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  • Kara Lavin

    Monday, October 27th, 2014 | Posted in Research in Art Scholarship by | No Comments »

    We don’t usually associate stained glass with controversy, rather colorshifts, cathedrals, light and spirituality. As one of the oldest art forms still around today, it arguably has more life than we will ever. In medieval France, Abbot Suger was a man who had questioned the flat, mystical story lines embedded in the meaning of biblical manuscripts that were only accessible to a few clergy members. He wanted to create a public experience by turning cathedral windows into more than just decoration and into an informative and inspirational art form. From 1125-1144, Abbot Suger and a team of helpers worked on creating and assembling windows for a cathedral in the northern region of France. The gothic style he used has now made the St-Denis monastery famous. His intentions, which were announced to the community, were to create stories so complex within the windows that the only group capable of their full comprehension were literate monks aka Literali. The reaction was overwhelming, and not all of it was good. Even with resistance, Suger persisted that his windows were going to be just as beneficial as the scripture itself, besides being a wonderfully luminous artform. “Suger was not specifically trying to create a new type of art. Rather, he was primarily responding to the current controversy over the use of art by monks”. Reason being, any art was believed to be a distraction from their faith. With this in mind, his design had multiple layers of meaning that depending on your scriptural knowledge and literacy or lack there of, would come to understand the windows in different ways. “They engage fully with exegesis (critical explanation of scriptural text) as a methodological vehicle for visual presentation”. His program and ultimately the glass windows, implored deep and critical thinking and in many cases, action was to follow concerning the moral struggles in their life. Methodologically, this goes beyond the traditional narration model of design in Christian art by going beyond the scripture and creating a major movement in the artistic culture of his time and beyond. Before his endeavor, most saw art as the lowest form of spirituality, in accordance with the easily accessible stories most windows contained. Suger aimed to elevate art to become highly regarded as important as the word itself. There are 3 levels to understanding the full meaning and analysis of the windows according to a close friend of Suger and theologian, Hugh of St. Victor. These follow a sequence of ascent from the historical to the allegorical, the tropological.The historical level is a literal explanation of events in the past, Allegorical being the hybrid story being told to interpret the history, the tropological level represents the moral side of understanding the story and taking action to support your beliefs”. Hugh had great ideas about the human journey towards spirituality that really helped Suger compound so much meaning into each window he created.

    In Hugh’s system, spiritual awareness moves from cognition to meditation to contemplation. Very briefly put, cognition (cognitio) is the awareness of something “when the thing itself, through its image, is suddenly presented to the consciousness, either through the senses or arising from the memory.” Meditation (meditatio) is “the methodical and discerning reconsideration of cognition, whether endeavoring to clarify something obscure or searching to penetrate something hidden.” Contemplation (contemplalio) is “the acute and unrestrained gazing of the soul in a way that extends over every aspect of the thing under examination.”

    Damaged by the spiritual ignorance incurred with original sin, it is first discovered in its broken state by Cognition. The methodical recognition (or re-cognition) of this is realized by Meditation, who gathers the broken pieces of the vessel. Finally, the “craftsman”
    Contemplation melts these pieces down and recasts them “in the mold of the divine likeness.”

    This process was a necessary one for enlightenment and the only way for real success in Suger’s work.

    Rudolph, C.(2011). Inventing the Exegetical Stained-Glass Window: Suger, Hugh, and a New Elite Art. Art Bulletin, 93(4), 399-422.


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