The ‘cleverer’ the artist became, the more they tried to flatter and appease the patrons with prettified portraits and brutalistic, emotional art vaunting ‘great deeds’. The ‘cleverer’ the artists became, the more they painted pictures on stained-glass windows instead of exuberantly exploiting the sheer crude colour and joy in the light.
Not only did they become ‘cleverer’ with their perspective tricks/illusions, they even ‘improved’ their glass-production and handling techniques. The craftsmen learnt to make the glass smooth and to remove the bubbles, thus turning the sparkling, dancing light of early stained glass into a dead ‘artists’ palette. They learnt to draw their lines with silver nitrate and do away with the marvellous tracery and variations of much of the lead framing. Well, you might like it, many people rave over it, and certainly some of it is rather pretty-pretty.
So somewhere, during the early fifteenth century [1400-1500], they lose me, just as the canvas and wall painters started to lose my attention after Uccello [1397 - 1475]. Uccello was one of the very earliest artists to experiment with mathematical ideas of perspective. He was a friend of Leon Battista Alberti [1404-1472], who wrote the first known account of linear perspective in 1435 - note the dates for Uccello’s windows below.
Uccello had designed three of the eight intended oculus windows in the octagonal cupola, the Duomo of Florence cathedral. Two of the Uccello windows remain, the other (Annunciation) having been destroyed/dismantled in 1828.
It took the invention of the camera, from the time of Turner [1755 - 1871], to re-open options so that serious artists could return to serious experiment and to relearn their trade. Most of this relearning process has only happened in stained glass since around the 1950s.
It is the unimaginative classes who tend to commission and thereby pay the artists, few of the patrons ever want to rock the boat. Such people have been carefully taught ‘good taste’, which of course means repeating yesterday’s work and god preserve us from anything unusual or ‘innovative’.
Not for the insecure dignitaries, high up on the cathedral parapet, a fellow showing his arse to the bishop’s palace, let alone the priest enjoying himself with a donkey. You see, the medievals they knew how to live, how to get drunk, how to party. Market day would be held in Chartres cathedral, where the floor slopes so it can be swilled down easily when the market day is over. All those dull grey, ‘tasteful’ statues outside the front would be painted in a riot of technicolour. The pillars inside were often in beautiful geometric patterns. But gradually, the old world and the old religion is coming back. [see “Logic has made me hated among men”: Abelard of Le Pallet on theology]. The steady puritanical movements, from Bernard of Claiveaux to Martin Luther to Oliver Cromwell and the French Revolution, have destroyed much of this heritage, wherever they could, in much the manner of the Taliban.
The cathedrals that rose from 1170 to 1270 were a combination of innovation and workman-like solidity. But once the basic plan was in place, all those smart-arses that followed could not help decorating and doodling over everything in sight. And then along came the critics and academicians who divided this gradual decadence and dilettantism into various ‘styles’ for you to learn on art appreciation courses and thence repeat back in exams.
As the modern stained-glass artists recover the medium, specialist glass factories now produce coloured glasses an inch thick (complete with all the knowledge of modern chemistry to obtain a palette that even the medieval craftsmen could once again envy). These glasses are deliberately filled again with bubbles and the surfaces are crude and rough, to once more bring the light alive. The modern craftsman deliberately chip the glass and set it in concrete, and various resins to make the glass sing.
While I shall be telling you about gothic cathedrals and stained glass from many points of view, and with varying detail, it is well that I start by introducing you to my prejudices. My prime interest is in twelfth and thirteenth century (1100-1299) stained glass. For me, from then on everything went downhill, until the camera was discovered. Only then, at last, did artists start to move away from attempting to make two-dimensional art imitate three-dimensional life. With the camera a great burden was lifted from artists, and they could once more start studying and using materials for their aesthetic qualities and for imaginative expression.
The beautiful quiet and subdued light of the early, rich glass was steadily displaced by an increasing preference for decorative fiddling and flourish, along with the practical man’s demand for more light. This is explored on the modern stained glass page, as well as here below.
The first six days of creation to the top of the window, with a wonderfully bearded God streching out his hands. The events includes the creation of Earth (with a big bang bullseye), the making Adam and drawing Eve from his rib.
The main image is a gently pornographic depiction of Adam and Eve after they had eaten of the apple from the Tree of knowledge of good and evil, and so knew that previously they had been naked.
At the bottom of the of the window, Adam and Eve are chased from Eden; Adam has to work; Cain kills Abel.
The stained glass windows are from 1507 to 1513, the sixteenth century, by which time the artistic deterioration was well under way. There is an example here to the left.
Auch is a quiet, civilised town, but not the most exciting place on Earth. It’s the capital of the Département of Gers, with a little, unprepossessing, Renaissance cathedral. This is the sort of cathedral that people may dodge into to see whether there is anything interesting, have quick look round, and just as quickly, leave. The cathedral has a whole series of painted glass windows, which some call stained glass. They are by Arnaud de Moles [1470-1520]. It’s the sort of series of windows on which some enthusiastic student of biblical art history might well be tempted to write a sophisticated PhD thesis. In all, there are 18 windows by Arnaud de Moles.
But I’m only using the windows as an illustration of the decline of the craft. So this is sort of a good example of artistic degeneration. Unusually, the chapels are numbered from the north. Thus, the Adam and Eve window illustrated to the left is Window n°1. This window is also referred to as the Creation Window and its chapel is called the Purgatory Chapel.
But, but, before you rush on your way, this cathedral has a very impressive hidden art treasure in the choir. [See also Auch cathedral choir and stalls] There is a small door in the side of the choir and the fellow who mans it is often not at his post. You may not even notice the closed door. But you really must find him and pay him, or his assistant, two euros to let you enter the treasure house.
