Broken Symmetry: John Piper’s Windows & the Ruins of Modernism
(A fully illustrated version of the essay is available as a download in dalependell.com/essays.)
In 1940 the German Luftwaffe bombed Coventry, an industrial city with factories producing automobiles, bicycles, airplane engines, and munitions. Heinkel pathfinders first dropped marker flares, one of which landed on the roof of St. Michael’s, the fourteenth-century cathedral. This first fire was extinguished, but others followed. High explosive bombs broke the city’s water mains, and the number of fires in the city center overwhelmed the firefighters, who ran out of water and sand. Fires on the cathedral roof melted through the lead, and soon the interior was burning. Toward morning, the roof collapsed.
The outer walls remained standing, but the ruined cathedral was an empty shell. Fourteen years later, in 1954, Basil Spence won the commission to design a new cathedral, to be built adjacent to the old one. Spence’s challenge was the problem of all twentieth-century art: how to “make it new”—a problem made all the more acute by the presence of the old walls. While mature (and senescent) cultures revere the forms of the old masters—duplicating them, refining them, finding new derivatives—at Coventry, any such attempt would have been futile and imitative. The old forms were half in rubble, yet any new building done in a similar style could never have hoped to match the elegance of what remained. So Spence’s design was “modern.”
Yet the very formulation of Pound’s dictum, “make it new,” implies a relationship to tradition—that’s the “it.” Every artist stands in some relation to tradition, whether formally “in” the tradition as a continuation of an on-going conversation, or seemingly outside of it, the “it” so abstracted that the artist’s creation may seem to be disjoint: a revolutionary orphan bent on rooting out all traces of past oppression. This tension between the old and the new is perhaps nowhere as salient and inescapable as in religious art.
Spence connected his new cathedral to the ruins of the old walls with an elegant and simple arch, but the linkage is clearer in the glasswork. First, the ruins of the old cathedral form a backdrop for the emaciated saints and angels rising with the trumpet-sounding of the final judgment on John Hutton’s sandblasted translucent windows filling the entire west wall. Second, the connection to the past shines through every pane of stained glass.
The ten nave windows, designed by Lawrence Lee, Geoffrey Clark, Keith New, and students at the Royal College of Art, are set into the recesses of the overlapping splines of the walls like the barbs on a harpoon, in a saw-tooth arrangement—they are only visible by looking backward from the altar. Spence chose the themes: youth, in greens; midlife, in reds; old age, in purples; and afterlife, in gold. There is variation in style, many miniatures are embedded in the windows, and the overall effect retains the Gothic penchant for assemblage. Their half-hidden emplacement seems to add to their inspiring richness.
John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens got the commission for the baptistry windows, which dominate the wide and open space at the entrance of the cathedral.
I first saw the Piper-Reyntiens windows when I was a teenager, three years after they had been completed and consecrated in 1962. I must have been entranced, because my father turned to me and told me to close my mouth. The baptistry windows consist of a breathtaking wall of one hundred ninety-five panels, each about a foot and a half wide and three to eight feet high. The window expanse rises eighty feet to the ceiling. The tour guide asked me if I liked the windows. I managed to nod. He smiled and said, “Opinions differ.”
Color delights us. Colored light plays like a melody on the keyboard of the visual cortex, creating waves of sensuous pleasure. Aldous Huxley mused that our “otherwise inexplicable” passion for gems and precious stones is because “they bear a faint resemblance to the glowing marvels seen with the inner eye of the visionary,” the Other World that Huxley himself had glimpsed under mescaline.
Preternatural light and color are common to all visionary experiences. And along with light and color there goes, in every case, a recognition of heightened significance. The self-luminous objects which we see in the mind’s antipodes possess a meaning, and this meaning is, in some sort, as intense as their color.
–Aldous Huxley, Heaven and Hell
In the “Other World” all the trees are of gold or silver. Aladdin visited there, as did twelve dancing princesses. The fruit of the trees are all precious jewels: yellow topaz, glittering diamonds, deep blue sapphires, glowing rubies, and green emeralds. The colors of the Other World are brighter than dream colors: they are the imaginal colors, the light of consciousness itself.
