Contemporary meets medieval

Earlier this year a contemporary, stained glass triptych was installed in Norwich Cathedral. First thought – what makes stained glass different to oil paintings, watercolours, sculpture, bronzes and most textiles, well, it lets light THROUGH. It is not just about surface reflection, but translucence. The most stunning stained glass windows work with this quality. Now here comes the second thought do we commission artists to design windows in glass or do we commission stained glass artists to create windows?

McLean-Window-Norwich
In the past William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones both successfully designed windows as part of a broader view of art which was less sniffy about craft. The Arts and Crafts artist Christopher Whall worked in stained glass. He originally trained as a ‘traditional’ artist at the Royal Academy, but he learnt and practised glass cutting, painting, firing and glazing so he had control and understanding when he began creating stained glass windows. In a similar way to architecture and site-specific sculpture, stained glass should work within its context and architectural setting.

Simple shapes and clean lines give a balanced, unfussy contemporary feel.
Simple shapes and clean lines give a balanced, unfussy contemporary feel.
The new triptych in Norwich cathedral was designed by the abstract expressionist painter John McLean. The three large windows on the north nave according to the cathedral’s literature,

‘form a single work of art, conceived as a a vibrant journey from the solemn dignity of the Nave into the architectural excitement of the North transept’.

The artist working out his designs. Photograph from the Norwich Cathedral website.
The artist working out his designs.
Photograph from the Norwich Cathedral website.
The designs for the windows were developed over the course of seven years as the artist developed his knowledge of working with glass instead of paint. The finished windows are installed in three bays on the north aisle with northern light flooding through glass into the Romanesque cathedral. I have seen quite a few contemporary coloured windows in medieval churches most are not particularly successful. Here, I see that the shapes and colours of these three windows work well when viewed directly with the even northern light pouring through. As yet I’ve only seen them on a bright, sunny summer’s day.

View down the north aisle as summer light floods through.
View down the north aisle as summer light floods through.
However, remember these are windows shining light into an interior space. A tall, narrow, stone Romanesque space and the effect of the coloured light shining on the interior is striking, but for me too obvious. I will be interested to return in the middle of winter to see if the reduced light levels result in a more subtle illumination of the aisle. I am not adverse to colour, or the contemporary placed within a 12th-century building, but the orange and purple haze sequence combines to make the aisle look more like a fairy grotto.

Just a final thought – I would be fascinated to glimpse the process of commissioning such large scale works in the twenty-first century for such a significant Norman cathedral.

Just a glimpse - perhaps sometimes less is more.
Just a glimpse – perhaps sometimes less is more.
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Early Medieval Stained Glass – Colourful Inspiration

A couple of months ago I was asked to design and paint a ‘stained glass’ scarf.

Stained glass early medieval
Border decoration original from windows at Canterbury Cathedral, Kent – c.1200-20
Now displayed at the V&A Museum, London.

When undertaking a commission the easiest way for me to understand a client’s wish is to ask for a ‘mini’ mood board. This can be a small postcard-sized piece of card covered with torn pieces of magazine pictures, snippets of cloth, small cuts of wool and screwed up cotton thread that give me an idea of the colours required. In the past when one customer wanted a scarf to complement her new winter look she gave me a snippet of cloth from the inside seam of her new coat.

silk scarf stained glass design

However, more recently, the wealth of beautiful photographs on the Internet, has allowed mood boards to be generated very easily on platforms like Pinterest. The advantage of this approach is the ease with which ideas come together. Unfortunately, the downside is that accurate colour portrayal of ‘real-life’ on screen is notoriously unreliable and even the same image across different screens/devices can vary significantly. So, if an accurate tonal range is critical then an old fashioned, mini mood board is still best.

With the light shining through, early medieval stained glass panels photograph well (if not too high up in a window!) and the frequent use of bright reds and blues imparts a recognisable aesthetic. It is such a strong visual form that it was easy for the Victorians to mimic and then extensively develop in their Gothic Revival church windows, and, is probably what springs to mind when most people think of stained glass.

With my Art History hat on my personal preference is for the work of the late-Victorian Christopher Whall particularly his early 20th-century windows. This example panel depicting St Chad dates from 1901-10. It is now in the V&A Museum, London, and is from a collection of stained glass produced for a commission for a new window in the Lady Chapel at Gloucester Cathedral.