The Radiant Jewels of Gothic Stained Glass

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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.

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."

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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.

Stained glass, at its apogee in the churches and cathedrals of the Gothic period, was not, at the time of its making, thought of as just some form of abstract glory resulting from the magical properties of daylight passing through intensely colored glass. If that is what primarily impresses us today - the colors, the intensity - is it because we can only see it through the eyes of our own time? The answer is partly yes.

WE certainly have difficulty in reading the didactic stories and legends that these complex windows tell. To have a guide to explain them is enlightening. Medieval scholars determined the content of cathedral windows and apparently thought of them as pictures to instruct illiterate congregations. But some art historians doubt that the general run of people in the 13th century could possibly have been any more more adept than even they are - with university degrees and much study of iconography - at follo wing the meanings of these windows from bottom to top.

Even the intellectuals who promulgated the idea of medieval stained glass as an essential ingredient of cathedral architecture had mixed motives. Abbot Suger (1081-1151), the abbot of the Abbey Church of St. Denis, on the outskirts of Paris, was first among them. He was in love with light - which had a symbolism for him partly derived from Plato and partly from the Bible - and marvellously mingled different concepts of this substanceless substance so that it was to him both material and supernatural, mys terious and a means for reaching the clarity of truth. He adored gems and precious metals, believing that the delights of the eye lead to the spiritual.

In argument with St. Bernard, who deplored the over-elaborate decoration and showy excesses of church architecture and believed that a saintly mind and a pure heart sufficed, Abbot Suger maintained the need to "do homage also through the outward ornaments of sacred vessels." He advocated both "inner purity" and "outward splendor."

His attitude prevailed at the 12th-century Church of St. Denis and is obviously honored and carried forward at Chartres and many of the other great Gothic cathedrals that followed it. As for stained-glass windows themselves, Suger believed persuasively in the elevating power of their beauty, intended to "illuminate the mind so that it might travel through the true lights to the True Light...."

There does seem to be a contradiction between Suger's frequent emphasis in his writings on brightness, light, and clarity and the actual experience of the Gothic stained-glass windows, which so often result in interiors that aren't much brighter than if the walls had been made of thick Romanesque stone. Stained-glass historian Sarah Brown points out in a 1992 book, however, that when early Gothic 12th-century glass is cleaned, the revelation is that much of its "darkness" is due to deterioration and dirt . The deeper tones are interspersed with lighter ones. Likewise, in the 13th-century glass that predominates at Chartres, there is deterioration in the flesh color of the figures, which has darkened to a strange and rather beautiful brown. This alone must stop a fair amount of sunlight.

But not every monument of medieval stained glass is as dark as Chartres. The spectacular (though greatly restored) chapel in the center of Paris, Louis IX's Sainte-Chapelle, seems to be virtually made of stained glass, and is also full of light.

Sainte-Chapelle, built at a lightning pace between 1243 and 1248, is a later development of Gothic than Chartres. It has a precious elegance Chartres doesn't have. It is like a miniature in comparison. It seems private, while Chartres is unmistakably public.

A basic raison d'etre for each of these Gothic buildings was to be a house for sacred relics. It may seem difficult today to grasp the significance fragments of "the true cross," the "crown of thorns," or the "Virgin's chemise" had for devout worshippers 800 years ago. But such devotional obsessions were so strong that both Chartres and Sainte-Chapelle really owe their architectural splendors - even their very existence - to the desire to protect and present such relics. The opulent decoration of both bu ildings came partly from the devout wish to make a special environment for their relics.

THESE sacred relics were housed in exquisitely elaborate small-scale containers called reliquaries. They could be like small churches, gilded, bejewelled, decorated with brightly colored enamels. The enamel on the outside of reliquaries found its large-scale Gothic equivalent in the stained-glass windows of large chapels, churches, and cathedrals. Enamel is, in fact, glass, but since it decorates an opaque surface it is not in a position to let light pass through it. Both enamels and stained-glass window s were thought of as gloriously similar to the priceless character and color of gemstones.

The churches themselves were apparently thought of as enormous reliquaries. Instead of people looking at them from outside, however, they could actually enter and be contained by them. Or at least this is true at Chartres. The much smaller Sainte-Chapelle, aptly described in a recent book as "a cage of colored glass," can hardly cope with the hordes of tourists who climb its stone stairs, despite its refined magnificence.

We mill around it enthusiastically, trying not to barge and trip, and we achieve some hectic sense of being inside a 13th-century architectural jewelry box. We are glad that this unique building has survived over centuries of threat and vicissitude; that it wasn't demolished as proposed after the French Revolution. But it is impossible to guess, as we rush through with our tour guide, what this sacred relic in stone and glass meant, in terms of religious conviction and aesthetic meaning, to the king (la ter made a saint) who had it built.

The largess of Chartres seems far less disturbed by the invasions of 20th-century sightseers. Perhaps this is partly because it was, from the start, a destination for pilgrims, and designed to absorb crowds. Its shadows hide us from each other, and its spaces separate us. We experience this extraordinary building as individuals rather than in groups. And pervasive in the darkness are the windows of colored glass, secretive and enclosing. A French novelist, Rene Bazin, wrote that a stained-glass window "i s an atmosphere before being an image." At Chartres, the 22,000 square feet of stained glass windows are composed of countless images. But above all they are what gives this cathedral its intangible atmosphere.

* Second in a two-part series on Gothic cathedrals. "Gothic Monuments in Soaring Stone" ran yesterday.

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