Reflected light can never equal the intensity of transmitted light. The colors of a sunrise or a sunset still our thoughts or bid us sing. The colors from flowers in sunlight seem to emanate from within: the petals are blue or purple, but the color is more than superficial: hence flowers, following Huxley, are also representative of the Other World, along with the scent of sandalwood.
The typical mescalin or lysergic-acid experience begins with perceptions of colored, moving, living geometrical forms. In time, pure geometry becomes concrete, and the visionary perceives, not patterns, but patterned things, such as carpets, carvings, mosaics.
–Aldous Huxley, Heaven and Hell
Huxley quotes Mitchell Wier’s description of the beginning of his peyote experience, where he saw “star points” and what looked like “fragments of stained glass.”
Stained glass is inextricably wedded to Gothic architecture, and vice versa: Gothic glass and Gothic architecture emerged simultaneously. Glass itself is traditionally first ascribed to the Egyptians, who mostly used it for beads, treasured and traded all around the Mediterranean and across Europe. True glass was preceded by faience, a half-fused sand in a melted glaze, such as the turquoise blue “donkey beads” from Iran. Sometime in the first century BCE, Syrians learned that glass could be blown into bubbles, and that the glass bubble could be cut and shaped or flattened while still molten. Use of glass proliferated in the Roman Empire, both as windows and as containers, until glass bottles and vases were cheaper than pottery. Colored glass probably also developed in Syria, where Arabic alchemists learned the secrets of mineral colorization: cobalt salts for blue, copper salts for red or green, sodium for yellow, and iron for a deep red.
Colored light was connected to subtle essences shared between the created world and the divine. Gemstones conveyed a direct message from the transcendent world, and colored glass was in demand as a cheaper, but still efficacious, alternative. The use of colored glass in a mosaic, and the use of lead, seem to be Byzantine innovations.
Gregory of Tours, in the late sixth century, mentions the use of colored glass in churches. The first known stained glass in England was installed in the monastery of St. Peter at Monkwearmouth in 675. Benedict Biscop imported glassmakers and architects from France, reestablishing the arts of glassmaking and stonemasonry in England, lost since Roman times. (Monkwearmouth was later the home of the Venerable Bede, who mentions the colored glass windows.)
By the twelfth century, most of the techniques to be used for the next eight hundred years were in use, including the H-shaped lead cames and the layering of thin reds on clear glass so that the pane would not be too dark.
Patrick Reyntiens, in The Beauty of Stained Glass, characterizes Romanesque stained glass as “lyrical,” the colors balanced and harmonious, and contrasts it with the wild energy of the blues and reds so prevalent in Gothic glass. He points out that the colors of the earliest fragments of glass are the same as those used in manuscript illumination, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels: greens and blues, some browns, and a weak purple.
The use of glass in Romanesque churches was constrained by the architecture of the walls, which only allowed for modest window openings. By contrast, the wide spaces of the interior walls were painted, often with wild and fanciful forms. Bernard of Clairvaux was critical of this feature of Romanesque churches, arguing that paintings and rich ornaments were merely distractions to the truly devout monk, who ought to be able to enter the spirit directly.
In the cloisters, under the eyes of the brethren engaged in reading, what business has there that ridiculous monstrosity . . . Those unclean monkeys? Those fierce lions? Those monstrous centaurs? Those semi-human beings? Those spotted tigers. . . . In fine, on all sides there appears so rich and so amazing a variety of forms that it is more delightful to read the marbles than the manuscripts, and to spend the whole day in admiring these things, piece by piece, rather than in meditating on the Law Divine.
–Bernard of Clairvaux
This argument posed a strong challenge to his twelfth-century contemporary, Abbot Suger.
The Abbé Suger
Gothic architecture is generally said to have begun with the rebuilding of the abbey of St. Denis under the supervision of Abbot Suger. While Suger’s personal role in the design of the abbey is uncertain, no one disputes that he designed the windows (at least thirty of them in the choir and west front), earning his epithet as the “father of stained glass.” And stained glass is the salient feature of the Gothic cathedral.
