Monday, July 6, 2015

The Tree of Life and Light - Vitraux de l'Arbre de Vie et de Lumière du Collège Saint-Joseph à Reims...

L'Arbre de Vie et Lumière - Chapel Saint Joseph -  Reims
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Cité du Vitrail in Troyes in the Aube département and the Champagne-Ardenne region (approx 125km from Reims). L’Aube-en-Champagne has the status of Capitale Européenne du Vitrail due to the abundance and quality of its stained-glass.

Indeed, along with the Seine-Maritime département (of which Rouen is the capital) nowhere else in France is such a concentration to be found.

 In 2011 it was decided that an establishment – namely La Cité du Vitrail - would be dedicated to this art.

 The pieces on display range from the oldest and/or simplest forms of stained glass....

 To the more contemporary and/or complex...

It was set in the former barn wing of the Hôtel-Dieu-le-Comte in 2013 and offers a permanent exhibition of works to which temporary exhibits are added, tracing the history of le vitrail from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Unfortunately I visited thebeautiful Medieval town of Troyes, once the historical capital of the Champagne region, on a Tuesday; most museums and many churches are shut. La Cité du Vitrail, thankfully, was an exception.

The exhibition hall is actually quite small, but that didn’t stop me spending ages looking at the exhibits.

And so it was here that I learnt of L’Arbre de Vie that comes from… Reims! I don’t know how I had managed to be completely unaware of its existence, but this state of complete ignorance made the discovery all the more magical.

Draft of L'Arbre de Vie - Cité du Vitraux -  Troyes
Maybe I had sub-consciously blocked the inauguration of this major stained-glass work out of my mind (in 2014 – just last year!) as I had been so upset by the relatively recent additions to the Reims Cathedral.

Neither the cathedral, the Basilique de Saint Remi nor indeed the central church of St Jacques have solely Medieval stained-glass windows, and those visible today are certainly not in their original state.

Marc Chagall -  Reims Cathedral
As Reims suffered such devastation during the First World War, it was necessary to replace windows where mere repair work was simply impossible.

Brigitte Simon - Reims Cathedral
 Today, the cathedral has beautiful stained-glass from Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and Brigitte Simon (1926-2009).

Brigitte Simon
The work of Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-1992) can be seen in St Jacques.

And since the celebration of the cathedral’s 800 years in 2011, several pieces by Imi Knoebel (1940-) have been added. At first sight,these truly took my breath away as I found them teeth-grindingly, mouth-foamingly, poke-yer-eye-out awful in their gaudy, inappropriateness... But hey, ‘A chacun ses goûts’. I am trying to learn to appreciate them since they are here to stay. Anyway, enough of those...

Once I had seen the draft and samples for L’Arbre de Vie et Lumière in the Cité du Vitrail in Troyes, I promptly went to see the ‘real thing’ in Reims.

This was designed by Jean-Paul Agosti in 2012 with the final work later created with the collaboration of the Atelier Simon-Marq in Reims for inauguration in 2014.

This establishment of maîtres-verriers has existed since 1640 ; twelve generations have succeeded each other, bringing their expertise to the creation and restoration of stained glass right up to the present day.

From the 1950s, the atelier introduced the work of great contemporary painters to religious edifices eg Marc Chagall in the cathedral.

For the chapel of Saint Joseph, Agosti stated that he wished the whole work to resemble a “prism of light which breaks down like a rainbow” and thematically sought to create a symbol of joy and youth.

Indeed, Agosti was commissioned to create a major stained-glass project, of which L’Arbre de Vie was the central piece, above the main entrance to the chapel of an old rémois secondary school.

Looking away from L'Arbre de Vie, you are overwhelmed by colour and light. On your right...

Or on your left...

The Collège de Saint-Joseph is situated half-way between the Basilique de Saint Remi and the cathedral, built in a quartier that witnessed dramatic urban and industrial growth following the creation of the Vesle canal in 1840-1848). Following the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the Brothers of the Ecoles Chrétiennes started to construct the establishment which would later become the Jésuit college.

