Contemporary stained-glass windows : the glory of Nevers

One of the most exciting contemporary achievements in the art of stained-glass can be found on the windows of the cathedral Saint Cyr et Sainte Julitte of Nevers, now a sleepy small town in the centre of France.

Saintt Cyr et Sainte Julitte – Nevers

Stained-glass is an often-neglected art form, probably because it is intimately linked to the universe of religious buildings at a time of widespread atheism or agnosticism. The main “civil” use of stained-glass has otherwise been for decorative purposes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it became a fairly natural support for the decorative spirit of Art Nouveau, and later Art Deco. It is also an art form confined to a small number of countries, mostly France, where around half of the world’s heritage can be found, Germany, England, and to a lesser extent Spain and Italy, which is not to say that stained-glass is totally absent from other places: the impressive set of early 20th century windows by Alfons Mucha in the cathedral of Prague, or those by Stanislaw Wyspianski in Krakow are a case in point.

The cathedral of Nevers harbours what is probably the largest set of stained-glass windows by contemporary artists in Europe, with 130 windows and 1052 square meters of glass, inaugurated in 2011.

We owe this artistic adventure to the useless destruction of the building by a clumsy Royal Air Force bombardment on 16 July 1944, aimed at the modest train station of a city which the Germans did not even bother to defend with any FLAK.

Considering that the windows may not be dissociated from the architecture, a little historic background of this building may be useful. The primitive church, built on the site of a gallo-roman temple dedicated to the Roman god Janus, was home to the relics of two martyrs of the Diocletian persecutions in 304 A.D.: Saint Cyr, a young boy aged three, and his mother. According to the legend, the great king Charlemagne had dreamt that, as he was pursued by a wild boar in a forest, he implored God and a young, half-naked child appeared to him, promising to save him if he would only give him some clothes. As the king accepted, the boy went away riding the boar. When he woke up, Charlemagne was explained by Jérôme, the bishop of Nevers, that this child was Saint Cyr, and the requested clothes were the wealth and artifacts looted from the Church. Hearing this, Charlemagne gave money to rebuild the cathedral in the early 9th century. This cathedral was then rebuilt and destroyed several times by fire; the church bombed in 1944, of gothic style with some remains from the earlier Romanesque period, had been inaugurated in 1331.

A very brief summary of the art of stained-glass may be attempted. Flat glass appears in archeology around the first century A.D.; it was common in Roman times, as may be observed in Pompei, to both close the openings and regulate light by means of a stone claustra or transenna. It is believed, from the description of Hagia Sofia in Constantinople by Paul the Silentiary (6th century), that the magnificent edifice was fitted with some coloured glass windows, perhaps in a wooden frame. Indeed, the fitting of coloured glass fragments to the claustra can be considered as the birth of the concept of stained-glass windows; its origin is likely to be Byzantine, later imitated by the Arabs for their own religious buildings. Progressively, lead replaced stone or wooden frames as it is both more malleable and allows for much thinner frames, whereby openings let much more light into the inner spaces, resulting also in a more striking effect. The archeological remains of Notre-Dame de Bondeville, a 7th century church near Rouen in Normandy, include fragments of flat glass and their leaden frame. The oldest existing piece of painted glass in Europe would be the glass disc with a standing figure of Christ found at San Vitale in Ravenna, a church built during the reign of Justinian in the 5th century; we know from written sources such as the book of the Miracles of Saint Benedict that stained-glass windows become more common in the 9th and 10th century; the technique will undergo a major expansion in the early 12th century.

The five prophets of the Augsburg cathedral, made around 1100 (see illustration: Daniel and King David), were part of a vast theological program; they are the earliest windows of such size which reached our times. The quality of their execution demonstrates that the technique was already mastered for quite a while. But it is not until the technique of ribbed vaults allowed for larger openings, around 1140, later evolving into a veritable stone lace like at the Sainte Chapelle of Paris (1242 – 1248), that stained-glass windows were able to reach their full potential for wonderment, in harmony with the then-prevailing theology of light.