In 1946, Erwin Panofsky proposed that the design of the church at St. Denis, and in particular the use of large colored windows, was influenced by the light mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. This Dionysius was evidently a sixth-century Neoplatonist living in Syria, but in twelfth-century France he was believed to be the Apostle Dionysius, converted by Paul, and the first bishop of Athens. He was also believed to be the same Dionysius (Denys) who converted France to Christianity and was martyred, and whose relics were held in the very Church of St. Denis.
For Pseudo-Dionysius, and for Neoplatonists generally, light, being the most immaterial of the elements, was the most direct manifestation of God, engendering the universe and illuminating the mind.
“Each procession of the Light spreads itself generously toward us, and, in its power to unify, it stirs us by lifting us up. Light comes from the Good.”
The pantheism implicit in this system was overlooked—an example of how accommodating Christianity can be with proper motivation. So Dionysius and his spheres of heavens and angels were shoehorned into the gospel, along with Plato, Aristotle, and the Old Testament.
But Pseudo-Dionysius’s identification of light with the divine was not wholly new (“I am the light of the world”), and Neoplatonism hardly seems necessary to explain Suger’s view that material lights (vera lumina) can lead one to the True Light (verum lumen). Pseudo-Dionysius didn’t say a great deal about color, and his writings do little to explain Suger’s revolutionary introduction of imposing walls of color. Suger himself quoted Ezekial:
. . . Every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold. –Ez 28:13
Thus sometimes when, because of my delight in the beauty of the house of God, the multicolor loveliness of the gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation, transporting me from material to immaterial things, has persuaded me to examine the diversity of holy virtues, then I seem to see myself existing on some level, as it were, beyond our earthly one, neither completely in the slime of earth nor completely in the purity of heaven. By the gift of God I cam be transported in an anagogical manner from this interior level to that superior one.
Perhaps the most important contribution of Pseudo-Dionysius to Abbot Suger was as a canonical endorsement of the sensuous, a counter-argument to the asceticism of Bernard of Clairvaux.
For it is quite impossible that we humans should, in any immaterial way, rise up to imitate and to contemplate the heavenly hierarchies without the aid of those material means capable of guiding us as our nature requires. Hence, any thinking person realizes that the appearances of beauty are signs of an invisible loveliness.
Suger had this verse inscribed on the door to his church:
The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material
And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.
Suger claimed to be a commoner, born of poor and lowly parents. He was given to the Monastery of St. Denis at the age of eight as an oblate. His schoolmates were mostly from the nobility, one of them a future king of France. He was a short man, evidently good with people and thoroughly competent, and he quickly rose through the hierarchies of church and state. He was advisor to two kings and served as regent for Louis vii when the King went on crusade.
Suger was not an intellectual, nor was he a deeply contemplative or spiritual man, as was Bernard of Clairvaux. But Suger had his own genius. He seemed to delight in all things luminous—particularly gold and precious stones, and by his own writings he was a hands-on producer, taking personal charge, when needed, to collect the required materials for his new church. Whatever the sources for Suger’s vision, in order to produce a wall of colored light, he had to scour Europe to find the artists and craftsmen with the requisite skills, and it was that pulling together of disparate schools of design that produced the Gothic.
Color is the opposite of asceticism. Color defies meaning and understanding: color defies explanation. Color is, somehow, superfluous—a gift. None of the theories of color, whether from Newton, Goethe, or the occult traditions, come close to explaining its quality, or the responses it evokes. Even saying “we need some way to distinguish different wavelengths of light” doesn’t explain why we were gifted with color.
And God gave Noah the rainbow.
Color gives delight and solace, beyond any deserving. No colors have any intrinsic meaning, and perhaps they fill the cathedral windows as a reminder of the gratuitous grace that makes possible our lives.
On New Year’s Eve I hung four strings of colored lights along a wall and turned off the other lights. Lying on the floor, and by judiciously squinting my eyes, I could see that each of the colored lights grew six long searchlight rays—with the vertical and downward rays by far the longest—and I was able to measure the brightness of the different lights by the length of the rays. On one of the strings the blues and greens were the brightest. On another string the blues were weaker, but there was a strong red. Yellows were bright. By chance, one red bulb and one blue bulb were close together, and for a while I was transported back to a Gothic window.
