Living in East Anglia there are many parish churches that still retain both medieval and Victorian church art. Painted rood screens and colourful stained glass provide a wealth of inspiration for my silk scarf designs.
Detail from St Lawrence, part of rood screen paintings. St Helen’s, Ranworth, Norfolk.
Decorative detail from a Victorian stained glass window. St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.
I like to steal ideas for motifs and also re-work various colour combinations. Often I will just use a tiny part of a much larger stained glass window whether its from a Tudor pane or details ornamenting a Victorian light.
Detail from the Susannah Window at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.
Design drawn out on silk using coloured gutta and resist paint brush daubs.
And, once I have created the whole design and transferred it to the silk I then steal colour combinations from a completely different medium such as the oil on board paintings of local medieval rood screens.
The finished work may not obviously look either Victorian or medieval in style, but if you look closely you may be able to spot a motif or two and recognise the ‘dirty pinks’ from the painting of St Lawrence’s robe.
Sometimes a single photograph simply doesn’t convey the sheer scale and drama of a building. Last month I was staying in Milan and took the opportunity to visit the magnificent Italian Gothic cathedral – the Duomo di Milano. It is the fifth largest cathedral in the world and the third largest in Europe with only St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Seville Cathedral being bigger.
Even when you walk across the Piazza del Duomo through the tourist crowds it doesn’t ‘feel’ huge as unlike many other medieval cathedrals it is broad rather than tall. Then, the closer you get the magnificent marble façade looms and looms above you. The scale is best appreciated when a few humans stand in front of the mighty west doors – mille grazie soldati!
The church is dedicated to St Mary of the Nativity and was begun in 1386 and took over six centuries to finish. It is constructed from grey and pink-veined Candoglian marble that was ferried down a system of waterways from the Lake Maggiore quarries. From a distance it looks like an intricately iced cake, but up close you can truly appreciate the many marble statues and the fine ornate decoration.
Glimpsing ‘The Madonnina’, the highest point. Gilded copper.
There are 3,400 statues, 135 spires including 700 figures and 96 large gargoyles adorning the church. Looking up at the spires you might assume they were simply decorated with architectural, sculpted foliage, but in fact they are spires with multiple niches each holding a statue and finally each pinnacle is topped by another statue.
Interestingly, such a vast and lengthy undertaking as building and embellishing a magnificent cathedral resulted in a collaboration between local Lombardy sculptors and workers from further afield including French and German sculptors.
And inside. . . The interior can accommodate 40,000 people in the 12,000 square metres – I think the guide below was just checking to see where they all were on this very, cold morning.
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?
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.
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 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.
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.