Friday, 28 September 2018

Aesthetics of Stained Glass

Morris and Burne-Jones didn’t think much of Ely Cathedral on their 1855 visit to Cambridge – ‘so horribly spoilt with well meaning restorations, as they facetiously call them’ – but they might have enjoyed the Stained Glass Museum which the building has contained since 1972.  The museum contains a fine pair of Burne-Jones ‘Angel Musicians’ in his Italianate style of the 1870s, among a rich diversity of earlier and later specimens of stained glass.

A feathered ‘Angel Musician’ of c.1440-80 is a lively presence in the medieval exhibits, the panel being decorated with an ears of barley motif.  But from among these early examples it was particularly the homelier, rather than the noble and aristocratic, examples that caught my eye.  The Peasant Figure of c.1340-9 from the Lady Chapel at Ely, for instance, or the celebratory images of the ‘Labours of the Month’, which include Harvesting Corn in September and a labourer with an axe Killing a Hog in November.  In Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Victorian version of the latter scene, a bucket to catch the hog’s blood is thoughtfully added to the gory details of the panel.

The Museum’s collection ranges forward to the present and into European and American stained glass in addition to its many English specimens.  It’s good to move away from the mostly Christian iconography of Pre-Raphaelite and later glass into such mid- to late-twentieth-century non-representational examples as John Piper’s ‘Abstract Panel’ or Paul Casiani’s ‘Inner Space’, which builds its design from an electron photomicrograph of the hydra. 

What struck me as missing here, however, is the early twentieth century, the moment of modernism, where practitioners such as Braque, Matisse, Chagall and the German Expressionists transformed the possibilities of so many visual media, including stained glass.  I think, for example, of Bruno Taut’s memorable slogan ‘Buntes Glas zerstört den Hass’ (coloured glass destroys hate).  Well, Expressionist stained glass and glass architecture, such as Taut’s Glass Pavilion for the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition, would not alas prove able to stop emergent Nazism in its tracks, but it would still have been good to have some examples of it in this small but admirable Museum’s collection.