The stalls were designed at the same time as the painted glass. As with the painted glass, the themes come from the Bible, nature, mythology, chivalry, and so on. Remember, in days of long ago, religion was part of life and not some po-faced Victorian puritanism. Some of the images are even rather rude.
Inside you will find a hundred and thirteen oaken stalls, the wood blackened from being immersed in the Gers river for thirty or so years - some say one hundred years, but like the fish it tends to grow in size every time the tale is told.
The monks stood here for their interminable services and while chanting their offices. A little half seat is provided in every stall as a concession to human frailty. Thus the monks could rest while still appearing to be standing as was required during prayers. These seats are called misericords. Under the seats, between the seats, in front of the seats, behind the seats and above the seats is a absolute marvel and variety of the carver’s art with somewhere around fifteen hundred carvings.
For those appreciating church music and organ recitals, the cathedral has not one, but two church organs of some note. One is from the seventeenth century, while the other dates from the nineteenth century. Around these impressive machines, the city of Auch runs a grand summer music festival in June.
Bazas cathedral is glazed with typical nineteenth-century coloured windows. In England, it would be Victorian glass, the glass that despoils so many churches up and down the country.
Bazas, though, is a cathedral that is fully glazed with a complete set of sixty-five windows, thus allowing you to see the complete effect. The glazing is more or less professional but, to any demanding eye, it is pretty damn awful.
The glass does not raise the imagination to higher things, as was hoped for by Abbé Suger, nor can it even aspire to being a wonder of the world, as with Chartres. It can serve as a mundane teaching aid, and as an example of the end of the retreat to souless mediocrity before the growing renaissance of the twentieth century.
You should notice the technical trick with the north windows being generally of lighter colours than the south windows. This is done in order to compensate for the difference between the weaker, cold north light untouched by the sun and the brighter, even harsher south light from the sun passing across the often cloudless sky - a common occurence so far south in France.
By the nineteenth century, before electric lighting was established, the clerics were usually more interested in bringing light into the church, and instructing the working parishioners in diligence. This is the reason for so much white glass, instead of the glowing beauty of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The product is also almost a factory product and, as such, is cheaper. Practicality before beauty and art. These windows at Bazas took only ten years to be put in place, whereas cathedrals often take hundreds of years to be built (1852 - 1862).
The lower windows on the north side of the nave illustrate the Old Testament, while those on the south side depict scenes from the New Testament.
At the bottom of the lower windows the shields often show the donors for that window. Those of the Old Testament have mainly single donors, or donations from a family, the coat of arms being of the person or family concerned. Sometimes their initials are shown.
On the south side, the windows were often paid for by many people, listed in the shields.
High above in the clerestory, windows illustrate the saints, in total depicting fifty-two personages.
You think we can’t sink lower, don’t you believe it.
Being a stained glass enthusiast, or even a bore, I often have the opportunity of being told about wonderful stained glass that I should really go and see, and where possible, I do just that.
One place that regularly comes up in conversation is “that wonderful chapel at Dreux”. Otherwise, the Saint Louis Chapel at Dreux, is a necropolis where the remains of the Bourbon-Orléan family form a bizarre collection, all enhanced by the very worst of decadent, Victorian artistry.
But no way am I going to advise you to sully your mind with the ghastly contents of this place, more suited to a cross between Dracula and Salvador Dali, with added kitsch.
The so-called stained glass here could only be given that epithet by a particularly indecent cartoonist. It is, in fact, enamelled glass, produced with the assistance of the Sèvres porcelain factory - oh how I wish they’d stuck to porcelain.
However, it is apparent that some people actually like this stuff, but then vampire films and books are also big sellers. Maybe if you have some vampire genes, you’ll ‘appreciate’ it a little more than I do! If you do visit, you will be charged about 8€  to enter.
These are some of the people to blame for these picture glass abominations: Ingres, Eugene Delacroix, Horace Vernet, Hippolyte, Flandrin and Larivière; and these others claim authorship of the garden statuary living frozen on the various sarcophaguses: A. Millet, Barre, Barrias, Lenoir, Lemaire, Franceschi, Dubois, Campagne, Loison, Ch. Walbain, Pradier and Mercié.
The twelve saints in the transepts are designed by Ingres:
while many other stained glass images, such as those in the nave, are designed by Larivière:
cathedrals – introduction: reading stained glass
gothic cathedral and church construction
Chartres - wonder of the world
history of ugly stained glass: Auch, Bazas, Dreux
Auch cathedral choir and stalls
Rouen and Monet
Dax and church iconography photographs, Dax
Bazas - iconography and architectural styles
Poitiers, neglected masterpiece photographs, Poitiers / photos 2
Angers, heart of the Angevin Empire photographs, Angers
Laon, the midst of the gothic transition, with added oxen photographs, Laon
Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon
Notre Dame of Lausanne
Senlis - how a typical cathedral changes through the ages
Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges - the cathedral of the Pyrenees
Le Mans and Bourges cathedrals - medieval space technology
Lausanne rose window - photo-analysis
cathedrals in Lorraine - the Three Bishoprics
cathedral giants - Amiens and Beauvais
Clermont-Ferrand and Agde - from volcanoes to cathedrals
Germans in France - Arras cathedral
Germans in France - Reims cathedral
Germans in France - St. Quentin cathedral
Germans in France - Noyon cathedral
Germans in France - Cambrai cathedral
Germans in France - Soissons cathedral
cathedral plans, and facts
using metal in gothic cathedral construction
cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France
cathedrals and cloisters of France by Elise Whitlock Rose
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© abelard, 2011, 12 august
the address for this document is http://www.abelard.org/france/stained_glass_history_ugly_glass.php
prints as 11 A4 pages (on my printer and set-up)