Monday, 28 July 2014

Reading Stained Glass iii: ‘Ab Fab’ in Fairford

‘Absolutely fab guide to glorious stained glass windows’ gushed a recent Times headline (19 .7.14). The sub-heading was more informative: ‘St Mary’s, Fairford – famous for its stained glass – has launched an all-star audio-guide’. ‘All-star’ is about right, for Joanna Lumley (hence ‘Absolutely fab’), Mark Rylance, Zoë Wanamaker et al. have contributed to a new audio-guide describing arguably the most important set of stained glass windows in England. The Fairford windows are important because they are, uniquely, a complete set, made between 1500 and 1515, filling the whole church: a final flowering of late medieval art, fascinating alike for their colour, their composition and their content.

I discussed the Fairford windows earlier this month during a lecture in Salisbury about George Herbert and Stained Glass. I wanted to examine the different ways in which Herbert’s contemporaries, and Herbert himself, responded to stained glass at the beginning of the 17th century. At this time, Fairford’s windows were only just over one hundred years old – more ‘modern’ than Victorian glass is to us today – but already celebrated:

Each pane instructs the laity
With silent eloquence, for here
Devotion leads the eye, not ear,
To note the catechizing paint,
Whose easy note doth so acquaint
Our sense with gospel that the creed
In such a hand the weak may read;
Such types even yet of virtue be,
And Christ as in a glasse we see.

               from ‘On Fairford Windows’
by William Strode (1600-1643)

Not everyone took it for granted that stained glass spoke ‘with silent eloquence’ Here is the Bishop of Oxford, in 1629, preaching at the consecration of the new Chapel of Lincoln College, Oxford:

This place above all the rest hath most need of consecration, the Pulpit. If this be not sanctifyed to the preacher, and the preacher to this, all the whole chappel is the wors for it  ….The Altar shall be called no more an Altar but a dresser. The reuerence [that] is done there shall be apish cringing, and all the seemly glazing be thought nothing but a little brittle superfluity.

How should the Fairford stained glass properly be described? I have called it ‘a final flowering of late medieval art’ but does ‘medieval’ really fit as a label for works of art commissioned during the reign of Henry VII and completed during the reign of Henry VIII? Technically, it’s Tudor art, and we think of the Tudors as post-medieval; but it hardly seems to belong to the world of Hans Holbein, nor even to the stained glass of King’s College Chapel, with which it is almost contemporary, any more than the stained glass of the great Victorian designer Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907) belongs to the world of his exact contemporary, the post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). It was in thinking about the impact of the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London that Virginia Woolf famously remarked, ‘On or about December 1910 human nature changed.’ But even she later admitted, ‘The change was not sudden or definite … But a change there was, nevertheless’.

In my lecture I tried to show how change is evident, even in the Fairford glass. I took as an example a scene showing Christ with his mother. This is a strange scene because it depicts Jesus visiting his mother immediately after the Resurrection – an event for which there is no biblical authority: it is to Mary Magdalene that he appears, in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, where he is mistaken for the gardener. That scene appears any number of times in medieval and later glass, but a private meeting between Christ and his mother does not: indeed, it was the kind of ‘unauthorised’, apocryphal episode to which post-Reformation preachers took exception.

Look carefully at the window itself. At first it seems entirely conventional: a tableau in which the two figures are static and the text inscribed above the head of Jesus, ‘Salve Sancta Parens’ – ‘Greetings, holy parent’ – formal to a fault. (It was, I realise, medieval glass designers who invented the speech bubble.)  But unlike Noli me tangere’ windows, which often vividly depict Mary Magdalene’s despair / shock / joy at encountering and finally recognizing Jesus in the garden, in this Fairford window the two figures seem almost embarrassed: Mary keeps her distance and Jesus, his feet poised on the very threshold of the scene, keeps his eyes down and looks as if he wants to walk out of the picture altogether.

And this is the problem. The artist has become so intent on ‘staging’ the scene that the scenery seems
to matter more than the subject. The room in which the meeting that never actually happened takes place is rendered in startling detail: delicate red shafts supporting the vaulted ceiling, leaded lights in the window of the back wall, three books on top of the tall settle next to the door through which Mary has entered – her bedroom door, since her bed can be glimpsed through the doorway. There is an extraordinary depth to the room, accentuated partly by the elaborate tiled floor but also by the fact that, though we look up from below to view the window, the artist’s POV is well above the heads of the two figures. Consequently, the perspective doesn’t quite work. You could say the same about the window as a whole: while the non-story it tells reflects the late medieval cult of the Virgin Mary, the setting for this story reflects the Renaissance fascination with the complexities of perspective. Somewhere between the scene and the scenery, the vitality of medieval stained glass has leached away.

You may say I’m missing the point; but my point is that the glass that came 250 years earlier (see for instance, my first post in this mini-series, Reading Stained Glass i: Rouen) and that which came only 25 years later (the stained glass of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge) had an artistic energy and authenticity that this window from Fairford, for all its interest, simply lacks.

© Adrian Barlow 2014

[illustrations: (i) Detail of a window in St. Mary’s, Fairford: Christ appearing to his mother after the Resurrection (ii) Detail of a window from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge: the Resurrection of Christ

I am also discussing the glass at Fairford in posts to my blog for the Kempe Trust. See for instance, Pevsner and Kempe (i)

My previous post in the ‘Reading Stained Glass’ series is Reading Stained Glass (ii): Wittersham in the Isle of Oxney.


  1. Fascinating - more, please!

  2. Fascinating stuff, Adrian. I think it fair to say that Renaissance perspective did have something of a dampening effect on art, given that imposed constraints on depiction – everything having to conform to ‘the rules’. James Elkins, in ‘The Poetics of Perspective’, writes: ‘... perspective had a deleterious effect on pictorial unity right from its inception. As E H Gombrich has observed, perspective “destroyed certain aspects of the medieval tradition,” among them the ideal of simplicity: that calm, even unity in perspective paintings which is so easily fractured by perspective foreshortenings.’

    Four centuries then passed before the reappearance of ‘flatness’ in Modernist painting. (Robert Delaunay could perhaps have paid attention to stained glass, and his Circular Forms (Formes circulaires) is perhaps sufficient in support of this idea.)