The use of stained glass in churches is a hallmark of Gothic style and sensibility. What are its stylistic origins? How does it comment upon Christian ideals of the Gothic era? Be specific. Make sure your answer is 300-500 words.
Gothic Art and the Art of 13th and 14th Century Italy
It may be difficult to imagine, but gothic art was seen as modern and without parallel in its day.
From a tiny precinct known as the Ile-de-France where it first announced itself, the gothic style
eventually came to be the dominate aesthetic mode all over Europe, lasting in some places up to
the 16th century. The person responsible for this momentous shift was a politically astute French
abbot named Suger. He sought to align the French monarchy with the Church, and in doing so
strengthen both. As an abbot of St. Denis, the church at which both Charlemagne and his father
were consecrated in the eighth century as well as being the shrine for France’s patron saint, Suger
was in a position to harness St. Denis’ fame for political and aesthetic ends. Indeed, he instigated
a re-building project there in 1137 that would transform the church into the template for redesigns and brand-new constructions spanning across Europe.
What made St. Denis so different from earlier medieval churches? How did it inspire an aesthetic
revolution and ultimately spawn the “Age of Great Cathedrals”? Like so many groundbreaking
movements or moments in art, the contributing factors that give rise to them are numerous, and
their effects are only seen clearly in retrospect. While this is certainly true in St. Denis’ case, one
could argue that Suger’s personality and vision were an especially potent combination, the likes
of which produced a well-honed architectural treatise that was then carefully manifested in the
actual structure. As mentioned before, the abbey’s history and symbolic importance made it an
excellent site for something new and exciting. Suger’s deft handling of the political situation in
France and his allegiance to the monarchy provided a revenue stream and access to capital that
otherwise may have not materialized. Engineering technology born (unfortunately) from wartime
necessity, such as the double pulley and the windlass powered crane, streamlined the building
process, and in doing so, allowed Suger and later architects to conceive work on a larger scale.
Suger’s personal quest to create a harmonious union between intellectual rigor and emotional
intensity would become the most defining characteristic of the new style. The abbot’s philosophy
regarding beauty, so central to the project from the beginning, gathered inspiration from St.
Thomas Aquinas’ contemporary pedagogy, Christian mysticism, and notable thinkers from
antiquity. If it could be summed up in a single word, it would be “light.” Light as it relates to
both weight and luminosity was on Suger’s mind when he stated that St. Denis’ stained glass
windows could transport a parishioner to “some strange region of the universe which neither
exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven.” Whether due to ego
or piety, or perhaps a bit of both, Suger saw himself as the man who could create a supernatural
conduit on earth!
Suger’s ideal church would function symbolically in a way not unlike the Roman triumphal arch
or other “charged” architectural structures from antiquity that occupied liminal spaces. Instead of
defining an area that was merely geographic, the entire structure of a gothic church could be a
liminal zone between heaven and earth. For that, Suger needed a dramatic setting.
This drama was
enabled in large part by
light. If the
of the preceding
century could be
generalized as massive
and solid—rooted to the
earth—it was because
builders both sought
that aesthetic and were
also bound by the then
current limits of building
techniques that did not
allow large openings to
be cut into an elevation.
Not so with Suger. His
goal was to build
proportion, and come
up with better ways to
pierce a façade with
windows so that his
church would be
dizzyingly ascendant and flooded with light. Vaulting techniques were studied and refined to
enable load-bearing members to be taller and thinner. Buttresses were placed on the exterior of
the structure whenever possible, leaving the maximum square footage that would be seen as clear
and uncluttered. Best of all, these vertical stretches of wall, no longer riddled with piers, could be
filled with the largest windows in the history of architecture.
These windows would play a didactic as well as symbolic role through the use of the
aforementioned stained glass. It has been calculated by historians that early Christian mosaics
were four times as costly as wall paintings. Stained glass was by far even more costly, sucking
up vast natural resources, expertise, and time. The results, however, were nothing short of
stunning. The glass was said to shelter parishioners from rain and cold while letting God’s light
through. Bernard of Clairvaux, an outspoken leader of the order of Cistercian monks who
typically praised austerity and were generally against opulent art programs, stated that “light can
pass through glass without damaging it just as the word of God could pass through Mary’s womb
in the same way.” People were truly captivated by the new medium, which helped to dissolve the
solidity of the church interior and create an otherworldly atmosphere. For a largely illiterate
congregation, the narratives contained in the multi-faceted panels would teach the gospel and
moral foundations of the religion, reaffirming what was taught from the pulpit. As Suger put it,
the material realm would be a stepping-stone for spiritual contemplation.
The Age of the Great Cathedrals (roughly 1150 to 1250) was defined by the Abbot Suger’s ideas.
All of the gothic Notre Dames (“Our Lady”) still stand to this day, giving a contemporary viewer
a palpable sense of the community effort, time, and money involved in the erection of what was
then the most massive buildings ever conceived on European soil. Laon, Paris, Reims, Amiens,
and Chartres all embraced ever more complex sculptural and stained-glass programs and pushed
current engineering technology to its physical limits. The largest Romanesque structure, Speyer
Cathedral, whose nave elevation soars to an impressive 108 feet is bested by Amiens at 137 feet.