The decline of stained-glass during the late Renaissance can be attributed to two main factors. The first one is the newfound dominance of proportion, of a numerical harmony in the architectural space, as a reflection of the divine harmony. The number overcame the alliance of light and narrative, so to speak: and elaborate stained-glass windows could be considered a form of distraction from the immanent purity of spatial harmony, a “side-show”. The second factor is the reform of the Church resulting from the Council of Trento (1542 – 1563); a decree of the 25th session on holy images states that “the bishops will carefully teach, by means of the story of the mysteries of our redemption represented by painters or other similar means, the people is instructed and strengthened in the articles of faith”. The will to use images as enhancers of faith has resulted in an injection of pathos in the universe of religious art, bringing it closer to the rhetoric means of theatrical performance; and indeed, statues in full-relief, trompe-l’oeil, and visual magnificence have started to proliferate as forms of visual eloquence, forms which are far away and to some extent in contradiction with the more spiritual impact of light seeping through stained-glass, or the more didactic approach of the narrative painted on decorated windows.

The 17th and 18th centuries practically abandoned the art of stained-glass; a timid resurrection occurred towards the end of the 19th century for decorative purposes in mostly civil architecture and private villas, first with the neo-gothic fashion of the Romantic age and later in the context of Art Nouveau. It is the necessities of reconstruction in France after the First World War that gave a new impulse to stained glass, together with the development of new techniques associating glass and concrete, for instance, or slab glass. An important role was played by the Ateliers d’art sacré created by the painter Maurice Denis (1870 – 1943) and by Georges Desvallières (1861 – 1950), with the essential support of a Dominican monk, father Marie-Alain Couturier (1897-1954), all sharing the aim of renewing Christian religious art. One of the most important achievement of that time was Notre-Dame du Raincy (1922-1923), a church built in concrete by Auguste and Gustave Perret, allowing the facades – free of any supporting role – to become gigantic claustra inserted with glass, with ten figurative panels designed by Maurice Denis.     

Notre Dame du Raincy

After the Second World War, this impulse was maintained and even heightened by the introduction of abstract or non-figurative art in the universe of religious stained-glass, and the participation of a host of major artists to several important projects. Only a few will be reminded, such as the Eglise du Sacré-Coeur in Audincourt, where Jean Bazaine and Fernand Léger created important works in association with the master glass-maker Jean Barillet using a technique of glass plates; Saint Michel des Bréseux with the creations of Alfred Manessier in collaboration with François Lorin; and the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, where Matisse worked for three years, from 1948 to 1951, in order to achieve, together with the master glass-maker Paul Bony, a miracle of elegant simplicity of blue and yellow leaf-like forms on a green background which gives to light a particular meditative quality in what is otherwise an austere rectangular room. Although nothing directly refers to a religious theme, it illustrates the assertion made by Matisse in a dialogue with Jean Mauret that “all art worth this name is religious”.

The Creation of the Universe (1956 – 1958) by Sergio de Castro for the recently-built monastery of the Benedictines in Caen is unquestionably one of the most ambitious achievements of that period, and one of the best matches anywhere of architecture and stained-glass.

During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, several major programs were launched, either directly promoted or approved by the State, irrespective of the regime’s official ideology, at a time when the state administration was still of a high enough intellectual standard and openness. Three programs are emblematic of those years: the Saint Etienne cathedral of Metz (1954 – 1968) with the great creations of Marc Chagall, the Cistercian abbey of Noirlac (1975-1977) which posed a considerable challenge in order to remain consistent with the Cistercian spirit which refuses figures and colour, and where Jean-Pierre Raynaud managed to find an elegant solution by shifting each row of glass panes with respect to the neighbouring rows, thanks to a complex metal gridwork, and the abbey of Sainte-Foy de Conques (1987-1994), a major site of Romanesque art, where Pierre Soulages used a white translucid glass which provides the sensation that light emanates from the matter itself. Three examples of near-perfect matching between architecture and windows, whether actually stained or not.