The buildings of the court of honour were constructed in 1873, the same year in which work on the Grand Théâtre de Reims was ended. The chapel itself was built between 1874 and 1876 and was the work of the young rémois architect, Edouard Lamy (1845-1914).

Whilst it took three hundred years to build the cathedral, it took just two years in order to complete the chapel that, in part, drew inspiration from Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre Dame de Paris. Despite its neo-Gothic air, the construction was very much of its time, combining traditional forms and paintwork in the style of the Middle Ages with the modern materials available.

So it was that the chapel displayed a Gothic vaulted ceiling alongside brick and cast-iron pillars, similar to those used in the Eiffel Tower and the Pavillon of Victor Baltard (cf Metro entrances). The design was ambitious in size, with a sumptuous initial decoration of stained-glass windows that led it to be compared to La Sainte Chapelle in Paris, although I think that might have been pushing it a little.

 Cast-iron columns, painted in red and blue, with gold fleurons led down the nave, to which an upper-floor galerie was added, above which a series of tapered arches towered. The chapel itself was crowned by a 60-metre spire that was used as a landmark for approaching planes.

 In spite of the ravages of the Great War, which brought so much loss to so many, La Chapelle de Saint-Joseph was one of the few edifices in Reims to be left standing, though not to say ‘unscathed’.

The vaulted ceiling had suffered significant damage, the stained-glass had, for the large part, been blown out by bomb explosions and the spire had started to lean. Restoration work was commenced even before the re-opening of the school in 1919.

Up to the end of the century, several projects of greater and lesser scale were undertaken to bring the chapel in its entirety to its former glory. Unfortunately much of this work was undone by old Father Time and ‘Lothar’, the incredibly violent storm that wreaked havoc on the city in December 1999.

The vast task of restoration, of which L’Arbre de Vie is an integral part started in 2008. An appeal was made for donations which indeed came in from former members of the Collège des Jésuites de Reims, Les Amis de la Chapelle Saint-Joseph, numerous Champagne houses (Bollinger, Roederer, Laurent-Perrier, Taittinger…), companies, the city hall, and the Fondation Crédit Agricole.

Once the roof covering had been repaired, the spire straightened and consolidated, the main façade renovated, the stone and paint work restored, work could commence on the stained-glass windows…

The mission undertaken by Agosti to create new windows must have been daunting and exciting in equal measure.

Daunting, because this is one of the largest stained-glass projects to have been carried out in the last twenty years in France and is certainly the biggest private one. Exciting, since the artist was given a vast surface of 320 m2 on which to work his theme.

Only three pieces of stained-glass, dating back to renovation in 1924, remained in the chapel choir. These were cleaned and maintained in their initial position.

Agosti decided to move away from the original subjects of the neo-Gothic windows - the figures of saints – the work for which being financed by the different Champagne houses.

Instead Agosti chose an innovative approach to the ancient Biblical symbol of the Tree of Life as his point of departure, acting as a catalyst to creativity and reflection of the organic, creative process.

Indeed, this symbolic, sacred tree is frequently alluded to in mythology, philosophy and religion, and serves to interconnect all life forms on the planet. Depending on the references, the Tree of Life may be viewed as distinct from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden of Eden, or complementary to it.

In the chapel of Saint Joseph, the play of light and colour is central as an “opéra de lumière” (Agosti) illuminates the chapel from early morning to night fall. From the Tree of Life, with its flow of leaves and branches descending from red to green, this kaleidoscope of colours and tones appears to pour onto the rest of the chapel, leading towards the choir at the far end. Each bay has its own colour theme, writings and symbolic geometric forms. Taken as a whole, the stained-glass of the chapel reads as the path of spiritual growth and erudition in life.

In the nave, the seven south-facing windows with their warm, sun-rich colours are offset by the seven north-facing panels opposite, with their cold, nocturnal, blue/green tones.The harmony of blue gives a cosmic view of life, from birth to death while the corresponding transversal windows recreate the birth and growth of Christ. A harmony of red tones is used for the apse of the chapel, and the four windows represent the four Evangelists with their bestiary and the four elements.

