The Radiant Jewels of Gothic Stained Glass
ADMITTEDLY, it was a day of brilliant winter sunshine. But it was still a sudden shock. Entering at the west end of Chartres cathedral, it is not the brightness of the stained glass, for which this 13th-century Gothic interior is so renowned, that immediately strikes you. It isn't even the much-praised coherence of the stone-built space as it lifts itself with lofty assurance to the vault and moves with relentless processional dignity toward the east.Skip to next paragraph
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What hits you is the total blackness. It is like entering a cave. This place is a black hole.
You adjust, of course, after a while. But even then it isn't exactly light as day inside this great, dim edifice. In fact the darkness justifies the description of the cathedral in a book by Lawrence Lee, a stained-glass artist: "Much of the sublime impact of the windows of Chartres Cathedral ... is due to the fact that the extensive stained glass is all within the same tonal range and is undisturbed by any nearby white-light source. Such a cathedral is in fact the perfect architectural environment for s tained glass - a giant black box with virtually all its apertures filled with colored glass."
White light reflected off the inner surfaces of these multicolored windows would detract from the potency of the light passing through them. The intensity of the sunlight outside - bathing the south and west sides - does make an extraordinary difference. But it is not the quality of sunlight as such that you see; the light is at the service of the strong color of the glass.
This color is often unforgettably dark and mysteriously opaque. It glows like coal embers. It seems lit from inside itself. It is the kind of color you are sometimes aware of when your eyes are shut.
What you see (with your eyes open) inside Chartres, above all, is windows on all sides, rather than the stone work that determines the placing and dimensions of the windows. During this period, the invention of flying buttresses, like an exterior skeletonic scaffolding, increasingly allowed windows to dominate the walls of churches where heavy masonry had been necessary before. Vivid scintillations and multifaceted colors of window after window clothe the side walls: not windows for seeing through, and c ertainly not windows principally there for the illumination of the interior. These are windows for windows' sakes, glorious, optically tingling, fragmented emblems of pure color.
The sapphire blues rule. The ruby reds, opulent and profound, are like translucent velvet. These two colors set up a fascinating dialogue of vibration, and the supporting cast of yellows, watery greens, crisp emeralds, pinkish browns, dirty whites, paler blues, and deeper golds add up to an irresistible candy-box of colors.
In the rose windows, the various shapes, each a potpourri of color fragments, seem suspended without weight in fierce pools of blackness, with only the geometrical planning of the designer keeping them from falling. "Rose" almost seems a misnomer for these enormous round windows, which are more often like wheels, suns, or universal symbols of some cosmic order; they radiate from their center to a periphery which can be imagined as only a stage toward an endless expansion. Sometimes the divisions are a li ttle like flower petals. Sometimes - in later Gothic architecture - they are like tongues of flame. At Chartres they have all the surprise and delight of kaleidoscope patterns, as if by a mere shake they fell out just as they are, and were then fixed in perpetuity.