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Sunday, 20 July 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: Metz Cathedral

I didn't sleep that well in Metz (in common with other nights on the trip to this point). I had been fine during the day when I had my itinerary to keep to and the amazing art and architecture to see, but at night all the other factors about this trip would crowd in and cause me to worry. Similar to daily life then where often I wouldn't do what I do if it weren't for focusing on the next tasks in hand, rather than worrying about what might or might not happen.

I woke to the sounds and songs of striking railway workers at their picket line and rose early to visit Metz Cathedral, arriving while the building was primarily open for worshippers rather than tourists like me. The sounds of hoovers echoed quietly in the background as the sound of plainsong also rose from the crypt. The routines of the Cathedral's cleaners are as regular and ubiquitous as the rituals of the services and in their own way as meaningful and sacred. This is, in large measure, how we deal with the anxieties and worries of constant change and what might be; by building for ourselves patterns of sameness, regular routines which bring a sense of security and solidity to what otherwise feels as though it will slip from our grasp and control by means of its fluidity and movement. This may be illusion but it is consoling and enables us to cope with change:

Our bodies age, our cells replace continually
without regard to our volition.
We are not who we were.
All is mutability, constant change.

We cannot bear so much reality -
being changed utterly - so build routines,
schedules, repeating patterns of sameness,
to mask our awareness of transition.

Metz Cathedral is nicknamed “God's Lantern” and is renowned for the vast expanse of its stained glass – 6,496 square metres over twice as much as Rouen and three times as much as Chartres. Within this incredible expanse is glass from the thirteenth century all the way through to windows installed in the 1960s by Marc Chagall, which are what have brought me to Metz. It is not simply the expanse of glass here which is impressive but also the range and variety that can be seen. Basil Cottle has noted that the glass here “is not stylistically co-ordinated; its assembly has been by slow growth, and many hands have participated, with many colours and iconographic schemes.” Yet, the “effect on entering the nave is dazzling: three tiers of windows, including the richly glazed triforium; extremely tall and acute-angling vaulting and apse windows, and a grove of slim clustered shafts receding eastwards into pools of colours” (B. Cottle, All The Cathedrals Of France, Unicorn Press, London, 2002)

The Cathedral has a simple but effective leaflet 'Parcours spirituel' which identifies a prayerful route around the Cathedral taking in 16 of its most important aspects, including its modern glass. At each of these points in the Cathedral information and a prayer can be found, encouraging all visitors not simply to be tourists but worshippers as well. I know from personal experience, having created a similar leaflet for St Margaret's Barking, how much such simple initiatives are appreciated by parishioners and visitors alike. An argument can be made that such approaches, like the information provided on wall cards in museum exhibitions, can direct viewers to see the artwork from one perspective alone. However, this does not have to be the case as viewers often take that perspective as a starting point for then seeing others. Additionally, providing no way in to perspectives on artwork, as curators have found, can leave viewers unable to begin to engage with the artwork at all.

Chagall came to stained glass relatively late in his career with the commissions for the baptistery at for Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce du Plateau d’Assy completed in 1957. These derived from his friendship with Pere Couturier and included two small windows in grisaille of an angel holding a jug of holy water and an angel with candelabra and flowers. Chagall, as a Jew, had concerns regarding commissions for a Christian church to the extent that he insisted on the phrase, ‘In the Name of the Liberty of All Religions’ on the baptistery mural.

Following this commission, however, Chagall working with Charles Marq, from the Atelier Simon Marq, received many church commissions for stained glass with his ambulatory windows for Metz Cathedral, realized in 1960, being the first of these commissions. “Marq developed a special process of veneering pigment on glass, which allowed Chagall to use as many as three colours on a single uninterrupted pane, rather than being confined to the traditional technique of separating each colour by lead strips.”

Chagall was inspired both by the Bible and his visits to Israel. Accompanied by his wife Bella and his daughter Ida, Chagall went to Israel first in 1931. The main reason for this visit was a commission he had received from the Parisian art dealer and publisher, Ambroise Vollard, to do a series of illustrations to the Bible. He travelled a great deal, painting and drawing in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Safed. The country left a vivid impression on him, and back in Paris the light and landscape he had seen were echoed in many of the etchings for his work, The Bible. In 1951, the opening of large retrospective exhibitions of his works, in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv, prompted Chagall's second visit, and in 1957, he was again in Israel following the publication of his illustrations to the Bible. Vollard had died shortly before World War II and Tériade published the commission that had finally been completed in 1956. A second book of Bible illustrations was published by Vervé, also in that year.

Chagall said that, “In the East, I found the Bible and part of my own being. The air of the Land of Israel makes one wise.” For him, the Bible was “pure poetry, human tragedy.” He said that it “filled him with visions about the faith of the world” and that it inspired him so that he saw life and art “through the wisdom of the bible.”