Nevers is among the latest, with Sainte-Foy de Conques, Notre-Dame du Bourg (1994-1996) and the Blois cathedral (1991-2000) – and also probably the most ambitious – of these programs. Of course, other examples exist outside of France, some of the most noteworthy being the prodigious set of windows created by Joan Vila-Grau for the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the vast window by Gerhard Richter unveiled in 2007 for the Cologne cathedral, made of 11,500 pixel-like squares in 72 different colours, and again Gerhard Richter’s three stained-glass windows for Tholey, the oldest monastery in Germany, unveiled in 2020, admirably complemented by the figurative windows created by Mahbuba Maqsoodi, an Afghan-German artist trained as in miniaturist in Herat, Afghanistan.

The program in Never has involved five different artists. A first series of three windows and one oculus was commissioned to Raoul Ubac, who executed the work in the Romanesque choir between 1978 and 1983. These are monochrome abstract compositions which remind us of the alabaster windows of the early paleo-Christian churches of the 4th and 5th centuries.

In 1987 – 1988, a team of five artists was selected, including Claude Viallat, François Rouan, Gottfried Honegger, Jean-Michel Alberola and Markus Lüpertz.  Honegger was commissioned with the upper row of windows of the nave, Viallat with the upper row of windows of the gothic choir, Rouan with the side chapels, Alberola with the Romanesque apse on the western side, and Lüpertz with the gothic apse on the eastern side, in this extremely rare example in France of a two-apse cathedral, contrary to Germany where they are more common. 

In 1992, the bishop of Nevers expressed discomfort with respect to Lüpertz’s conceptions, such as the idea of picturing the Ascension with large feet hovering above German newspapers of the 1930s, as if belonging to a hanged man; the project looks indeed more like a crime scene than a reading of the Holy Scriptures, belying the understandable difficulty of German artists to overcome the crimes of their nationals during the war, and their less understandable – and even absurd from a theological perspective – insistence on seeing Man mostly in the light of those crimes. At any rate, the artist withdrew, and his commission was taken over by Jean-Michel Alberola.

A coherence is given to the whole by reserving abstract designs for the upper row of windows, plus the lower ones in the nave, and figurative ones for the lower windows of the apses, although the contrast between the “bareness” of Honegger’s geometric proposal and the rich sinuosity found in the others is quite striking. The paucity of means used by the Swiss artist leads the eye towards more dense compositions, and at the same time provides a form of escape from this visual abundance.

It was already admitted in the 16th century that the upper row of windows needed to be clearer than the lower one; it was also a period when the whole window, irrespective of its internal divisions, could picture one scene alone, as if it were a large painting; the Jacques Coeur and the Tullier chapels in Bourges are perfect illustrations of this evolution towards a full picture window.

Chapelle Jacques Coeur – Bourges

The purpose of stained-glass in churches is threefold, and has evolved in time, beyond the obvious “materialistic” one of sheltering the space from adverse weather conditions while letting daylight in, each purpose having had a more or less prominent role, depending on times and places. First, by giving a quality to light, stained-glass emphasizes light itself as a metaphor of the divine presence permeating the world, of which the building is but a representation, a synecdoche: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John, 8:12). The second purpose, which was made possible with illustrated stained-glass as soon as they could be produced, was to make visible the history of Salvation in a manner that could both inspire the clergy and impress the faithful, as images tend to make things more “real” than mere discourse, irrespective of the questionable ability of the faithful to understand the underlying theology; after all, contemporary slides – if well made – have a similar effect of focusing the attention and leaving a message or a general impression on the generally bored conference attendee… Obviously this is only relevant to figurative works. Last but not least, a common and universal purpose is to visually close the space, so that the church may be perceived as a unity, a true microcosm, an image of the celestial Jerusalem, far from the distractions of the world. A place where one’s interiority is to come forth; and by thus closing the space and bathing it in a particular atmosphere, the purpose is to elevate, i.e. to create – just as music can do by other means – the mental condition of prayer. It is to detach consciousness from the self, a condition without which there is no spirituality. This is exactly the reason why the idea of painting actual historic events or reminding people of actual sufferings as Markus Lüpertz thought of doing is a misinterpretation of the role of stained-glass in a church rather than, say, a mausoleum.

