillars would have been coloured with different forms of pattern work from spirals to diaper pattern work. Exploring the decoration within the backgrounds of illuminated manuscripts as well as the decorated borders of those same manuscripts give some indication of the quality and range of pattern work that was available to the medieval designer and decorator.

Illustration: Stained glass window pattern from Chartham Church.

In some respects, this should put the ideal of stained glass decoration in context, at least as far as the medieval world was concerned. If ecclesiastical buildings were both highly coloured and richly decorated, then stained glass windows would have been part of the interior scene and not necessarily separate from it. The fact that so many are now whitewashed and minimally inspired, at least as far as decoration and colour is concerned, allows stained glass windows to dominate interiors as they would never have done perhaps when they were originally installed. This is not to say that they were not noticed amongst the decoration. In many respects they would have been seen as the crowning glory or at least as a decorative spectacle, using both human ingenuity and technical ability along with the natural wonder of sunlight, giving a combination of luminescent light that has probably never been bettered.

Although, because of its obvious fragility, much of the original medieval glass work of Europe has been destroyed through political, social and religious upheavals over the generations as well as intentional and non-intentional vandalism, a proportion does still survive, particularly in some of the small rural churches where the dictates of central government or ecclesiastical office, often didn't effectively reach, although even this glass has been reused, requisitioned and repositioned over the generations often giving it a medieval collage effect. It will be interesting to see how long the remaining stained glass, whether original medieval, Victorian reimagining, or contemporary installations, last the test of time. Perhaps the fact that I noticed recently that the local parish church has wire netting in front of its stained glass windows to prevent damage from thrown rocks and stones, shows that perhaps it would not be as long as we would wish.

Illustration: Stained glass window pattern from Salisbury Cathedral.

An interesting video accompanies this article. It is of the South Newington Church and gives a good indication of some of the interior decorative work that could be found within medieval English churches before they were whitewashed. The video will also be featured on the twitter, facebook and google+ aspects of The Textile Blog as well as being part of the video resource.


Further reading links:

1 comment:

pansypoo said...

the softness of lead + the weight of glass also an issue.