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.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Sunday in Saint Germain

All day it has rained, and I have been stuck in my hotel room in Saint Germain-en-Laye. Saint Germain is west of Paris, nearly an hour by Metro and RER from the Gare du Nord. Here Louis XIV and his predecessors held court before Versailles was built; and here James II, the last Stuart King of England, lived out his exile and died in 1701; Queen Victoria came to pay her respects at his tomb in the parish church, and I wonder if young Claude Debussy came out to watch her, for he was born here in 1862. I wanted to walk one more time in the Château’s grounds, for I expect this will be the last Sunday I shall ever spend in Saint Germain; but now, thanks to the rain, I’ve missed my chance.

For the past ten years I have spent a week here each June, based at the Lycée International de Saint Germain-en-Laye.  As ‘Monsieur L’Inspecteur de Cambridge’, I have overseen the Language and Literature exams of students from all over France who take the British version of the Option International du Baccalauréat (the OIB, definitely not to be confused with the IB). It’s a job I have greatly enjoyed, especially because it has given me the chance to work with teachers, Anglophone and Francophone, British and American as well as French, who are all committed to an unusual educational project that is bicultural as well as bilingual.

The OIB has brought me to France four or five times every year, and taken me right across the country: from Strasbourg to Rouen, to Lyon, Grenoble and Aix-en-Provence. And of course to Paris itself: to the Ministry of Education, to the rather grim Maison des Examens in Arceuil; to schools, to the American University and, only last week, to the Institut d’études avancées. Twice a year I have helped to run conferences for teachers: two days each autumn in Sèvres, at the Centre international d’études pédagogique (CIEP) and two days each spring, I have come to St Germain, and run training days for teachers at the Château d’Hennemont. This building has some history: though it’s a 19th century folly on a scale that renders the word ‘folly’ simply inadequate, it was the Paris headquarters of (successively) the Gestapo and Eisenhower’s SHAFE.

In such settings, my lectures and workshops on teaching literature (poetry particularly) have doubtless seemed tame enough, but I have found my role as Cambridge Inspector absorbing and rewarding. I have made many friends through the OIB and am stepping down now only because I believe you should never outstay your welcome; and, anyway, if you haven’t made your mark in ten years you’re never going to. Still, I would have liked to explore Saint Germain one last time – but all day it has rained.

‘All day It Has Rained’ is the title of a poem by Alun Lewis, a Welsh poet remembered today, if at all, for the poems he wrote during the Second World War (he died in Burma in 1944):

All day it has rained, and we on the edge of the moors

Have sprawled in our bell-tents, moody and dull as boors,

Groundsheets and blankets spread on the muddy ground

And from the first grey wakening we have found

No refuge from the skirmishing fine rain ….

It’s not so much the unheroic couplets as the sprawling lines and unpredictable stresses that count here. It is almost as though the poet – a soldier in training, under canvas, wet and listless  – is writing up his diary: ‘I saw a fox’, he notes, ‘And wrote about it in a scribbled letter home.’ For the squaddies, the boredom and discomfort of their present existence makes both their past life (‘real’ life, if you like) and the actual war seem equally trivial, equally distant: ‘We talked of girls,’ Lewis records, ‘and dropping bombs on Rome’. His poem is a succession of ‘ands’ – one damned thing after another, in no particular order – as he contemplates a day in which nothing happens, jotting down thoughts as they come to him

                                    … the quiet dead, and the loud celebrities
                        Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees …

He, too, out on the moors, is herded like sheep – like lambs to slaughter, in a certain sense.  Here, the ambiguity of ‘to slaughter’ reminds me of Edmund Blunden’s poem ‘Can you Remember?’ …

… where we went and whence we came
To be killed, or kill.

But Alun Lewis is thinking of a different poet and of another country. He recalls a day when he himself, accompanied by a ‘shaggy patient dog’, went walking in the footsteps of his hero, Edward Thomas. It was a private pilgrimage …

To the Shoulder o' Mutton where Edward Thomas brooded long

On death and beauty till a bullet stopped his song.  

It doesn’t matter that actually Thomas was killed by the blast of a shell; it may not matter that it would later be Lewis himself whose song was stopped by a bullet, in Burma. What counts is the aftershock to the reader when this apparently random collection of rainy-day memories comes to an abrupt end with the death of a poet.  War does cause abrupt ends. But it’s a reminder, too, that Thomas’s ‘song’, his poetry, did not end, being read and valued today more highly than ever. Alun Lewis has played his part in ensuring this is so: back in the 1940s, Edward Thomas was neither widely read nor known. W.H. Auden was right to declare (in ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’) that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. But he was right, too, that  ‘it survives’: good poetry matters for what it is, not for what it does. Verse that sets out to make things happen is propaganda, not poetry.

I should have liked, very much, to share ‘All Day It Has Rained’ with my friends in the OIB; but, as with my farewell visit to the Château of Saint Germain-en-Laye, the moment has passed.

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: The Château of St Germain-en-Laye (not on a rainy day!); spiral staircase in the Château d’Hennemont. Photos © the author.

I have occasionally written about my discussions of poetry with colleagues in the OIB: