November 12, 2012 2:52:24 PM
When you enter King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England, the first thing you do is look up at the magnificent vault of the ceiling. For me, looking up at the beautiful fan-like splays of the ribs always made music resound in my head, perhaps a Bach chorale that I had heard performed there or perhaps something from the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that is broadcast from the chapel around the world at Christmastime. Then there is the light. On a summer's day, "the windows blaze into life, walls of floating light and colour that sparkle and ripple to the changing rhythm of the clouds and sun, 'flecking the vast interior with glory,' according to one former King's undergraduate, E. M. Forster." Thus Carola Hicks introduces the windows in The King's Glass: A Story of Tudor Power and Secret Art, newly reprinted by Pimlico. It was her last book published before her death in 2010; she had been, among other jobs in a varied career, the curator of the stained glass museum in nearby Ely Cathedral. Now I'd love to go back to the chapel; I had no idea that the lovely windows had such a tumultuous and fractious history, reflecting the complicated times in which they were planned and installed. Even if I never get back, though, I am, thanks to Hicks's book, seeing the windows with new clarity.
Medieval Cambridge was an unlikely place for such a masterpiece, a town distant from London with a climate of fogs, winds, and damp. Its isolation had fostered monastic communities, and these made it a center of learning. "In comparison with many other medieval towns," writes Hicks, "Cambridge had low standards." It was filthy, with pigs roaming the streets and street cleaning no more frequent than weekly. It was noisy, with frequent clashes between "town and gown," working residents and students. In 1446, the din of construction was added, as Henry VI placed the cornerstone of the chapel. It was Henry VII who specified the subject matter of the windows. The theme was "The Old Law and the New," a theme not original to him but familiar within Catholic tradition. He wanted dramatic pictures of Bible scenes of the life of Christ on the lower levels of the windows, with predictions of such stories from the Old Testament just above. For instance, below the window showing Moses and the Israelites getting manna rained on them from heaven was one to show Jesus and the disciples dining at the Last Supper; below the window of Solomon getting his crown from his mother was Jesus getting his crown of thorns. Sometimes the connections were tenuous, but they had been worked out by clerics over the centuries. The words of Jesus endorsed the tradition when he compared his three days in the Earth to Jonah's three days in the whale (and of course, there is a window to reflect this pairing). In addition, the glaziers had to put in, over and over again, the Tudor badges of the sequential kings as the years went on, "a language of signs and symbols that could easily be read by those who understood it." Thus in the windows (as well as carved in the stonework) were not only the Tudor rose, but the fleur-de-lys, the dragon, the greyhound, the portcullis, the hawthorn bush, and more, all of which signified some particular aspect of the royal family. It was a religious building, but "hundreds of Tudor badges in brightly painted glass reminded worshippers for whom they should be praying." In addition, the various marital dramas of Henry VIII meant that the monogram of his initial H joined with the initial of his wife had to be changed; it helped that three wives were named Katherine.
The designers of the glass not only had to deliver the approved didactic message, they had to do so within fixed limits. The wide spaces between the piers were divided by narrow stone openings of soaring height. The glass had to show the stories clearly even if the figures were seventy feet above the heads of the viewers. The glass had to have rich colors but it had to let in enough light so that the details of the interior were not obscured. The engineering and chemical difficulties of producing the glass with the right color, texture, and thickness were considerable. Hicks describes many of the processes, and it is astonishing how much diversity in glass could be achieved with the production methods of the time. There were, for instance, no thermometers; getting up to a proper temperature was vital, but glaziers could only gauge temperature by looking at the form and color of the flames in the kilns.
The Flemish artists who made the windows were the best that any king could hire. Hicks calls attention to some of the craftsmanship in the windows. The scene of manna coming from heaven is a good example; each piece representing the manna was a white disk inserted into a deep blue glass for the sky. Cutting each of the seventy disks was hard enough, but even harder was making the round holes to receive them. The glaziers put in their own touches, often animals. There is a duck swimming in the stream as Jesus gets baptized, and you can find a hedgehog and a butterfly elsewhere. There are often dogs of different appearance and mood: "They occupy the very forefront of a scene, as if mediating between the outside world and the events crammed into the glass." Even when making scenes of utmost piety and propriety, the artists, like Hogarth, put in lots of amusing reality. Hicks says, "The glaziers were enjoying themselves."
Hicks has much to say about the clash between English glaziers (represented by the guild of the London Company of Glaziers and Painters on Glass) and the Flemish masters hired by successive kings to get the masterwork done. The often vicious distrust of immigrants is an old story that every age seems to make its own. A census of aliens was supposed to list "'how many are suspected of evil living' or whether they belonged to 'any naughty religion or sect.'" She also tells about how the windows narrowly escaped being shattered when Puritan iconoclasm had its sway, as well as how the King's alumnus John Maynard Keynes was responsible for getting the windows dismantled and hidden during World War II.
The most interesting part of the windows' history, however, is the way they reflected the reformation. The windows were the product of the Catholic Church and its traditions. Their narrative included the birth and death of the Virgin Mary, and various other scenes that had been taken from folklore and unauthorized texts rather than from the Bible itself. Henry VIII was only with trouble able to get the university to deny the Pope's authority, but when it did so, the payment for the windows (which as Hicks shows was seldom reliable during the years of their installation) was at last dependable. "The Old Law and the New" theme was converted to the New Law as enforced by the Henry VIII, defender of the true faith. Henry saw himself as a Solomon or a Moses, but especially he was David triumphing over the papist Goliath. In the scene prefiguring Jesus's entry into Jerusalem, Henry was David making his own entrance holding aloft the head of Goliath on the point of his sword. The plan of including a Last Judgement scene in the west window, with saints interceding for Christian souls to rescue them from Purgatory, was scrapped due to its suddenly unfashionable doctrines. The window was filled with clear glass until 1879 when a Protestant version was installed, just the Blessed being welcomed into Heaven and the Damned grimacing at their first taste of hellfire.
Hicks presents us with a fine work of art history. While concentrating on the artistry of the windows, she gives us social, religious, engineering, and royal history as well. Her book is the brightest of lights with which to view these glass masterpieces.