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Monday, 25 August 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: Abbaye de la Fille-Dieu, Romont

I would concur, especially after arriving at l’Abbaye de la Fille Dieu in time for a memorable service of Vespers followed by silent contemplation in the still onset of darkness falling. Tomas Mikulas, the architect on the restoration of this Cistercian Abbey, has stated that the overall goal of the restoration was to offer both nuns and visitors an ‘atmosphere conducive to meditation and prayer.’  Mikulas suggests that it is the ‘warm and vibrant atmosphere’ created by Clarke’s windows ‘with the changing light of day’ that ‘makes a decisive contribution’ to the space and to the restoration as a whole.

Being unable to take photographs during the service or in the silence which followed I returned the next day and therefore experienced the space both in the fading light of eventide and in the blaze of the early morning’s sunshine. As a result, I was able to experience at first hand the transformation of which Clarke speaks in the changing light of the building that Mikulas describes.

There are several reasons why this is a surprising outcome in this context. First, as Charlotte Cripps has written, early on in his career Clarke realised that he had to ‘shake off the ecclesiastical image’ of stained glass ‘if he was going to make any impact in the medium’: ‘When I started working in the medium of stained glass, it was a dying art. I knew from a very early age that the future of the medium would only be assured if it had an application in public buildings and was not limited to ecclesiastical architecture. I looked for opportunities in all kinds of public buildings and declined opportunities in the church. I fought for that and continue to fight for that. It's a lifelong pilgrimage’.

Instead, since the early 1970s, Clarke has: ‘worked on over two hundred stained glass projects in collaboration with some of the world’s most prominent architects and artists. Some of Clarke’s most notable “art-in-architecture” projects include: ... the stained glass and painting for Apax Partners Headquarters in London, UK; stained glass for the Pyramid of Peace in Astana, Kazakhstan (with Foster and Partners); the design for the Great South Window at Ascot’s New Grandstand in Ascot, UK; the façade for Pfizer Inc. in New York, USA; a suite of 26 stained glass and mosaic ceilings for Norte Shopping in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and the design for stained glass in Chep Lap Kok Airport (with Foster and Partners) in Hong Kong, China’.

Not only then do we have an artist who has actively declined ecclesiastical commissions but within the Abbey a group of nuns actively opposed Clarke’s designs on the basis that they were too colourful for a Cistercian chapel. This group was concerned that the strong presence of the windows would overpower the building and that the colour of the windows would reduce the visibility of the murals (dating from the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) which have been preserved through the restoration.

Mikulas insisted on Clarke and was supported by the Abbess, Mother Hortense Berthet, who ‘loved and encouraged’ the stained glass project. Mikulas writes that she was always far-sighted and, where others could be entrenched behind their ‘achievements and habits,’ she would always ‘promote and encourage projects and renewal’. In this instance, the choice of the artist was not made ​​on the basis of a competition but began with visits that the nuns had with various artists. Alongside these contacts, the nuns were accompanied by a small working group, consisting of two architects (A. Page, T. Mikulas), Stefan Trümpler from the Vitrocentre Romont and Canon Gerard Pfulg from Freiburg.

The restoration work here, including Clarke’s windows, provides an object lesson in such projects due to the depth of understanding of the history and context developed by Mikulas, initially in a thesis written in 1986, and the sensitivity of both his designs and their realisation. Mikulas has written about the restoration in terms of the significance of the site, the complexity of the issues involved and the human encounters it has spawned. For him it has been a creative and human adventure; one involving listening, collaboration and perseverance in the service of a historic monument and a contemporary community of nuns. Ultimately, this has meant searching for the presence of Christ and the acceptance of others in the great Cistercian Trappist tradition.

Mikulus sought to work within the framework provided by the Venice Charter of 1964. His overall goal was the creation of a new and coherent building which was respectful of the buildings’ history while also servicing its use as a place of worship. The concept Mikulas developed was therefore based on several key assumptions which seek to balance contemporary use with past history. These included:

  • history seen as a process in time which cannot be fixed in a particular period in the life of a building; 
  • restoration involves choices because it is not possible to fully conservation all contributions which have been made to a building throughout the course of its history
  • the cultural function of the building (in this case, worship) affects its architectural treatment and the choices made during restoration; 
  • a building is not only an historical story in stone but also evidence of creative artistic design in the choices made by earlier generations; and 
  • restoration will therefore engage more with some layers of the history of the building than others, and will always result in a new and original condition for the building. 

