Saturday, December 13, 2008

Fjordman: A History of Optics, Part 2

Fjordman’s latest essay has been posted at Atlas Shrugs. Some excerpts are below:

Today we see buildings with glass windows in every city in the world, yet most people don’t know that the Romans were the first to make glass windows. Their legacy of glassmaking survived the fall of the Empire (although in diminished quantities) and was carried in different directions. Under the influence of Christianity and the Roman Church, the introduction of glazed windows and the development of painted and stained glass manufacture was one of the most decorative uses. It is again interesting to notice how glassmaking and winemaking progressed together under the influence of the Benedictines and others. Here is a quote from the book Glass: A World History by Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin, page 20:

“There are references to such windows from fifth century France at Tours, and a little later from north-east England, in Sunderland, followed by developments at Monkwearmouth, and in the far north at Jarrow dating to the period between 682 and c.870. By AD 1000 painted glass is mentioned quite frequently in church records, for example in those of the first Benedictine Monastery at Monte Cassino in 1066. It was the Benedictine order in particular that gave the impetus for window glass. It was they who saw the use of glass as a way of glorifying God through their involvement in its actual production in their monasteries, injecting huge amounts of skill and money into its development. The Benedictines were, in many ways, the transmitters of the great Roman legacy. The particular emphasis on window glass would lead into one of the most powerful forces behind the extraordinary explosion of glass manufacture from the twelfth century.”

Often cited as the first Gothic construction, the choir of the Abbey of Saint-Denis, 1140-44, gives an important place to stained glass. In the twelfth century, monks were still the elite class of society in Europe, although urbanization was proceeding rapidly. This story is explored in the book The History of Stained Glass by Virginia Chieffo Raguin, page 63:
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“The windows they commissioned reflected not only their erudition but also their method of prayer: gathering several times a day in the choir area of the church to pray communally, primarily by singing psalms. The monks remained in the presence of the works of art they set in these spaces. With the construction of his abbey’s new choir, Abbot Suger (1081-1155) of Saint-Denis installed a series of windows exemplary of monastic spirituality and twelfth-century visual thinking. Suger, a man of unusual determination and management skills, was a trusted advisor of Louis VII, who reigned from 1137 to 1180. Responding to the call of Bernard of Clairvaux, Louis embarked on the unsuccessful Second Crusade, 1147-49, leaving Suger to act as regent of France in his absence. The abbot’s influence with the monarchy consolidated Saint-Denis’s place as the site of burial for French kings and the repository of the regalia — crown, sceptre, spurs, and other ceremonial objects — of coronation (coronations themselves, however, were held in the cathedral of Reims). Suger rebuilt the eastern and western ends of the church around 1141-44, using revolutionary vaulting and construction techniques that proclaimed the new Gothic style.”

Stained glass developed as a major art form in late medieval Europe and was often used in churches such as Chartres Cathedral and Reims Cathedral in France, Cologne Cathedral in Germany, York Minster in England, Florence Cathedral in Italy and many others. Glass painting, what the Germans call Glasmalerei, gave artists the opportunity to construct large-scale imagery using light, color and line. With stained glass, unlike other graphic media, the artist must be sensitive to translucency as well as form. Raguin, page 10:

“The importance of stained glass and gems may be explained by a prevailing attitude toward light as a metaphor in premodern Europe. In the Old Testament light is associated with good, and darkness with God’s displeasure. The very first verses of Genesis announce to the reader that ‘the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep’, then God created light and ‘saw the light, that it was good’ (Genesis 1:2-3). Light was associated with knowledge and power, ‘the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God’s majesty’ (Wisdom 7:26). Light also functioned as a symbol of God’s protection.”

Syria and Egypt, and to some extent Iran and Iraq, remained important glassmaking regions for some centuries into the Islamic period, and created colorful, decorated glass which was exported to other countries. There was some transfer of glassmaking technology from Syria to Venice in medieval times. Glass was also used for scientific instruments in alchemy/chemistry. Mosque lanterns were the closest equivalent to the stained glass in Western European churches. Window glass was not widely made, but this could be for climatic reasons since in warmer countries it was important that air circulated in the hot season. It is clear that the Romans in Mediterranean countries knew how to make windows of glass and occasionally did so, but not to any great extent. Further developments in the manufacture of window glass happened primarily in the colder regions of northern Europe.

Read the rest at Atlas Shrugs.


Profitsbeard said...

Islam, being essentially irrationalistic in nature, scorns such technological insights as a form of arrogant inquiry presumptuously intruding on Allah's private domain of Creativity.

Science and Art fail to "submit" to the frozen Given of Allah, or to follow the inshallah fatalism of Mohammadism, and both wither under Islam's retrograde anti-intellectualism and the shallow iconoclasm of the traditionalistic Muslim mindset.

They prefer opaque tiles over glorious optical transparencies.

John said...

Thank you for this blog. I am always interested in learning more about the Benedictines and their many contributions to Western civilization.