Thursday, June 04, 2009

Eek. A bit of a draft.

Well, there's one good thing about leaving oneself only about two weeks in which to write an essay: it focuses the mind something shocking. In contrast to the Garter book, which I have had to lay aside for a short time (heh: after eight or so years, what difference will a fortnight make?), I am agonising about this essay in a different way, as I keep changing my mind about what direction to pursue next.

At the moment, I am thinking about the analogies between cinema and stained glass, both as media for the transmission, filtering and refraction of light; and as vehicles for narrative and design. I'm sure there are thousands of things one could say about this, but I'm just starting with a few.

I'm going to post a little of my draft here. Several reasons. First, feedback in comments has been so helpful, I'm addictively seeking more. Second, I'm also expanding my comfort zone by posting unpolished prose that still looks a bit confessional (I might streamline those bits that talk about my own voyage of discovery in this essay: one doesn't want to offend one's readers by seeming to be too cavalier about it). Third, I'm testing the limits of blogging, in preparation for my panel on blogging and medievalist communities for the NCS conference in Siena (will post about this soon).

Finally, how weird is it that my reading around Panofsky is leading me back to Holsinger's Premodern Condition and his discussion of Bourdieu's critique of Panofsky, on which I was working two months ago. Is all our work connected to all our other work?

As a side note, I have, in fact, produced perfect footnotes for all these references already: I'm just not pasting them in here.

My first interest, then, was thematic, using the cinematic representation of medieval stained glass as a point of focus for the representation of medieval religion, as part of the ideological analysis of medievalism, and its relation to modernity. I also wanted to use these patterns of representation as a way of testing Richard Burt’s thesis: that medievalist cinema can tell us something about cinema, as well as about medievalism. It was only later in my research for this essay that I realised what is probably blindingly obvious to readers of this journal; that stained glass shares a number of formal and technical properties with film. Both media can combine abstract forms as well as narrative progressions; and both depend on filtering and refracting light.

[summary of main stages in argument will follow here, when I know what they are]

First, a little historical context. The medieval use of stained glass really took off in the twelfth century, and reached its height in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, though mostly in the towering cathedrals and wealthy abbey churches, rather than smaller, parish churches. Medieval and modernist accounts of Gothic architecture stress that stained-glass windows aren’t simply highly wrought decorations that admit light. Rather, in contrast to Romanesque architecture that contrasted light to the heavy solid substance of walls, Gothic architecture used its windows, along with the upper galleries, side aisles, and arches, to produce an overall impression of light transfiguring the whole building, not just through the windows. Otto von Simson describes this shift:

The stained-glass windows of the Gothic replace the brightly colored walls of the Romanesque architecture; they are structurally and aesthetically not openings in the wall to admit light, but transparent walls. As Gothic verticalism seems to reverse the movement of gravity, so, by a similar aesthetic paradox, the stained-glass window seemingly denies the impenetrable nature of matter, receiving its visual existence from an energy that transcends it. Light, which is ordinarily concealed by matter, appears as the active principle; and matter is aesthetially real only insofar as it partakes of, and is defined by, the luminous quality of light.

This was not simply an architectural innovation. As Simson shows, and as others have argued, twelfth-century cathedral design accorded with developments in aesthetics, philosophy and theology, and deliberately so, serving as a “model” of the medieval universe. “Above all … the cathedral was the intimation of ineffable truth. The medieval cosmos was theologically transparent. The Creation appeared as the first of God’s self-revelations, the Incarnation of the Word as the second.” [I may cite Bourdieu's critique of this kind of thinking here]

Abbot Suger is widely credited with capitalising on the ornamental and decorative aspects of Gothic style, in his rebuilding of the Abbey Church of St Denis in Paris. One of his key innovations in his architectural concept is the use of light, though he also generated text about his designs, both in the account he wrote of the re-building, and in the inscriptions in the church itself that marked various stages of re-building. For example, when they had completed the enlargement of the upper choir, and the addition of vaults, arches and columns, he added a six-line Latin inscription:

“Once the new rear part is joined to the part in front,
The church shines with its middle part brightened.
For bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright,
And bright is the noble edifice which is pervaded by the new light;
Which stands enlarged in our time,
I, who was Suger, being the leader while it was being accomplished.”