 New techniques were employed for the realization of these works, just as they had been in his restoration work at the churches of Bouzy and Ecueil, in 2006 and 2009 respectively. Instead of relying largely on lead, the Saint-Joseph stained-glass windows are composed of rectangular glass simply connected by a seam of lead..

 In the chapel, each piece of glass is but 3mm in width and is only coloured on the surface layer. To add colour or effect, this glass base is sanded away or eaten into by acid, allowing the two layers of colour to be seen as translucent. Further tones and details are included by additional enamels prepared in a kiln, allowing for a large palette of shades.

Well, the result of this work is beautiful and a great success, combining the old with the new to create a piece that really is a celebration of light, life and learning. When I visited the chapel, during a period of choir practice, the sun was pouring in, the music of the children’s singing was rising up to the gallery – perfect!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Sculpture of Swabia - Les Sculptures Souabes au Musée de Cluny Paris...

My actual visit to the Tudor exhibition was not quite what I had expected last week, so I made the most of the occasion to go back to the Musée de Cluny; Musée Nationale du Moyen Age, Paris

This title did not really mean a great deal to me initially… Was the term ‘souabe’ used to describe a particular sculpted object, an adjective referring to a style of sculpture or that of a particular geographical region? As it turned out, la sculpture souabe – ‘Swabian sculpture’ in English - is a unique combination of all these things. I'm afraid that my photos do not do these works great justice as I just couldn't block out the reflection of the lighting from the display cabinet glass.

Firstly, souabe  is French for the German adjective ‘schwaben’; this particular art form comes from the La Souabe – Schwabia – a region of south-west Germany situated between the Black Forest and Bavaria that, in the Middle Ages, included parts of modern-day France and Switzerland. Of course, Germany as we refer to it today , was but a vast mosaic of Germanic states, principalities, free cities and ‘stem duchies’ in Medieval times – collectively affiliated to the Roman Holy Empire. A Germanic king, crowned in Rome, would then be referred to as Emperor of the Romans, yet there was little real unity.

While England, France and Spain gradually evolved from strong dynasties to established, united nations, the Germanic lands were divided, and remained so until unification following the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, becoming an empire under Emperor Wilhelm 1, King of Prussia. In the Middle Ages, division and unrest due to politics and power-hungry rulers and princes led onto the dramatic upheaval brought about by the Protestant Reformation at the beginning of the 16th century. The states were stripped of their hitherto religious unity, now torn between Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist allegiances, leading to spiritual, social and cultural disharmony. The exhibition of the Musée de Cluny shows a specific sculpture, unique to its time and place, namely of the pre-Reformation Swabia between 1460-1530.

Protected by the Alps and Lake Constance in the south, the Jura in the west and the Black Forest in the north, the Swaben region was rich in forests and traversed by great rivers - notably the Danube. This gave rise to the primary use of wood for construction and carving and the emergence of a timber as a source of trade, with transportation facilitated by the waterways. At the end of the Middle Ages, many Swabian cities (such as Ulm, Augsburg, Biberach, Memmingen, Kaufbeuren and Kempten) had the status of ‘Free town of the Empire’ and were under the direct authority of the emperor. 

These autonomous urban centres played a vital role in the economy of the region, acting as commercial hubs and as the site of intense artistic activity. Swabia specialized in rich, sculpted ecclesiastic decoration and devotional statues for private use that met great demand during the fifteenth and early sixteenth century. These were commissioned from religious and secular patrons alike, from both within the region and beyond, following the same commercial routes towards the Swiss and Austrian Alps as other merchandise.

Being in plentiful supply, and of great variety, wood proved to be the medium of predilection and practicality for artists who soon become renowned as master wood-carvers. Far cheaper and far more accessible than marble or any other stone, wood indeed offered far greater possibilities to these craftsmen. Spruce, poplar and, above all, lime were favoured due to the ease with which they could be worked, affording greater artistic freedom perhaps than the oak that was used in the northern Germanic states. 

