Arts & Books Books

When did stained glass lose its soul?

Charles Eamer Kempe's work in St Peter's Church, Binton

Michael Duggan says stained glass has gone from mass medium to spiritless abstraction

How to Look at Stained Glass
By Jane Brocket
IB Tauris, 256pp, £12.99/$20

Almost as soon as I began reading Jane Brocket’s How to Look at Stained Glass, a certain feeling of melancholy crept over me, which I didn’t manage to shake off for the rest of the book. Why so? This is, after all, a guide to church windows in England that is full of warmth, enthusiasm and great knowledge for its subject matter and graced, naturally, by beautiful illustrations.

Then it dawned on me. In these pages I was hearing some more of the last pebbles gently loosening in the “long, withdrawing, melancholy roar” of the Sea of Faith, first detected by Matthew Arnold on Dover Beach. This book scouts out churches and their windows as hunting grounds for art historians and culture vultures. But churches as places in which to give glory to God and to try and save our souls? Not so much.

So, while Brocket is an ardent champion of the fabulousness of ecclesiastical stained glass, she is far more subdued about its meanings. When she does address religious matters directly, as she must, she is respectful enough, though with outbursts of genteel disparagement here and there. Far more noticeable are the extended silences. When she comes to note that bare feet “suggest humility and saintliness and a more complete nakedness standing before the Lord”, we have been waiting 75 pages for such a foray into theology. There is a discussion of the Lamb of God with no attempt to explain the origins, meaning or uses of this image.

And so on. Ten informative pages on the saints most commonly found in stained glass are as good as it gets (though, even then, Margaret of Antioch gets kudos for striking a blow “for feminists”). One can’t help feeling that Brocket is always pretty relieved to glide back on to safer secular ground – comparisons with Derek Jarman films or what have you.

As I write this, I know I am guilty of over-reaction. It is not as if this kind of affectionate “church-crawling” is anything new, and Brocket’s book will have wide appeal. The religiously-minded and everyone else will learn from it. And, to be fair to the author, when writing about the millennium celebrations and church windows, she addresses head-on the influence of secularism and multiculturalism.

How to Look is structured along A-Z lines with each subsection a dense compound of fact and opinion, written in an admirably clear, if sometimes jaunty, style that flirts now and again with glibness. Stained-glass painters, Brocket quips, “do not hold back when it comes to bling”. This structure can also leave an impression of bittiness and haste, with the commentary in places amounting to not much more than a rapid stringing together of examples to fit the heading.

On the other hand, there is something pleasing about hopping in a single bound from “Aviation” to “Baskets”, or from “Peacocks” to “Perspective”. Only two window makers earn an entry of their own: John Piper, as the great post-World War II innovator; and Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907), on the grounds of his ubiquity and his style, which Brocket dubs “nothing if not camp”.

The author handles technical explanations with assurance and is a very adept spotter of trends, whether it’s the growing abundance of thick, luxuriant hair in the Victorian era; or the gradual abandonment of haloes in the latter half of the 20th century; or the identification of makers by how they depict the human nose. It is interesting, too, to see how she deals with historic, especially Victorian depictions of different races and of women, signalling her distaste without embarking on full-throttled rebukes.

There was one moment, I should note, when the melancholy I mentioned at the outset dissipated, and was replaced by something more like full-blown annoyance. This came with the content of the first substantial entry: “Abstract”. I should come clean. Abstract stained glass in churches tends to set my teeth on edge. Brocket finds it “exciting, demanding and intriguing”, as well as “stunning, colourful and stimulating”. She thinks the increase in its use “reflected the church’s changing role in post-war society, born out of its desire to become more modern and relevant”.

Call me a peasant, but I disagree. I see abstraction in stained glass as an attempt to wrestle a popular art form away from the people at large, and to hand it over to the interpretive classes whom we now have to rely upon to explain what we could no longer see for ourselves; to elucidate “relevance” where once it was within the grasp of all of us; to harry us into ever greater feats of “appreciation”.

I may be horribly wrong, needless to say. Perhaps I should be sent to Coventry for resisting the glories of abstraction. There, I could begin my re-education. Jane Brocket goes into raptures about John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens’s baptistery window at the cathedral: “enormous and utterly beautiful”. That might knock some sense into me.