An example of what might be a questionable approach to stained-glass windows in churches – irrespective of their artistic quality – may be provided by the work of Gérard Collin-Thiébaut for the Saint Gatien cathedral of Tours in 2010 – 2013. Refusing to be guided by tradition, vaguely conceptual and attempting to “question the status of artworks” as the Louvre puts it in a short introduction for visitors, here is an artist who likes to collect and borrow images. His work in Tours has a tonality which echoes that of comic strips; it is a collection of portraits, a reminder of the condition of the homeless, a fair topic in the city of St Martin. But by being so down to earth, so descriptive of contemporary people and realities, he distracts the eye and anchors the minds in a here and now which misses key dimensions of the spirit, confusing the Church with its charity work, the whole with the part.

It should be reminded that the Christian church is not a temple in the ancient meaning of the word. The temple was the dwelling of a god, where its statue stood in the dark: it was entirely windowless, as a visit to any Greek or Roman temple will confirm. Rituals were carried out in front of the temple, around the altar. The church – as a particular kind of building – is quite the opposite, and its meaning is hard to understand unless one considers what the word Church (Ecclesia) actually stands for. Theologically, the Church (with capital “C”) is the sacrament, or the sign and instrument, in Christ, of the union of God and humankind. It is the seed and the beginning on Earth of God’s Kingdom, the union of the faithful with Christ in a same “mystical body”, as one can read in St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution of the Church defined by the second Vatican Council, is the most recent exposition of catholic ecclesiology, and a document that allows to better understand what the church as a building is meant to symbolize, which is precisely the Church itself. Hence the importance of community – people are praying together in a clearly identified space – and of light (“I am the light…”) which comes from outside to penetrate, so to speak, that community, which then becomes a living image of the Church. This people is also immersed in an actual historic and not only mystical dimension, which is the human, terrestrial dimension of the Church, also visibly present in the celebrations which occur inside the church, under the mediation of the priests. Only parts of this applies to the Protestant world, of course, but the latter had no historic role in shaping the artform that is a church, and is therefore mostly irrelevant to our topic.

Our purpose is not to enter into the detailed description and exegesis of each window, more the subject of a book, but rather to provide, with a few examples, a flavour of how contemporary art addresses today metaphysical issues, and succeeds – or fails – to establish a meaningful dialogue with an architecture which is seven centuries old, and a doctrine three times that age.

Let us start with Jean-Michel Alberola, the only of the five artists who has chosen the “figurative path”, by far the hardest in this context. The artist stated: “I took pieces of images either figurative or decorative which I mixed together, as I usually do… From the beginning, I started with the idea of quotation, without inventing anything”. And indeed, the sheer “weight” of so many centuries of theological and symbolic elaboration is extremely hard to discard without risking to incur into what could be a mere “figurative chat”. There is an implicit obligation of coherence with doctrine and symbols: nobody cares about the artist’s personal, subjective understanding of the matter. Jean-Michel Alberola chose to convey Christian founding texts by means of the image, but not in the traditional, sequential mode which “only” requires familiarity with the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church to be correctly read. Rather, he typically works by means of interspersing the visual space with indices which point at the Scriptures without actually illustrating them, he fragments the narrative into elements which allow him to reduce the story to its essentials; he compels the mind to recompose from memory. He does not tell, or portray; he refers, quotes, reminds.

The painting of Alberola implies, without ever repeating or copying, the whole history of European painting, which is for him a material to be recomposed and reshaped, usually with such subtlety that it is hardly recognizable: it is the case of the jewels of Tintoret’s Susanna, or of Matisse’s background grid, for instance in Annelies, White Tulips and Anemones (1944), a grid which is present in many of the Nevers windows, such as in Saint Marc or the Descent from the Cross, but also instinctively refers to the grid system which supports any large stained-glass composition. Art history is a reservoir of forms, but forms that were already “made alive” and continue to act and live through contemporary works.

Alberola is not a talkative person, neither in life nor in art; he does not paint an image in vain, but feels responsible, if not guilty, of the images he produces: “with respect to guilt, the point is this: by making an image, we impose a representation, something completely determined to somebody else… I consider images as something frightful from the perspective of power, something we cannot circumvent, since we are in front of it and cannot go against”. And he continues: “I know that I paint under the eye of God, under the eye of the world’s definition, with this inability to define totality. The question is how to speak about it as justly as possible” (interview with Demosthene Davettas, 1985).