Chagall also made a link between stained glass which comes alive “through the light it receives” and the Bible which is “light already.” Stained glass, he suggests, “should make this obvious through grace and simplicity.” Jonathan Wilson has noted that “Chagall became fascinated with stained glass after he had moved to the south of France in 1950.” Chagall was undoubtedly “seduced by the endless Mediterranean unfolding of color-as-light and the possibility of capturing in glass the kind of spiritually charged, quasi-mystical, sometimes biblically inspired images to which he was increasingly drawn.” Indeed, Chagall spoke of light as being the material which creates stained glass. “The light is natural,” he suggested, “and all nature is religious.” Therefore, “every colour ought to stimulate prayer” and, "whether in cathedral or synagogue the phenomenon is the same: something mystical comes through the window.”

André Malraux summed this up when he wrote: “I cannot understand why stained glass, which lives and dies with the day, was ever abandoned. … Artists preferred the light. But the stained glass window, which is brought to life by the morning and snuffed out by the night, brought the Creation home to the worshipper in church. … Stained glass eventually surrendered to painting by incorporating shade, which killed it. It was six hundred and fifty years before someone found a way of shading off colors in glass: Chagall.”

It has been suggested, rightly I think, that Chagall’s use of colour is mystical, with “the yellow of revelation flooding the Tablets of the Law,” “the white of faith surrounding the cross” and “the supremacy of blue in his work” indicating “the wisdom of overcoming bitterness and hatred.” Here we have the yellow of revelation flooding the Garden of Eden in Chagall’s 1963 Creation window for the triforium of the north transept while deep blues and reds characterise the combination of ecstasy and sorrow in the two ambulatory windows from 1960 which tell the story of the Jewish people in key episodes from Abraham to Jeremiah by way of Jacob, Moses and David. James Waller has written that here “Chagall is all curves and tonal flares,” his “modulation of tone, within the fabulously fragmented and flowing glass panes” lending “his colours a deeper, more smoldering dimension.”

Waller contrasts Chagall’s curves with the “constructivist angles and flat-colour planes” of the windows by Jacques Villon, created for the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in 1957. Villon’s “highly expressive constructivism, divided into powerful sections of colour makes a startling impact within the medieval interior” and “flare brilliantly, even on an overcast day, drawing all eyes towards them.” In the early morning light, his “stained-glass compositions of the Crucifixion (centre), the Jewish Passover and Last Supper (left), and the Wedding Feast of Cana (right)”, blaze in a stunning conflagration of light.

Jacques Villon was born Gaston Emile Duchamp, the oldest of six children. Three of his younger siblings also achieved fame as artists: Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Marcel Duchamp. He and his brothers became friendly with leading cubists including Albert Gleizes. This circle of artists attempted to extend the innovations of Cubism into the realm of life through architecture and the decorative arts. Along with Gleizes, Villon was one of the few French artists who explored abstraction during the early 1920s while during the early 1930s, again prodded by Gleizes, he took part in the activities of Abstraction–création. As with Gleizes’ own work, these pictures are carefully governed by systems of mathematical proportion; his emphasis on planar construction was played off against free linear motifs to produce the most lyrical abstract paintings of his entire career. Villon saw painting as “a method of prospecting, a manner of expression. With colour as bait …”

From 1957 onwards Brigitte Simon and her husband Charles Marq began to create stained glass with the greatest contemporary painters beginning with Jacques Villon. Hayley Wood writes that:

“The studio technique used on the windows by Villon and Chagall is acid etching on flashed glass, which is clear glass with a veneer of colored glass. The etching process for glass is basically the same as the process used for metal plates in printmaking: an acid-resistant ground is applied to the glass, and a design is carved, drawn with a tool that will scrape away the resist. This is then placed in an acid bath, and the acid eats away at the exposed carved areas. Subtle tonality—color fields representing the spectrum of transparent color between the color of the veneer and the clear base glass--can be achieved with extremely skilled and careful monitoring of the process. Black enamel paint is used on the Chagall and Villon windows for the detailed work (a technique of monochromatic painting called grisaille).”

The final modern windows at Metz are two entirely modernist abstract compositions: small window sections by Roger Bissière from 1960, the glass segments of which look like mosaic tiles miraculously transported into lead cames and stone portals. Bissière made stained glass windows for the churches of Cornol and Develier (Swiss Jura) in 1958, as well as for the north and south transepts here in collaboration with Charles Marq.

Bissière was the forerunner of the new non-figurative generation which began after the war in France. From 1925-1938 he was Professor of fresco painting at the Académie Ranson where he was particularly appreciated for his simplicity and natural kindness. He taught Alfred Manessier, Vieira da SilvaJean Le Moal and many other young non-figurative painters for whom he was considered the ‘father’ of their style. Through its inner radiance and poetic qualities his work has spiritual resonance. “Painting is not a job,” he said, “we only paint when Grace falls upon us.”

Finally, from this visit it is worth noting that Metz Cathedral has an ongoing arts programme centred on music and the visual arts. Exhibitions are hung within the body of the Cathedral with the exhibition at the time I visited by Eban being abstract works based on these words from Georges Rouault:

“Shape, color, harmony
Oasis or mirage
For the eyes, the heart or the mind.”


Norah Jones - The Sun Doesn't Like You.

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