In my bedroom we have faceted crystal pendants hanging in front of the southeast window. During the winter months, the low sun fills the room with little rainbow spectra—it’s like a page from a physics book except that faceted crystals do a much better job than triangular prisms. The crystals hang on monofilament strings and rotate very slowly, evidently just from the effects of the sun’s heating, and a spectrum will occasionally cross my face and I’ll see a sudden brilliant flash of color. Sometimes each eye gets a different color. Some of the colors are so rich that I track the spectrum, marveling at the manifold and distinct shades and hues: aquamarine, through royal blue, to ultramarine. Deep violet is harder to get, and is not very bright.
There are many colors not found in a spectrum. There is no brown. There are no creamy pastels, and there is no pink, though this morning I am seeing a glowing mauve-magenta from one particular crystal shaped like a teardrop, which is pretty close. It may be a mixture of two wavelengths.
In the twelfth century, color was thought to be separate from light, or at least such was the theory of Aristotle. Color was a property of opaque objects, and one needed light to see color. The most widely believed explanation of vision was the extramission theory of Ptolemy and Euclid–that objects were perceivable by a ray of light passing from the eye to the object. Another theory held that a thin film, an eidola, traveled from the object to the eye.
In his Lectures on Physics, Richard Feynman states that any three different colors of light can make all the others—that there are no fixed primaries. Any of the colors of spectral light (and even, under certain conditions, colors such as brown) can be constructed innumerable ways: as a single pure wavelength, or as mixtures of wavelengths, and all are indistinguishable from each other.
I returned to Coventry in 2009. It had all started on Easter, a long way from Coventry, on the west coast of North America. With light streaming through the windows of our bedroom in the Sierra foothills of California, I told my wife, Laura, about the experience I’d had at Coventry forty years before. One thing led to another, and we decided to make a pilgrimage, giving a few readings and book signings on the way and accompanied by my mother and daughter.
I wanted to see how the building that had so deeply informed my aesthetics had withstood the passage of half a century. We entered the ruins of the old cathedral first. It seemed cleaner and tidier than I remembered—in 1965, at least in my memory, there was still rubble in evidence. Then we entered the new cathedral. It was overcast and raining lightly, but Piper’s windows dominated the interior, and there was light aplenty. I felt the same hush. I parked my mother in a chair in a swath of orange light, turned a chair for myself, and gazed at the wall.
From the distance of the opposite wall, the large-scale design seems overstated: the yellow-tinted clear panels that form a sun in the center of the wall are too reminiscent, for my taste, of a hydrogen fireball. The dominance of the round, bright center panes is exaggerated by photography; the experience from the ground is far more balanced. Patrick Reyntiens says that the grand design was his idea or, rather, an idea he appropriated from Bernini—but I kept wishing there were one or two more dark panels embedded within the great sun, some hints of obscuring clouds.
Perhaps our optimism is more tempered today than in the 1960s. But all of Piper’s individual colored panels were just as alive and vibrant as I remembered them. The lines and the cuts were nowhere wrong or out of place. I could gaze at any of a hundred lights and feel that something in the world had been done correctly. Or I could look at one piece of glass within a pane, and feel the soothing pleasure of a green that was like that of an olive leaf, or fall into a blue that never tired of receding into oceanic depths, or gaze at a red so rich and dark it seemed to hold the secrets of the blackness from which all light must originate.
Piper’s windows are an essay on poetics, an instruction manual on line breaks and prosody—there is just enough form and repetition that a formal grammar is present by implication—evoked but not quite stated. Piper proves that there can be rhythm without repetition, that syncopation can hide structure without that structure being lost. The linkage between the individual lights is like that of the Japanese verse form renga, by feeling-tone rather than by explicit image. The windows do not present a narrative. There are hints of a story in them, but only hints—the way the bombed-out walls hint of a story—a not-quite-vanished world where people walked and spoke but with lacunae that we must fill in with our own imagining.
If the cathedral as a whole has a theme, it is forgiveness—a word rather out of style to our generation, who have not witnessed such great loss. Not dumb forgiveness or the ineffectual forgiveness of the beaten and defeated, but forgiveness as in “forgiving a debt,” the forgiveness of saying “enough.” Forgiving a debt may not be fair (“They started it. They killed my daughter. They killed my son.”)— but violence was never stopped by retribution. Jesus and the Buddha agree on this point.