Let us first consider the chapel of the Baptism of Christ. The dominant colour is a pale blue, which is the blue of clear water in a river; a vertical meandering of forms indicates the flowing of water, but these forms are grey or pink, they are filled with pale-green leaves and vegetation: with young life. This is water that gives life, the new life. The water of baptism, precisely. A scallop, which is a traditional symbol of baptism, can be seen on the upper-right side of the window. We see no full-body image of Saint John the Baptist, or of the Christ as usually found in the iconography of the Baptism: only two large hands from which water and life seem to be flowing, the hands of Saint John. There is no need to depict Christ: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). All that needs to be pointed at is already there.

Let us now consider the windows of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, at the eastern extremity of the church. The subject is the Coronation of the Virgin. This particular “event” is not directly mentioned in the Scriptures, and it is not a dogma of the Catholic church. It has probably started to appear around the early 11th century, and became very popular in the iconography of the 12th and 13th century. Two major examples are the more or less contemporary early 13th century sculpture of the gable on top of the central gateway of the Reims cathedral (the one visible today is a copy, the original having been badly damaged during the war), and the admirable stained-glass window of Chartres. This was always highly a contentious theme for the Protestants, who destroyed many paintings and sculptures representing it during the 16th century, in the wake of the Reformation.

The origin of the theme may be somehow deducted from Apocalypse 12:1 : “then a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head”. The crown was seen both as a sign that the Virgin belonged to the royal House of David, but more importantly as the sign that God had placed her above all creatures, as it is through her, who intercedes on behalf of humans and mediates between them and God, that men find their unity in Christ; in other words, she is the figure that makes possible the espousal of Christ and the Church, the very espousal which is the theme of the Canticle of Canticles. Saint Bernard, the great mystic, the author of the Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles, and one of the most influential voices of the whole Middle Ages, said precisely that: “We need a mediator to reach the great Mediator, and we could not find a more effective one that Mary… is she not the woman in the Apocalypse whom the sun clothes?… all that is imperfect is below her… one may also say that she has the moon under her feet. The moon often designates the Church in its present condition. If now we choose to see in that image of the moon the symbol of the Church, which does not shine of its own light but borrows it from the one who said “apart from me you can do nothing” (John, 15:5), we find clearly designated the Mediator of which we were talking”. The catholic dogmatic constitution of the church, contained in Lumen Gentium, states: “…and she was extolled by the Lord as Queen of the universe in order to resemble more closely to her Son, Lord of lords and of sins and death”. This doctrine is rejected for complex theological reasons by the Orthodox Church, and out of a general minimization of Mary’s role and status by the Protestants; it is therefore a strong “marker” of catholicity.

Returning to the interpretation of this theme by Jean-Michel Alberola, on the left-hand side of the central window is Mary receiving the crown on her bowed head from the hand of Christ whose face is only partly visible on the right-hand side of the window, perhaps to indicate that, as He is already resurrected and in heavens, his may not appear any more as a human being, His humanity is only reminded or suggested. The artist is bathing this scene in red, the colour of honour and power as befits a crowning, be it a spiritual one; he chose however not to represent the moon below Mary’s feet, as her body and feet are not visible. On the two windows which flank this central one, we can see very large hands standing out from a richly decorated background which represents the Heavens. These are the hands of the Father, as Mary is crowned not by Christ alone, but by the Trinity. The white disc above the central panel could be read as the Holy Spirit, unless it is the golden shape partly hidden by the lancet which parts the window vertically.

The composition reminds us of the Coronation of the Virgin by Gentile da Fabriano, and in particular the one of the Valle Romita Polyptych, currently in the Brera Pinacoteca, which is dated between 1406 and 1414. The attitude of the Virgin and the Christ in the work of Alberola corresponds fairly accurately to Gentile da Fabriano’s drawing, which may have served as a model or inspiration; the Father’s hands seem to bring together the heads of the Virgin and Christ, in what is also a protective gesture. Unless the idea came from another Coronation of the Virgin, the masterpiece of Enguerrand Quarton (1453-54), where the right hand of the Father and the left hand of the Son, who are painted as identical figures, hold the crown, as if “framing” the Virgin’s head.   

