Sunday, March 02, 2014

Manuscripts and Stained Glass

  It may be giving me a split personality, but I have been dividing my medieval time (I do have other time!) between updating things, mainly links right now, on Medieval Writing and trying to organise my humungous photographic project on Flickr. I am battling my way through a whole swag of pictures of stained glass at the moment, which has prompted a few thoughts. Dangerous.
  The pictures were all taken under urban guerilla conditions, and so are not as detailed, perfect in colour, crispness and verticality as those ones which appear in beautiful art books, but they probably give a better impression of what people, medieval or other, actually saw. That leads to a few thoughts on their function. The traditional take on this is that they were essentially didactic, providing lessons to the illiterate. Hmmm.
  The first time I visited Chartres cathedral, I thought initially it must not be open to visitors as it was pitch dark inside. Then it became apparent that there were people in there, and my husband and myself were both mystified as to why there were no lights on. It was a very bright day outside and we had to stand for about 15 minutes until our eyes adjusted before we dared tackle navigating around. And then something extraordinary happened. The whole place just started to shimmer with colour, constantly changing as the light changed behind the heavily coloured 13th century windows. It looked nothing like a picture in a book, but one can only imagine the impression on the citizens of medieval Chartres, which was probably as dingy and smelly as most medieval cities outside the cloisters. Add all the colour and gold which has been scrubbed off the interiors of medieval churches in modern times and the whole impression must have been dark and colourful, shiny and aromatic, and alive; maybe a glimpse of Paradise.

  See, a photograph just doesn't do it. It just sits there. In the building, all the little figures and scenes tend to dissolve in a shimmer of moving colour. Of course, by the 15th century stained glass had got bigger and bolder and lighter and easier to resolve, but then the populace had become more literate as well.
  The illustrations in manuscript books are right there in front of the reader, able to be interpreted in all their complexity. For modern viewers, they have generally weathered the test of time better as well, not dissolving into confused fragments with repeated repairs to the windows. The owners of manuscript books were not, of course, the poor people, and probably at least a bit literate, even if the pictures were more informative to them than the black scratches on the pages.
  No doubt the windows were reminders of the lessons learned aurally, but somehow I just can't see the illiterate townsmen and women screwing up their eyes to try to follow the narrative sequences in tiny little roundels and matching up the types with the anti-types fifty feet above the floor. There just has to be a little mystery.

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