The docent suggested that we come back early the next morning—that the sun would be behind the windows, and that maybe there would be a break in the clouds. We did, and there was.
Innovations in Stained Glass
Suger’s innovations at St. Denis, such as a petalled rose window over the door and a window depicting the “Tree of Jesse,” were soon duplicated at Chartres Cathedral, a structure better known and better preserved today than the church at St. Denis. The new style quickly spread to cathedrals at Le Mans, Amiens, Beauvais, and Canterbury. Patrick Reyntiens, never one to suppress his opinions, calls the twelfth-century windows at Canterbury, produced under the direction of William of Sens, “far better than the best of Chartres.”
For the most part the medieval stained glass artists remain anonymous. But as prayers were necessary for deliverance from Purgatory, occasionally a master glazier would leave his name or a self-portrait, such as Villard de Honnecourt, who in 1250 begs those who view his work to “pray for his soul.” No one is quite sure how the 12th century cathedrals were financed, though Suger left the most complete accounting. Much was donated, not only by other churches and the nobility, but by the craftsmen.
German cathedrals, such as in the window of St. Cecilia in Cologne, came to favor yellows and greens. The French, as in the windows of Chartres, preferred deep reds and blues, and there is a lot of blue and red in Suger’s windows.
In his essay, “Stained Glass: Art or Anti-Art,” Piper singles out four windows as notable masterpieces: the Ascension at Le Mans, the Crucifixion at Poitiers, the Belle Verrière at Chartres; and the Virgin and Child at Vendôme—all from the twelfth century.
Reyntiens believes that, with the great expansion of cathedral building in the thirteenth century, there was a “crisis of labor” that resulted in some simplification of design, the use of larger pieces of glass, and the avoidance of labor-intensive works. There were, of course, exceptions, such as the clerestory windows above the clear grisaille trifolium at Tours, and the windows at Auxerre. At York Minster, the “Five Sisters” grisaille windows were so tall and contained so much detail that humans could only appreciate them fully with a telescope, of which there were none. The beauty was a gift to God, and that much of the beauty and care was beyond the sight of humans was evidently not considered important.
During the fourteenth century, German alchemists discovered that silver salts, painted onto glass and then baked, produced a brilliant yellow—and yellows and golds became the unifying colors of many windows, replacing the blues and reds of twelfth- and thirteenth-century windows. This technique gave “stained glass” its name. In general, there was a moderation in the use of color, a move away from the intense walls of small, colored, gem-like shards to an emphasis on larger designs.
By the fifteenth century, stained glass began to appear in the castles and estates of the rich, as decoration. The painting on the glass became less iconic, with finer lines and more detail given to facial expressions. A lot of clear glass was used, both for reasons of expense and to admit more light. Churches also used clear glass, often lightly tinted and decorated with tracings of leaves and trefoils and embedded in a diamond-shaped lattice. The structural strength of such panels enabled glaziers to create larger windows by alternating them with the weaker stained glass. Stained glass became more and more naturalistic, with rounded, precisely shaded forms resembling paintings. Renaissance artists added the vanishing point.
After the Reformation, the Protestants wanted light more than color—being able to read the Book was deemed more important than creating heaven on earth. People were expected to be able to read, so it was no longer necessary to paint out the bible stories in colored pictures, as in the Middle Ages. Catholic churches also often followed the trend to clear glass, the Jesuits favoring glass cut into prisms.
Significant innovations waited for the workshop of William Morris and his Pre-Raphaelite brothers Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Piper wrote highly of the work of Morris and Burne-Jones, characterizing the Morris windows as the perfect union of art and craft. Early twentieth-century artists continued to innovate. Louis Comfort Tiffany perfected the use of opalescent glass, and John La Farge created large plates of opulent color. Christopher Whall and the Arts and Crafts movement, Karl Parsons, and Harry Clarke created colorful panels using spectacular purples and violets accentuated by etching with acids.