Wherever the inspiration might come from, Jean-Michel Alberola found a very novel way of representing the Father in the history of art, but also a very profound one: doesn’t the father hold protectively his child’s hand ? When we look at Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, the focal point of the painting is indeed the hands of the forgiving and protective father on the shoulders of the son who foolishly squandered what God had given to him. So that these particular windows are an excellent example of how contemporary art can renew even the most established iconology without betraying the underlying message, or falling into irrelevant chatter or transpositions.

The work of Claude Viallat, who never much ventured beyond the repetition of the same abstract pattern, varying only the colours and sizes, has probably found in the cathedral of Nevers one of its most adequate and satisfying expressions, a natural home. It “dresses” the cathedral in a shimmer of colours with a magenta basso continuo at the centre of the usual pattern, providing an intensity of light in the nave which contributes to the “shrine effect” immediately felt when penetrating the church, as well as a clever transition between the figurative panels of Alberola and the minimalist approach of Honegger.

Claude Viallat – Nevers

The work of François Rouan for the windows in the side chapels of the nave is very sensitive, and naturally interplays with the tracery windows. In each side chapel the tonality is different, with mono- or bi-chromatic compositions, in addition to white, which are treated as kaleidoscopic images, symbols of the diversity and richness of the creation and within it, of humanity itself. As if, from inside the cathedral, one could perceive a visual echo of an infinitely diverse world, basking in and transfigured by the glow of divinity.

The role of the master glass-maker should of course not be forgotten, as he is the co-creator of any stained-glass work, on equal footing with the artist himself; he is the one who finds, applies, and sometimes invents the practical solutions to create the work, who interprets the artist’s drawing and vision, the depositary of a centuries-old knowhow without which nothing would be possible. In the particular case of the windows of Alberola, the glass-maker was the Dominique Duchemin from Paris; in the case of Viallat, Bernard Dhonneur who was the pupil of the great Gabriel Loire; in the case of Raoul Ubac and François Rouan, Benoit Marq from Reims, in the case of Gottfried Honegger, Jean Mauret from Saint-Hilaire-en-Lignières… Maintaining this tradition and knowhow alive is essential to a whole artform.

In Nevers, the idea of choosing five different artists is consistent with the history of most cathedrals, where no single artist was ever commissioned the full set of windows, but usually only one iconographic “program”, with few exceptions. Even in the case of the Sainte Chapelle, which seems so homogeneous, it is believed that three different stained-glass workshops have contributed to this massive artistic program. In Nevers, what made it possible to gather artists with such different approaches and styles to work coherently in one single church – beyond the bombardment – is the architectural diversity of the cathedral itself, due in part to its reconstructions after three major fires in 1211, 1228 and 1308, with its two apses, its Romanesque half-transept, its 15th century side-chapels.

One striking element of contrast between contemporary figurative windows and, say, those made in the 13th century, is the difference in density. If we take the example of the window of the Good Samaritan in the cathedral of Saint Etienne in Bourges, that single widow includes sixty-six characters distributed in fifteen medallions, with one main story in the five central circular ones and a summary of the History of Salvation in the other ones. Reading these scenes, interpreting their generally allusive or elliptic meaning, with the addition difficulty of the physical distance from the ground, could not have involved a function of teaching, of catechism destined to a mostly illiterate crowd. That theory, though seducing, makes little practical sense. The purpose must have been to embed or enshrine the History of Salvation, of the saints whose remains were present, and of the main dogma of the Church in the building itself, as an active, performing representation of the universal Church. To create a climate, and an obviousness for the faithful that could perhaps be deciphered if necessary, but did not need to be. Just as the sacred Scriptures and their dogmatic translation, meaning was conveyed by the homely, by the word, accompanied by must have amounted to a visual form of music, in addition to the music itself. There is a trance-inducing quality of light filtering through stained-glass on a large scale.

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