Scottish Stained Glass

Crear McCartney, Stained glass artist

It is a sad consequence of Humanity’s restless search for knowledge and understanding that we leave in the wake of that journey so many broken artefacts of previous similar endeavours.

A walk amid the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, and some meditation on the spot where once the famous shrine to our Patron Saint attracted pilgrims from every corner of Christendom, brings one to a realisation that, in 16th-century Scotland, a new order was achieved at a great price.

Other forces were equally disastrous to our art heritage. The ‘rough wooing’ laid waste our Borders Abbeys. The ambitions of the Wolf of Badenoch despoiled Pluscarden Priory and Elgin Cathedral – ‘The Lantern of the North’ – and our Union with England’s crown in 1603 left James VI’s Castillian Band with no one to sing to.

Under Scotland’s Stuart Kings – especially James III, IV and V – late Medieval and Early Renaissance art flourished out of all proportion to our position on the periphery of Europe. Yet so much is lost. What other masterpieces came from Flanders at the time of Hugh van der Goes Trinity Alterpiece? How many precious breviaries and choir-books perished amid the flames of the Reformation?

It is only in the last 20 years that inspired scholarship has made us aware that in Robert Carver, Scotland had a musician the equal to any of his contemporaries in Tudor England, and whose harmonic daring put him with the best in the Courts of Flanders, Burgundy and Spain. Yet only one choir-book and a few motets by his contemporaries remain to tantalise our ears. ‘The rest is silence’.

Of our Pre-Reformation stained glass, only the heraldic glass of c.1506 remains in situ in the Magdalen Chapel in Edinburgh’s Cowgate. Yet it is no idle speculation to believe that St Andrews Cathedral must have glowed with glass from the 13th century – The Golden Age. It was consecrated in 1317, perhaps in thanksgiving for Bannockburn! Its building must have coincided with the zeal of David de Bernam who, in the mid-13th century, founded over 150 churches. He had close links with France and would have known Chartres, St Denis, and the other great Cathedrals of the Isle de France. Chartres has one tragic, tangible link with Scotland that we know of. Its great South Transept Rose window was gifted by the Comte de Dreux – a town near Chartres. He is depicted along with his family on the window, one of whom was Yolande de Dreux, second wife of Alexander III of Scotland – the King who died riding to be with his young bride and with whose death ‘oor Gawd wis changit into lead’.

Was that marriage perhaps commemorated in glass at St Andrews? It was one of Europe’s largest cathedrals. It stood as a place of special pilgrimage along with Santiago de Compostela. French glaziers travelled the length and breadth of Europe – there is in York Minster a panel of a Jesse Tree window which is so similar to one in Chatrtres that one can only believe it to be the work of the same band of craftsmen who travelled across Europe throughout the Middle ages

Although other countries in Europe contributed to the great dawning of stained glass as an art form in the 12th and 13th centuries, it is generally recognised that it was perfected in Norman France. One man especially, through the force of his personality and imagination, initiated the use of stained glass, not just as decoration in his cathedral of St Denis, but as a vehicle for his mystical search for God through the metaphysics of light. Light for the Abbe Suget was the means by which Mankind moved out of his earthly existence into an awareness of external things. He was not alone in this and gathered around him a band of scholars – mainly Benedictine – who believed that the contemplation of exquisite carved objects (especially when showered in coloured light) led to an awareness of the Godhead. His contemporary, Bernard of Clairvaux, took a very different view, believing that Art distracted us from a close communion with God.

An echo of this argument must have resounded in the churches and abbeys of Scotland around the year 1560, and it still continues to a lesser extent this day.

Suget’s Cathedral at St Denis became the prototype for the magnificent buildings whichmushroomed across Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. In their building, they inspired a unique synthesis of the Arts, the Sciences, Philosophy and Faith which today we loosely label ‘Gothic’.

Suget himself was a mystic. He was fascinated by the power of light pouring through stained glass ‘transforming that which is material into something immaterial’. He was not alone in this. Bishop Grossetete of Lincoln and Dante came to hold similar views on the metaphysics of light.