The Latin text for the third line here (Claret enim claris quod clare concopulatur) indicates the importance of the ideas of brightness and light, in what Panofsky characterises as “the orgy of neo-Platonic light metaphysics to which Suger abandons himself in some of his poetry.” Suger consistently emphasises the capacity of coloured glass, as well as the proliferation of precious stones in the Church’s accoutrements, to lift the beholder from the material to the immaterial, to transcend the old into the new (the new light, in the inscription above), which is both theological (referring to the New Testament) and a sign of modernity. Suger famously describes the meditative state to which contemplation of the house of God can lead him: “it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.”

In a longer essay, I might now move on to a vaguely sociological reading of analogies between different forms of "transportation" (religious and cinematic), but will probably move on to more thematic issues, now.

My familial connections with the world of film studies (ahem) have put me on to the work of Stan Brakhage. Does anyone else know his work? Check out this link and look at the sample strips from his Chartres. http://www.fredcamper.com/Film/BrakhageS.html

When I first saw these, I completely misread them as if they were tall stained-glass windows, but they are in fact short strips of film. Interesting convergence of media, yes? worth writing about in the essay? or a mistake that's interesting only to me?





More tomorrow: must head out to buy groceries and make cakes or a slice (hedgehog?) for the school music concert.

4 comments:

Karl Steel said...

I would have thought they were stained glass windows, too. So, perhaps narcissistically, I think the mistake is worth writing about.

Anonymous said...

It struck me that in talking about the cathedral as the space or frame around the stained glass, there's a parallel to the cinematic experience - the projection of light in an architecturally and culturally defined space...

Karen Hall

Eileen Joy said...

Since you state at the outset, following Richard Burt, that medievalist cinema can tell us something about cinema, as well as about medievalism, I do agree [with Karl] that writing/thinking further about those strips of film that look like stained glass windows could be critically productive--there is the important point though, right [?], that this *effect*, as we can call it, only occurs, as it were, when the film is looked at *as* a strip of film that is not being projected; but at the same time, each frame of a film strip [this won't apply to digital film, of course] is itself like a miniature stained glass window in the sense that the image only really appears when held to the light and you will note, I hope, that there are borders [usually black] marking off objects from each other [I used to work in commercial photography and also in filmmaking and spent a lot of time developing and editing still and moving images, so you might want to also know that there is a difference in texture between the emulsion and non-emulsion side of a film or E6 [slide] image: if you have any slides or film strips lying around, take a look and see what I mean, and you'll see that on the emulsion/developed side, there is even MORE of a resonance with a stained glass window!

Once you move into this area, you will also realize that each image on a film strip is also a still-image, or photograph, in the same way [again] that a stained glass window is a still image that requires light for full illumination, as it wer, and also, many stained glass windows in churches are arranged in sequences that tell a narrative, usually from left to right, and often all the way around the church, right?

I could go on and on, but won't. Except to say [?] that you might want to read some Siegfried Kracauer, especially his "Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality," and perhaps also some of his essays on photography in "The Mass Ornament."

Stephanie Trigg said...

Thanks, all.

Nice to see you on line, Karen!

Yes, I had thought a bit about the framing of audience/congregation, and the idea of narrative sequence, and a bit about the light (and also a little about the black outlines that render them cartoon-like: am about to watch Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame), but not at all about the emulsion...

I think that's why I'm casting my net so widely: I can think a bit about a lot of things, in this area, but am probably going to be constrained by my lack of proper cinematic skills and vocabulary, etc.

Thanks for the Kracauer refs, Eileen; they sound great.