A number of twentieth-century painters designed windows, including, in the 1930s, Georges Rouault, Georges Braque, and Diego Rivera. At the request of the French government, Marc Chagall, Jacques Villon, Roger Bissière, and Jean Cocteau all contributed spectacular windows to Metz Cathedral, which holds over 70,000 square feet of stained glass. Evie Hone did a window for the Holy Rosary Church in Greystones, Ireland, in 1948. Piper’s closest progenitor may have been Alfred Wolmark, who produced a set of nonfigurative windows for St. Mary’s Church in Slough in 1915.
John Piper was born in 1903, in Epsom, Surrey. His father was a solicitor, and when Piper was eighteen, he went to work as a clerk in his father’s law firm in London, where he stayed for five years. While working in London, Piper published two books of poems and illustrated his father’s autobiography. On his lunch hours he frequented the Tate to view the works of Turner, Constable, and Blake. In 1926 he abandoned law and enrolled at the Richmond School of Art for one year, and later the Royal College of Art. In 1927 he moved back to Surrey, where he continued his education by copying medieval stained glass in the local churches (he said he learned more about color from the thirteenth-century window at Grateley than from anything else). Piper studied the paintings of Picasso and copied them, and read contemporary writers such as D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley. In 1935, along with Myfanwy Evans, later his second wife, Piper published Axis, a Magazine of Abstract Art, publishing work from the Continent, including the constructivists.
During the war, Piper was commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to create drawings and paintings of bomb wreckage, and one of the sites he painted was Coventry. In 1953 he met Patrick Reyntiens and began a thirty-year collaboration, Piper designing windows for numerous churches and buildings that Reyntiens executed. A video made by Shell Oil (for whom Piper, along with poet John Betjeman, wrote travel guides for the English countryside) shows Piper and Reyntiens working together on the windows for the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool.
Also in 1953, Piper began a series of “foliate head” paintings—the Green Man—a subject to which he would return for the rest of his life, producing paintings, prints, and glasswork. Even in Piper’s windows at Oundle, his first commission, the nine Christ-like figures have foliate heads. In 1954 Piper produced a lithograph of a foliate head as an illustration for Edwin Muir’s Ariel poem, “Prometheus.”
Perhaps, in Piper’s theology, Prometheus plus thorns equals Christ. The foliate head is Joyce’s “leafy speaking,” also glimpsed by Botticelli in “La Primavera.”
Painting Christ as a Green Man resonates with Norman O. Brown’s project to find a Dionysian Christianity: to redeem the Redeemer with the leafy medicine of the earth. Though Brown never abandoned his project, he knew that it was futile—that the poison of the Last Judgment was unlikely to be uprooted. For Piper, the link was the vine: Christ was the True Vine, and the vine is certainly Dionysian.
Perhaps the most obdurate design element in Christian art is the cross. It is almost impossible to work with a cross without the cross dominating the composition. The cross says too much and too little—one wishes to stretch one arm and bend the extension, adding acute angles and ellipses. The cross is too Cartesian: a geometry that has been given every chance to succeed in life but always seems to end by spilling more blood. Christianity cannot avoid the cross, though Piper seems to have avoided it whenever he could, and he left it out of the Coventry windows. When he did employ the cross, it was usually a Greek tau, and in his tapestry at Chittenden even the tau is skewed, as if the gravity of the chthonic forces beneath it had at last begun to reassert itself. Piper injected an older tradition, a world of twining, or accidental twinning, where madness and meaning had not lost their etymological familiarity—perhaps what a cross would be if a cross were intoxicated: slanted, bent, or ruptured—something closer to springtime than to the syllogism. Perhaps a cross looking more like a mantis.
When considering Piper’s windows, an obvious comparison would be to Chagall’s stained glass windows at Reims. But whereas the Reims windows have “Chagall” written all over them—distinctive and immediately recognizable—Piper’s windows are abstract and maintain a Gothic anonymity. Instead of illustrating the Creation, Piper’s windows portray the ratios and harmonies that would have been necessary to any god’s creation—a Pythagorean beauty hinting of the spectral lines of hydrogen or the octets of hidden symmetry groups. The blue windows at St. Andrew’s, Wolverhampton, like the windows at St. Paul’s, Bledlow Ridge, evoke the spirals of lepton showers in a cloud chamber. At Coventry, the bleeding Crucifixion is pleasantly absent.
