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.