Stained glass as an art form is unique. For a start, the layman may well not think of it initially as art at all, but rather as part of the building process, just the coloured glazing you get in church windows. But, as well as this, it exists on two planes: the piece itself set, usually as a window and viewed from inside a building, but also as a complement, an augmentation to, perhaps even a commentary on, the building itself.
In its best-known historical form, stained glass is seen in churches and cathedrals and is usually the only surviving part of what were once highly decorated interiors. Much of it did not survive the iconoclasm of the Commonwealth and is of more recent date, not uncommonly Victorian. The original purpose was to illustrate stories from the Bible that were often also seen in wall paintings and on carvings both inside and outside the church itself. These buildings were often story books made flesh, so to speak.
The impressive thing about the art of stained glass is that it has never really had a revival because it has never really gone away. It’s not something that draws the casual craftsperson, but yet there has been a solid body of practitioners all over the world who have kept the craft alive not for sentimental or historic reasons but simply because it works as well today as it ever did. Just as much as any mediaeval cathedral, Basil Spence’s Coventry or le Corbusier’s Notre Dame de Haut are immeasurably raised to a higher plane by the use of glass and would not possess anything like their sense of calm spirituality without it.
This book is a well-conceived survey of what’s going on today. The author is herself a well-known stained-glass artist. Her motivation for writing the book was to interpret what for a moment we’ll call “coloured windows” as pieces of art and also to relate them to their location and explain their relevance to their particular site. In doing so, she has surveyed the work of over 60 practitioners in more than 10 countries right across the world and, in an utterly inspired moment, got them to explain for themselves what it is they do and why. It is, of course, dangerous to ask artists to explain their own work because, so often, what they want to say is in the piece itself, but the complex way in which stained glass acts and reacts prompts what, for want of a better word, we can call a philosophy and the approach does produce worthwhile results.
A quick glance at the price will reveal that this is not as book for the casual browser but, in a mass-produced age of pile-it-high and sell-it-cheap, Black’s have once again eschew anything but the highest quality. Stained glass will not put up with less than perfect photography and nowhere in this rather sumptuous book does it have to.
First published 2006