Piper’s windows are far less overtly “religious” than are, again, those of Chagall, who began designing stained glass several years after Piper’s first windows at Oundle. But a better comparison would be to the windows of that good atheist, Fernand Léger, at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Audincourt, which Patrick Reyntiens called “among the very best that the twentieth century has seen.”
Piper did join the Anglican Church, but his pagan sympathies remained clear. The Tree of Life is more common in his stained glass than the cross, and even in his paintings of rural churches one expects to see a faun peeking around an overgrown corner. So we took a train to Winchester, where a panel of twelve of Piper’s foliate heads lives in the lobby of the Wessex Hotel. The hotel staff were completely accommodating—allowing me to move chairs and to take as many pictures as I wished.
Across a wide lawn from the Wessex Hotel is Winchester Cathedral—the site of one of the oldest large churches in England, the burial place of the great Saxon kings, and once the spiritual seat of Saxon authority. William the Conqueror wore his crown there every Easter, in hopes of furthering his own legitimacy, and started the new cathedral on the grounds of the Old Minster, which was subsequently demolished. During the Civil War Winchester was a Royalist stronghold. Cromwell’s ironsides took the town, sacked the cathedral and broke the medieval windows. Townspeople collected the broken glass in boxes and bags and later the mixed pieces were used in new windows, assembled as much by chance as by design. There are many famous windows at Winchester, one designed by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, but none are quite as eye-catching or as “modern” as this 17th century bricolage in the Great West Wall.
Modernism seems most at home in wreckage and ruins. Leonard Bernstein said that Mahler, in his last symphony, saw the approaching end of the world: the end of tonal harmony, the end of Western civilization in the coming war, the end of his own life. Mahler saw the approaching storm and knew that there was no escape. But after the storm broke, on the Somme, in the Depression, in the wars against the fascists and in the death camps of the Holocaust and the gulags and the state prisons and the incinerated cities—when the horror of the century was complete and the rubble of bricks and bodies inescapable, people began picking up the pieces. Tales of mere heroism would seem jejune beside so many corpses, and optimism silly without the tempering of tragedy. Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” composed in a prison camp, where the strains of beauty are triumphant because of their rarity, is a fine example. Perhaps picking up the pieces is what Art of the Later Days is about—picking up the pieces, reassembling the fragments as they come to hand—the road to Eleusis a patchwork of masks, bricks, lyre strings, and even some brittle plastic—seeking, if not “classical beauty,” at least a dignity that can stand in good conscience beside the mockery of the rubble.
In 2007 Gerhard Richter designed windows for Cologne Cathedral. The windows are composed of 11,500 identically sized squares of seventy-two colors of glass, arranged “more or less” at random. If the idea is cerebral, the effect of the light streaming onto the columns and floor is not. Sigmar Polke responded to the challenge of the cathedral at Grossmünster, in Zurich, by reaching back to what are perhaps the most ancient windows known— the thin alabaster slabs that allowed filtered light into the temples of the pharaohs at Luxor and Karnak. Polke used thin sections of agate as well as textured glass in the figurative windows.
Toward the end of his essay, “Stained Glass: Art or Anti-Art,” Piper muses on the use of new materials, such as resin and fiberglass, and surely would have recognized The Plastic Chapel, by Finley Fryer and the Shasta Mountain Playhouse, composed of thirty-seven panels made from recycled plastic, as being within this new unfolding tradition. The Plastic Chapel was exhibited at Burning Man in 1998.
In the twenty-first century, mammon has never been more comfortably in control of the global world. The partnership of corporation and state, while not complete, is massively entrenched. Postmodernism, all too often, seems wholly at home in the new elite comfort, the label being thought of as a badge of accomplishment rather than as the disease from which we must escape.
Like Huxley, Piper sought his eternity in the sensuous delight of color. Today, with gaudy flashes of color a repetitive mainstay of advertising, the aesthetic challenge has changed. Darkness, or a somber pessimistic sobriety, has been all but banished from political discourse. Modern psychology offers light and happiness in every room. Yet Piper knew that the proper frame for light was shadow. Hope shines brightest with a touch of mourning, and the symmetries of heaven clearest when broken. The enormity of the crimes of civilized nations over the past one hundred years ought to provide any artist with plenty of canvas.