Apr 12, 2009

A Lesson from Art History

A Lesson from Art History
(a parable)

One week during their Introduction to European Art History Summer Session tour, three college students were assigned to do a report on stained glass windows. Even though they had signed up for the summer semester trip to Europe primarily as a way to visit the pubs of England, they still had to do a certain amount of work (and get a passing grade) so that their parents wouldn't mind paying for it. They were excited about seeing the Modern Art scene in London, but now they were in a small township outside London, wondering what could possibly be more boring and irrelevant than stained glass windows.

For their report, they chose a local village church that was an excellent example of the gothic style. As the three students (I'll call them Peter, Paul, and Mary, in honor of an earlier college generation that I am more familiar with) approached the church, the bravest of the three (Peter) decided to go inside and look at the windows. The main entrance was locked because it was a weekday, and no one seemed to be at the church, but Peter went in search of a side entrance. Paul and Mary didn't want to risk trespass, so they decided to do their report from the outside. The tour guides had reminded them that they were guests in England, and they certainly didn't want to do anything improper.

They noted first the insulating storm windows that had been placed over the stained glass. The plastic panels sealed the windows not only from the wind and weather, but also from stones and debris that might damage the fragile antique constructions behind them. They marveled at the hundreds and thousands of pieces of glass that were used to construct the windows. The diversity of big pieces, little pieces, colored pieces and pieces that had been painted upon was astounding. The bright sun revealed every small detail of the construction. Each piece of glass was secured to the adjoining piece by strips of hand formed lead. Silver solder sealed the joints and the gaps. Because the glass was too heavy to hold itself up, supporting rods were installed in the window frames and hand tied with little copper wires. The rods were positioned at intervals behind horizontal seams so they would be invisible to someone on the inside.

Paul and Mary never understood why it was called stained glass until now. From the outside, everything was a dirty gray, like an old, stained towel. They could see that some pieces had a bluish tinge, others a reddish one. They could make out an occasional dull face, arm, or backwards word, but they couldn't see anything impressive or important beyond the meticulous construction details. Though antiquated and irrelevant by modern standards, it was certainly an impressive engineering feat (considering the primitive technologies available to the craftsmen of the day), and due to the age of the church, they were undoubtedly of great historical importance.

Mary finished her notes as Paul took some digital pictures for the PowerPoint presentation he was going to do for their joint report. Peter hadn't been seen since he went to find a way inside the church over an hour ago, and Mary now decided to go find him. It would be Happy Hour at the pub near their hostel soon, and they agreed to meet there to compare notes. Paul kept taking pictures as he walked away, only now from a distanced, wide-angle perspective out by the lane. Mary walked around the church until she found a small door near the bell tower. She knocked tentatively, and the door gently swung open under the weight of her knuckles.

Inside the centuries old church, she was astonished by the sharp contrast of light and dark. Dark wood and dark stone pierced by radiant beams of bright light filled the interior. Just as her eyes would grow accustomed to the enveloping darkness, the bright light pouring in through one of the stained glass windows would suddenly dazzle her. When she walked through a darkened area, she could feel the damp coldness of the old building soak to her bones. But when she walked into an area illuminated by the sun's light passing through the glass, her whole body was warmed. Up ahead, she could see Peter with his pad standing in front of one the largest window, furiously sketching and taking notes.

All around her she saw panels of blazing light and color, telling stories of joy and gladness, suffering and pain, and of glory. She was stunned to realize that these were the same panels she had spent the last hour detailing as gray and colorless from the outside. Now, with the sun behind them, they told stories of life and death and God's love for His people. She saw Eden, and the Fall. She saw the Flood, and the Exodus. She saw King David, and she saw the Exile. She saw the Return, and she saw a stable with a baby in it. She saw a beautiful man with a hobbled lamb over his shoulders, and she saw the same beautiful man stripped and nailed to a cross. Finally, towering over her and Peter, she saw that same beautiful man robed as a king, with nail wounds in his outstretched palms. "Isn't he the most beautiful man you have ever seen?" asked Peter.

Mary had to agree. There was something about his face in all the windows that seemed to be looking straight into her heart. Even the little baby at his mother's breast seemed to be looking at her in love. She was amazed to discover all this beauty and majesty in something that just a few minutes before she had been describing as mechanical and boring. How could that baby or this king be boring?

She and Peter simply stood in awe before the windows until the sun set below the nearby rooftops. There was nothing said.

Later, during Happy Hour at the Hare and Hound, Peter and Mary were happier than normal as they shared their discovery, certainly happier than a warm pint of Bishops Finger Ale could produce alone. Paul, however, was eager to share with them his concerns about the possible toxic effects of all that ancient lead used to construct the windows. He was glad for the sake of the local children that the outside had the storm window coverings, and he was certainly glad that he hadn't gone inside the musty old church and perhaps been exposed to the potential lead contamination in the air. How could the government allow such an obvious hazard to be accessible to people? He was a little worried about Peter and Mary's seemingly irrational behavior. Were they merely intoxicated by the strong ale, or had the air they breathed inside that old church somehow adversely effected their ability to think clearly?

Paul's part of the report was quite specific, focusing upon every detail of the stained glass' construction, age, and preservation attempts. He also pointed out how modern techniques rendered such quaint constructions obsolete. Peter's notes, on the other hand, were filled with subjective descriptions of feelings and beauty. At times, his report just didn't seem to make any analytical sense at all. Paul asked Peter if he had perhaps wandered off to a different church, but secretly wondered if Peter just wasn't as smart as he himself was. Paul worried about their grade being reduced because of Peter's poor scholarship.

Mary's report, while sharing much of Peter's excitement, spent a great deal of time describing the contrast within the church between the cold, dark areas and the warm, light areas. She concluded that the construction of the building itself prevented the windows from illuminating a greater area of the church, thereby discouraging people from coming inside to experience the strangely warming beauty of the stained glass.

In the end, Peter's nonobjective portion of their report did indeed bring their grade down to a C+, earning them a passing but "can do better" grade. Paul hoped they could improve their score on their next topic: marble reliquaries. He certainly intended to keep his eye on Peter this time, and not let him go wandering off unsupervised.

He would sure hate to have all his good work found meaningless again.

© 2002 pmsummer