Stained glass windows to the medieval mind were therefore not merely illustrations of Biblical stories or depictions of Christ and His Saints. Their primary purpose was to transform a building into a kaleidoscope of coloured light – a vision of a ‘new Heaven and a new Earth’. Windows were not openings in a wall, but a rainbow bridge of precious jewels unifying the entire building and leading one to a greater awareness of the Living God.

It is only in this present century that stained glass has regained some of that abstract power which transcends mere representation. From its pre-eminent position in the 13th century, stained glass went into a long decline as it was absorbed into the pursuits of Renaissance ideals. Experiments in perfecting an illusion of the Third Dimension punched great holes in the walls of religious buildings. Greek and Classical concepts replaced medieval mysticism until stained glass all but disappeared as a significant art form until the Gothic revival of the mid-19th century.

Even then there was little real understanding of the primary function of stained glass. A recent exhibition of a few of the Munich glass artists who in the mid-19th century were commissioned to reglaze Glasgow Cathedral underlines how far glaziers at that time were from an understanding of the ideals of Gothic Art and Philosophy. While one can only stand in awe at the consumate craftsmanship of Munich’s cutters, painters and leaders, the final impression is that Glasgow’s magnificent Cathedral lauded by Nicholas Pesvner as the supreme example of the first pointed ‘English’ Gothic – must have looked more like the interior of a Baroque palace.

Lead, which in the 13th century was regarded as every bit as essential as the glass itself, was in the mid-19th century relegated to a very minor role – a lonely thin black line skating its way around a white cloud in a blue sky – whereas the lead should be conceived as a dark black web which adds brilliance to the web-like quality of the glass.

By the beginning of the 20th century a new awareness of the essential qualities of stained glass was widespread in Scotland. The Arts and Crafts movement encouraged a new generation of innovative artists to rediscover the force and power of stained glass.

The most notable artist of this generation was Douglas Strachan and his work can be seen in many churches throughout the nation. This work inspired many artists to follow in his footsteps so that Scotland’s churches, which 150 years ago were somewhat sombre and colourless places, are now ablaze with rich colours from fine artists and craftsmen and women too numerous to mention.

And what of stained glass in Scotland today? In every respect the future is one of optimism and a new sense of adventure. If, as I believe, Art is the ‘speculum mundi’, then stained glass in Scotland now, along with the other Arts, reflects the new sense of confidence which is evolving out of Scotland’s rediscovery of Nationhood.

It has been a long, slow journey born out of the traumas of the First World War. One has only to read Hugh McDiarmid, Edwin Muir and Lewis Grassic Gibbon to realise that Scotland mourned the loss of Empire with a voice far different from that of her southern neighbour.

In the visual arts the Scottish Colourists found inspiration in France – shades of the ‘Auld Alliance’. In glass, the Strachan brothers, Alf Webster and Herbert Hendrie, were all moved by the horrors of war to seek out a stylein which colour was the dominant factor, in a highly emotional way reminiscent of the 13th-century masters.

The Second World War accelerated the move towards greater abstraction – for example, in the work of William Wilson. Sadie McLellan found her early inspiration in the work of Fernand Leger. She went on to produce the great Rose Window in Pluscarden Abbey in Dalles de Verre, a medium she also exploited with considerable success in Coia’s post-modern churches. Her husband, Walter Pritchard, a muralist and stained-glass artist of great talent, became Head of that Department in the Glasgow School of Art – one of the most inspiring teachers, with interests ranging far beyond the visual arts.

So the future is bright – not just orange but in glass of all the colours of the rainbow – and provides an arch which spans the centuries and illumines our churches.

There is an index at the back of this excellent book. Let it be your passport on journeys of discovery. Seek out the names of those whose work excites you; let them lead you into Scotland’s churches. Each building is a small Art Gallery and, as in all Art Galleries, works by other artists will demand attention and encourage further rewarding study. You will find other artists who, like me, fell victim to the wonder of God’s light filtered through a web of lead and coloured glass.

Originally published in Churches to visit in Scotland 2002