The advanced technical skill in the wood-carving process and the vivid effects created by polychromy were combined to create a unique style influenced by Germanic, late-Gothic tradition. Indeed, at the time when Italy was entering its High Renaissance period (1490-1530), German art largely still adhered to the forms characteristic of Medieval aesthetic traditions. 

Influenced by painting from the Netherlands, the Germanic craftsman employed an increasingly naturalistic style, yet kept features such as gilded forms and gold backgrounds that were deemed out-dated by artists in countries elsewhere.

Even when these influences had less hold, Germanic art maintained a distinctive, heightened character. In short, a true ‘renaissance’ in the Italian sense could not be experienced simply for the reason that a revival of Classical forms was only possible if these Classical references were part of a given country’s past. This was not the case for the Germanic states, beyond the Alps, cut off from the culture of Classical Antiquity that had driven the Italian Renaissance, by time and distance. The art of Renaissance Italy was finally introduced in Northern Europe by the German artist, Albrecht Dürer. The resulting art meant that Swabian wood-carving developed highly detailed, coloured, strangely expressive, often theatrical forms that found no parallel. 

The production of the sculpted pieces for which Swabia grew famous was rarely the work of one craftsman alone; far from it, in fact. Work was carried out collaboratively in workshops or ‘corporations’ by craftsman, companions and apprentices, performing as either carpenters, wood-carvers or painters. In this manner, each stage of artistic creation, from conception to completion with the final touches of polychrome pigment was assured by artisans highly-skilled in a specific craft. 

The work was performed under the command of a master, who had been commissioned to create a specific piece of work and would then act as general contractor (‘verleger’), subcontracting the work required. He thus orchestrated and oversaw the whole creative process in order to satisfy the requirements of a particular patron, and also to secure further commissions both locally and further afield. Thus the master and his workers would frequently travel to carry out the latest commissions, and the renown and influence of Swabian sculpture would spread beyond Swabia itself. 

The Cluny exhibition shows pieces by craftsmen such as Ivo Strigel (1430-1516) from Memmingen, Lux Maurus (1470-1527) in Kempten, Daniel Mauch from Ulm (1477-1540), Jörg Lederer (ca 1470-1550) from the Kaufbeuren and Niclas Weckmann (1481-1526).

Prior to the Schism, throughout Europe demand had been great for the sculpted forms of the varied ecclesiastic decorations and functional religious furnishings and objects; retables, choir stalls, pulpits, crucifixes to name but a few. However, Swabia appeared to specialize in the richly sculpted, emotionally-charged ‘reredos’, a rather elaborate relative of the retable. The retable itself was initially a simple decorative, paneled screen attached to the back of the altar, hence its name from the Latin, retro tabula altaris

. It showed the forms of devotional figures of saints, and would sometimes bear the various liturgical objects used in services, as an accessory to the Sacred table. Over time, the retable grew to be extensive in size, taking on ever-more impressive dimensions as it rose above the altar with its intricate woodwork.

Nevertheless, the retable tended to follow the same basic structural shape – that of a central section depicting a key religious theme – flanked by side-panel doors or ‘wings’, painted and or sculpted, that could be closed. The reredos, IF  I have understood correctly (no certitude here as the French appear to use the term retable for the two structural forms), was the sophisticated, latter-stage variation of the retable. 

Assuming monumental proportions, the structure was now independent from the altar, detached from any wall, free to occupy the space available at the back of the nave or the chapels as a separate architectural element in its own right. Towering over the altar, rising up towards the vaulted ceiling, the reredos nevertheless gave an impression of light airiness, due to woodwork that made full use of the play of light pouring through the Gothic windows onto intricate shapes and contrasting colours.
 No longer attached to the altarpiece, the reredos used a predella, a platform that served to support the central panel and to lift the entire structure well above the altar itself. Typically this base would bear 3-5 narrative pieces presented horizontally, usually in relief form. The central element, meanwhile, bore large sculpted figures representing scenes that remained classic in their themes - the Nativity, the Flight from Egypt, Entry in Jerusalem, Lamentation of Christ etc, although others, such as the ever-present threat of the plague, are also reflected. 