Because Amiens has a slightly thinner nave width, it is also proportionally more lithe and airy—
exactly what the architects sought.
Small-scale, two-dimensional art echoed its large, stained glass counterpart throughout the
1200s. The Psalter of Blanche of Castile, and The Psalter of St. Louis are excellent examples of
how illuminated manuscripts took their
visual cues from the flat, geometric, compartmentalized spaces of gothic windows and used them
to organize narratives on the page. Even the simplicity of color, which had technological and
economic limits in stained glass, is carried over to the tempera paint. Un-modulated, flat color is
often banded with heavy black outlines. It is not until Master Honore and Jean Pucelle working
in the early 1300s (what is known as the Late Gothic) do we see the flowing subtlety of
garments, arrangements of figures, and overall sense of space that is already apparent in stone
figurative sculpture of the High Gothic.
Pucelle was a contemporary of the Italian artist Duccio, who is credited for providing the
younger painter as well as countless others with a template for how to credibly ensconce figures
in an architectural setting. If there is one key element of late Gothic Italian painting, it is this
abiding fascination with presenting visual tableau as if it were seen through a window. Thus, the
practice of capturing the foreshortened appearance of ceiling joists or buildings or the
switchback trails of mountain roads is taken quite seriously, as it is the mark of a painter who
truly comprehends the visual world in a scientific fashion.
It would take much more space to detail the rise of the philosophy known as humanism and how
it relates to the visual arts. Yet some space is required to give a brief explanation for what it
meant as a cultural engine and why Italy became its birthplace. The late 13th century was
different for those Europeans on the south side of the Alps, due in part, to the fact that papal
power was concentrated not in Rome but in France and Germany at this time. The emerging
Italian merchant class was also asserting itself as a newer, more effective model for the creation
and consolidation of wealth than the north and central European landholding aristocracy’s
feudalistic paradigm. The business and political leaders were one and the same, presiding over
the highly organized city-states of Venice, Florence, Siena, and Genoa.
This new class of wealthy urbanites demanded modern solutions to modern problems and sought
answers that fell outside of authorized church doctrine. Humanism was a stew of Aquinian
scholasticism, Dominican respect for classical philosophy, and Franciscan emphasis on the role
of nature as teacher. In that sense, it was not anti-ecclesiastical. It did stress, however, learning
from a multitude of texts. Classical examples like Cicero and Vergil were welcomed alongside
contemporary writers such as Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch to provide the moral and
intellectual sustenance that was shunned by many church leaders as heretical. Modern human
experience, in the capable hands of a modern poet or novelist, would now have a valid place in
the canon. Italian artists were the lucky beneficiaries of ancient ruins and examples of Roman art
at every turn. City-states demanded international sea and overland trade that brought people,
ideas, and products together. The ancient and the current, viewed and considered simultaneously
did much to shape the aesthetics of Italian artists and architects, causing their efforts to be
Much of the groundbreaking painting done in the last two decades of the 1200s and continuing
into the next century was regarded as done in the “Greek manner” by critics of later generations.
What they saw in the work that set it apart was its sharp clarity of figurative and
architectural forms as well as its compositional logic. “Greek manner” was a term derived from
the apparent influence of Byzantine styles that migrated to Italy for numerous reasons beginning
in the early 1200s. Both immigrant Byzantine artists and native Italians who digested and copied
or re-configured their styles, shaped two- dimensional art for the rest of the century. In the
Florentine Master Cimabue’s work Madonna Enthroned, we see the symmetry, monumentality,
complex yet clearly defined space, and crisp architectonic forms that are regarded as the ultimate
example of the Late Italian Gothic. Hi pupil Giotto was regarded as absolutely revelatory, taking
mastery of composition but painting figures with more delicate modeling, imbuing them with a
greater sense of naturalism.
Duccio and later Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti would radically transform the way a twodimensional scene was viewed. The three artists’ works in the chapter define how painters
incrementally changed the rules of engagement for how a viewer would react—optically and
physically—to work on a monumental scale that convincingly surrounded its figures and
believably, almost magically, receded into deep space. Nothing could be further from the
disproportionate, comic book figures and flattened space of pages from the Psalter of Blanche of
Castile than Lorenzetti’s masterful blending of actual architectural elements to his painted groin
vaults in his Birth of the Virgin of 1342. Pietro’s brother Ambrogio is credited with creating the
first true landscape since antiquity. In his famous fresco cycle Allegory of Good and Bad
Government we see the prototype for the epic history painting of the following century. These
were worlds you could get lost in. And of course, the impetus was this thing we call humanism.
The scientific study of perspective, the emphasis on experimentation, the rationale for addressing
the moral imperatives of citizenry, the desire for naturalism, and the willingness to seek preChristian models all come from this humanist outlook that made Italy the most artistically
modern place in the Christian world.
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