Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lost Secrets of Chartres Blue? History of color, and why astrology in a church?

 A story instead of history? It happens.

Some people believe that making of blue color from the medieval stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral was kept very secret, and the secret vanished. Since Middle Ages no one was able to re-create the famous Chartres-blue. Interesting story, very romantic, but simply not true. It is a part of cultural phenomenon involving romanticizing and sensationalizing art history. Specially the mystery of Chartre's blue was beloved during the era of Romanticism. Such sensationalizing happens most often in archeology, but art history isn't free from such exciting modern legends.

 In fact, there are enough of ancient "recipes" for making stained glass which survived until today. Problem with medieval recipes is that they often don't makes sense, because terminology is confusing, like for example the idea that sapphire was added  in making stained, glass, when this was also latinized name for  saffer, which was name of cobalt oxide. Often the color is also affected by patina, impurities, or the main compound: the sand. Subtle differences matter, for ex. if the was taken from the river or if was sea sand. We can't know exactly, we know which compounds were added, but in which form we don't know. Also the combination of blue with other colors on the installed window itself makes it look specific way, using the optical principle of color contrast.

But modern glass makers are fully capable of recreating the" mysterious" or "lost" Chartres-blue. It is sad to think so little about their skills and talents. Maria Rzepinska in her expertly researched book about history of color mentions those recipes, and even tells how color of the glass mass changed in relation of time involved in heating in the glass making kilns.Known phenomenon, nothing new,  just a reminder. Also some impurities, air bubbles, etc. which were the result of working in more crude conditions affect the color. Today's glass is extremely  pure.

But there is the  kernel of truth in this disappearance story: after the Age of Faith the Chartres-blue, or to be more exact, the presence of  strong colors diminished to almost disappear from stained glass windows, to reappear during XIX c. in their full glory.

So, what is the secret?

Stained glass window, with the Zodiac Sign of Pisces, Chartres Cathedral, via Wikimedia, photo taken by Dinkum
  It fact after the Middle Ages there was less interest in installing very colorful stained glass windows of the types as those seen in Chartres and the other Gothic cathedrals or churches. The reason was simple: colorful stained glass windows were prohibitively expensive. The cost of stained glass was closer to the price of precious stones than to the cost of the stained glass of today, as Maria Rzepinska says. (And she has also has a strong supportive bibliography which is a great resource for me). We also need to keep in mind that in addition to the already extremely high cost of its production, Gothic stained glass windows were very thick, which made the price even higher than those which are made of thin glass panels today. And thickness makes colors more intense too.Stained glass windows at Chartres Cathedral are for example c.1 inch thick. Due to progress of technologies, today's stained glass which is similar to the glass of XIX c. Gothic Revival has only a fraction of the thickness (c. 1/8 of inch) of the Gothic glass window panels. Gothic Revival brought colored window back into buildings but adjusted with new technologies. Religious buildings of the Middle Ages needed masses of expensive glass.
The tastes also changed, after jewel-like colors of the  Middle Ages white and grissaille glass became popular. With time people also became less religiously devoted than during the Age of Faith. Unstoppable religious enthusiasm which fueled building of the great cathedrals simply diminished with time.

 The window above is a curious case in popular imagination, as some other objects at Chartres. Many people think the Zodiac signs were too esoteric, and foreign to the doctrines of Christian religion, and as such couldn't find place in any church building.

One thing: Zodiac isn't anything unusual in Gothic churches. Actually it was a common subject. Astrology was intertwined with astronomy, as other proto-sciences of the day were.  Proto-science was called natural philosophy in those days. Zodiac itself represented to people God's role in creating order in Universe, and showed the idea that all things are inter-connected. Medieval people, even priests, didn't have problem with Zodiac. Zodiac wasn't esoteric in real sense, it was a perfect illustration of the idea of perfect order in the Universe.

The science of old was a mixture of experimentation, science, theology, metaphysics and superstition. The divide between science and theology, philosophy and metaphysics was drawn first during the XVIII c. Astrology was part of sciences and was legitimate than,  and was as legitimate as anatomy today is legitimate part of medicine.  During the Middle Ages astrology was part of medicine, and even clerics learned astrology. What the Church forbid in relation to astrology  was the belief in fatalism, and astrology was supposed to be something which didn't determine human fate completely, it was supposed  to give people some free will. Even Newton was still involved in a mixture of philosophy, theology, science and even alchemy. This of course relates to the history of science itself, but as you see art history involves partially history of science, not only in this particular case..

Zodiac window at Chartres cathedral from Sacred Destinations travel page

Here another one stained glass window, very jewel-like.
Stained glass window at Chartres cathedral, via Wikmedia, courtesy of Juan J.Rodriguez
 As the there was no clear division between the rational  and irrational in medieval sciences, as the division between science and religion didn't exist in the form  as we see it today, the same was with fine arts and crafts. Art and crafts were woven together in the same aesthetic system, and art often imitated craft. For example the stained glass window as above was reminding of jeweled and enameled objects crafted by jewelry makers.

 Mentioning Rzepinka again: she writes that people believed the only difference which existed between precious stones and stained glass was  that the natural jewels possessed magic powers, and glass was not effective. Even clerics were writing that the powers and colors of precious stones were virtues given to them by God. We need to take in account the differences in human knowledge and thinking when interpreting art done by humans from eras long gone, if we want to understand their art more fully.

Jewel-like aesthetics in stained glass windows was later replaced by imitative qualities of painting. Even during XIX c. particular paintings were recreated as stained glass version, a tribute to the value of the art of painting. Painting became "true" art," stained glass became craft. But as it was the case with theology, mysticism and proto-science, there was no divide between art and craft, no value judgement in this regard. Medieval mind was kind of holistic mind.

I have chosen those windows not only because stained glass is such a strong mark of Gothic art, but also because shows the duo of blue and red, a color contrast of the Middle Ages.
Tomorrow more about medieval zodiac and science, more about blue in illuminated manuscripts.