However, these were no dry, staid representations of Biblical figures nor were they the rather over-blown ecstatic figures of High Baroque, with billowing garments and febrile emotions. The Swabian sculpted figures possess an almost troubling human quality that enables us to somehow relate to the individuals in questions, despite the centuries that separate us. Many of the groups of figures in the exhibition were originally in the central part of the reredos, or were in reliefs from the lateral panels. Others were not necessarily part of a larger entity, but were for private devotional use, or were destined for display, as part of a public procession in active representation of episodes from the Bible. Large ‘Palmesel’ (Palm donkey) statues were used during Palm Sunday reenactments of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. The figure of Jesus, seated on a donkey, itself mounted on a wheeled platform would be key feature of religious festivals as it was pulled through the streets to the sound of hymns. 

Not my photo (too awful to use!!!) - Marie-Lan Nguyen
The standing figures were generally carved from a halved tree trunk, to which independently sculpted details could be added and attached by dowels; namely hands, voluminous drapery or other paraphernalia. The relative ease with which lime wood could be sculpted offered the Swabian wood-carvers greater freedom, leading towards Parallelfaltensil, a style specializing in deep, parallel pleated clothing whose influence spread from Swabia across the southern German states

The preparation, carving and colouring technique followed a rather elaborate procedure, a form of which can be seen in this link. Generally speaking, the initial block of rough wood was attached to a workbench that could be rotated, allowing the craftsman to move this as required and enable him to anticipate the effects of foreshortening that would come into play once the sculpture was set in the finished reredos and thus seen from below. The back of the sculpted figures were generally hollowed out in order to avoid warping and cracking as the wood weathered and aged. Once the main sculpting had been carried out, the sculpture would then be prepared for the polychromy process. The surface of the wood would remain sufficiently rough to allow for adherence of the different layers required to achieve the desired effect. Much of the polychromy process used on wood-carvings followed the same, or similar, techniques as those used on panel painting to create delicate hues and ‘blushes’, more sustained colour and, of course, gilding. 

An initial priming to prepare the wood against the absorption of the paint medium, would see the piece coated in a chalk-like glue substance – the gesso - which would act as a support to the subsequent layers. Pigments used for colouring came from four sources; soil, organic materials, rocks and minerals and chemicals and their multi-layered applications produced startling illusions of flesh and clothing. Gilding required a layer of ‘bole’ covered by fine gold leaf which in turn would be burnished then painted with a tempura pigment that was scratched ‘sgraffito’ or perhaps punched with a debossing technique to reveal the gilding beneath. Unfortunately, fluctuations of temperature and humidity could lead the wood to ‘walk’ as it expanded and contracted at a greater rate than the primed base of the polychrome effect. This would damage the coloured surface of the carving, but other factors led to the deterioration or discontinued use of polychromy in sculpture; the considerable cost and changing aesthetic taste being key determinants.

It was, of course, the Protestant Reformation that largely slowed down and eventually ended production of the unique Swabian sculpture. No longer able to rely on ecclesiastic patronage, the craftsmen found themselves without their ideological and economic basis. While Martin Luther had been opposed to excessive Catholic imagery, he may have shown a certain tolerance in his stance, the same could not be said of the iconoclasts of the Calvinist movement. The prohibition of idolatry and the creation of images of God would eventually lead to the widespread destruction of thousands of paintings, sculptures and the ruin of countless ecclesiastic buildings. By 1525, many Swaben craftsmen either left the region in order to find work under Catholic sovereigns or were obliged to find other alternatives, carrying out secular commissions. 

Fortunately, exhibitions such as these allow us to appreciate this moving, sometimes quirky art form that bears a certain unself-conscious innocence… While Swabian depictions of Mary seem to be fairly 'standard' in their essence of calm piety, it is not often in religious art that we see the child Christ acting as a tiresome toddler within the Holy family! As Jesus playfully grabs Joseph's beard, Mary looks on with a mother's loving solicitude.