Book Review

The Illuminated Window: Stories Across Time. By Virginia Chieffo Raguin. Hardback, 272pp, full-colour illustrations. (London: Reaktion Books, 2023), £30.00. ISBN 9781789147933.

Reviewed by Susanna Wyse Jackson, York Glaziers Trust

The Illuminated Window: Stories Across Time. By Virginia Chieffo Raguin.

Presented as a series of case studies of iconic stained glass, this new publication by renowned stained glass scholar Professor Virginia Chieffo Raguin is a rich compendium. Wide-ranging, both chronologically and geographically, this lavishly illustrated book is brimming with perceptive insight into the history and interpretation of stained glass. While the choice of case studies is not unexpected, with familiar subjects such as Canterbury Cathedral, All Saints North Street, York, and the Sainte-Chapelle making appearances, the clarity and richness of Raguin’s analysis prompts even the most seasoned stained glass enthusiast to view these case studies through a new lens. Raguin explores the arguably well-trodden ground of Cologne Cathedral, Chartres Cathedral, and St Mary’s, Fairford, and yet her survey sparkles with renewed vigour and fresh insight, making this an ideal book for those unfamiliar with the ‘big names’ in stained glass as well as those who seek a deeper examination of old favourites. Rather than presenting a sequential, potted narrative of stained glass from its earliest days to the present, the book is written so that the reader can peruse each chapter in any order, yet there are useful links, comparative reflections, and cross-references throughout the book that unify the whole.

What strikes the reader above all is the remarkable acuteness with which Raguin situates the stained glass within the contexts of its creation. The message is clear: to understand stained glass windows, we must first seek to understand their setting, their creators, their patrons, and the circumstances of their production. In many respects, despite this being a book about stained glass, the physical glass itself is rendered incidental to its environment and is employed here to illustrate broad discussions of the artistic, cultural and political contexts in which its design, manufacture, and reception occurred. Raguin’s chapter on Cologne Cathedral, for example, presents four phases of the cathedral’s glazing alongside a comprehensive discursive journey that encompasses the role of reliquaries in medieval society; the revival of twelfth-century typological themes during the Renaissance; the nineteenth-century Nazarene school of painting; and the expansion of Catholicism in America. In the chapter on Canterbury Cathedral, a close reading of the stained glass is situated within a broader discussion about the role of saints’ cults in facilitating the administrative stability of monastic foundations; the development of the cult of relics and the associated commercialisation of the pilgrim trade; and the conflict between clerical authority and royal agendas.

While each chapter is presented as a standalone unit, there are recurring themes throughout this book that provide cohesion to its disparate elements and prompt reflection on the characteristics shared by different case studies. The two English parish churches discussed in the book – those of All Saints North Street, York, and St Mary’s, Fairford – offer equally compelling yet complementary perspectives on medieval patronage, both illustrating in different ways the blurred boundaries between secular and sacred that characterised late medieval social dynamics. At All Saints North Street, the roles of the merchant guilds take centre stage, as Raguin explores how the glazing scheme is intrinsically linked to the production and reception of the York Mystery Plays. Corporate organisation, community-mindedness, and social hierarchies are paramount, themes represented perhaps most explicitly in the windows depicting the Corporal Acts of Mercy and Nine Orders of Angels. At St Mary’s, Fairford, by contrast, the overarching theme is that of the individual family, the stained glass having been installed by a single donor, Edmund Tame, wealthy wool merchant and high sheriff of Gloucestershire. As Raguin writes of the parishioners, ‘their lives were dominated by family relations, the negotiations of marriage and the joys and dangers of giving birth. They supported imagery that spoke to their world’ (p.134). The stained glass at Fairford speaks directly to the preoccupations and concerns of its medieval audience, foregrounding themes such as motherhood, lineage, community, and repentance.

The chapters on Sainte-Chapelle and Swiss Renaissance patronage provide another useful point of comparison, as they discuss two very different types of donor. At the Sainte-Chapelle, the glazing scheme is strongly informed by royal prerogatives, with Raguin’s discussion emphasising the continuity of royal power from Old Testament patriarchs, to Christ, to the Capetian kings of France. She observes that ‘there is no question that the building embodies secular as well as religious purpose’, and nobody exemplified this interplay between secular power and religious significance more than Louis IX, the only French monarch to be canonised, and the primary benefactor of Sainte-Chapelle (p.65). The chapel was built to house the sacred relic of the Crown of Thorns, declared by Pope Innocent IV in 1244 to have been bestowed upon the French king by Christ himself. It is little wonder that the glazing of the chapel, although much of it the product of restoration, was devoted to the promotion of royal power. In the Swiss chapter, by contrast, Raguin’s analysis of heraldic stained glass as a manifestation of civic pride demonstrates that patrons from all strata of society employed stained glass to serve myriad and diverse agendas. Raguin argues that the rise of these secular panels was inextricably linked with Swiss independence. Local citizenry, merchants and guild members ‘who had prospered from changing political and social structures and were eager to demonstrate their loyalty to civic and religious organisations’ (p.151) were enthusiastic patrons of the small stained glass panels that were ubiquitous in Switzerland at this time. Whether promoting the assertion of civic liberties of trade guilds, or the vindication of the divine right of kings, stained glass windows were a rich medium ideally suited to the celebration of power, identity, and honour.

One of the greatest strengths of this collection of diverse chapters is its multidisciplinarity. The range of different media that Raguin brings to bear on her interpretation of these familiar sites is both impressive and highly useful. The chapters on Canterbury Cathedral and Cologne Cathedral both draw upon contemporary reliquaries and manuscript illustrations to explore the symbiotic relationship between pilgrimage and stained glass. At Fairford, we learn how religious literature such as Nicholas Love’s The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ may have informed the subject matter and iconography of the windows, as well as contemporary perceptions of the windows by their medieval audiences. The fruitful exchange between stained glass artists and the prevailing print culture is mentioned in the chapter on Swiss stained glass and expanded upon in the following chapter on Renaissance roundels. It is evident from these chapters that stained glass was not created in a vacuum, but instead formed one aspect of a complex artistic milieu comprising mutually reinforcing visual and textual elements.

Throughout this book, Raguin encourages the reader to consider the value, meaning, and functionality of a stained glass window within the context of its production and reception. Referring to the glass at St Marys Fairford, she writes: whatever the contemporary viewers persuasion, this rich programme now enables us to empathise with a parish, its wealthy patron and its ordinary citizens in ways that transcend time’ (p.149). Raguin’s multidisciplinary approach, as well as her commitment to interrogating the stories behind her case studies, yield unexpected, welcome insights and contribute to a more holistic and nuanced interpretation of these beloved sites and their windows. We are prompted to remember those aspects of stained glass that ‘transcend time’: the desire for commemoration; the roles of artist and audience; the conflict or communion of secular and sacred; and the role of power in determining visibility, legacy and narrative. This is a delightful and informative read, richly illuminated with colour photographs on almost every page. The scope of this book is ambitious; the range of case studies is formidable; and Raguin’s analysis is incisive and vivid. The result is a fast-paced, whirlwind expedition through some of the must seesof stained glass.

For an audio interview with the author, go to: https://newbooksnetwork.com/the-illuminated-window

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