In the end the view which prevailed was that modern windows could bring a new dimension to the building which could unify the fragments retained from previous phases of the building’s life, in particular to showcase the murals from the fourteen, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, while also ensuring optimal lighting conditions for the building’s liturgical uses. Clarke’s ‘practice is built upon using light to explore the essential link between art and architecture’, so the composition of the windows aims to ‘recognize the spatial and formal structure of the building, its rhythms, its highlights.’ Clarke has used richly textured opaque glass painted with either ceramic or matte paint and often acid etched to create diffuse effects even in low or artificial light.

The windows use a regular grid of consistent colours over which more amorphous, fluid coloured shapes are placed. The dynamic contrasts that derive from this superimposition are inspired by the natural world where, Clarke suggests, we find many examples; ivy leaves on a trellis, birds flying against a background of buildings, spilt water on a pavement. When these juxtapositions occur, the grid is dramatized, the free forms take their place and an amazing balance is created. The oculus reverses this format with a grid on plain glass superimposed by a dove form. The non-figurative design of each window has been considered not only as its own design but also as ‘part of an overall composition, with its own highlights, axis and rhythm. Trümpler has written that the colour of the windows refers to the path of movement of the sun, ‘from the mystical and blue morning in the sanctuary, to warm tones in the nave’ later in the day. In this way, the stained glass creates ‘an atmosphere of a highly relevant "spiritual" nature’.

Clarke is part of a significant movement within contemporary ecclesiastical commissions involving the commissioning of abstract windows which create shafts of ever-changing colour that fall within the space to provide a atmosphere which is mystical and spiritual. This move from storytelling in stained glass by means of narrative figuration (the Biblia pauperum, exemplified in the twentieth century by the figurative windows of Marc Chagall) to the creation of spiritual space using abstract colour (as pioneered by Jean Bazaine and Alfred Manessier) has occurred, primarily, in France. The concept of stained glass architecture - of a light-filled architectural unit – that we find, for example, in the baptistery at Sacré-Cœur in Audincourt or the Chapelle Sainte-Thérèse-de-l'Enfant-Jésus et de la Sainte-Face in Hem is an attempt to create spiritual space - a sense of prayer and a glimpse of heaven – through the play of light and colour within the building. In the past churches were centres for the drama of the visual - the drama and spectacle of the liturgy combined with the visual narrative of scripture in stained glass. Now people find their visual stimulation elsewhere - through the media primarily – and, as a result, churches have become centres for the opposite of visual stimulation e.g. centres of visual contemplation, where narrative is less essential than ambience and atmosphere.

At Vespers in l’Abbaye de la Fille Dieu there was a powerful sense of being caught up in a heavenly space and the great corporate song of heaven as the wondrous harmonies of unified plainsong responses combined with the mystical light of Clarke’s windows.

Since l’Abbaye de la Fille Dieu Clarke has taken on other ecclesiastical commissions at Linköping Cathedral, Sweden, and the Papal Chapel at the Apostolic Nunciature, London. He say, ‘Now I'm able to call the shots more. Churches only call on me if they want me to do something challenging and exciting. As a consequence, with a long history behind me of substantial secular and public works, I feel now that I can re-engage occasionally, working in the church and giving it my best on a level that it deserves and I demand’. Additionally, by commissioning an artist like Clarke who understands stained glass and ecclesiastical contexts but does not profess a faith himself, the Church is continuing the tradition begun by Marie-Alain Couturier and Walter Hussey of commissioning contemporary ‘masters’.

Stained glass can transform the way we feel when we enter a building like l‘Abbaye de la Fille Dieu is, as Clarke has said, because of the sense of beauty and sublimity that such art brings: "I think there is an extremely powerful argument to be made today for art to actually bring beauty and something of the sublime into the banality of mundane experience. So often now, art is limiting of that kind of encounter. I believe people respond to beauty both in nature and in art. When it involves the passage of light, it is uplifting in a way that is incomparable".


Elbow - This Blue World.

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