In Your Midst

A Meditation on Cathedral Art

July 2003

In This Issue:
Charles Connick, visiting Chartres for the first time in August 1910, experienced a profound epiphany. Of course he already knew that stained glass was an art form dependent on light—but only now did he realize that the opaque glass which he and his contemporaries favored fought against the light. It tried to look the same, no matter what the conditions were outside.

But at Chartres — specifically, in front of Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière — Connick found “a stained glass window that is the color of the weather. It is at the mercy of light and of all that happens in the path of its light.” The image of Our Lady he saw on an autumn morning was quite different from the one he saw late in the afternoon. The light had changed, and with it the colors and the whole mood of the window mysteriously changed as well. “I had never been told of its bewildering metamorphoses,” Connick later wrote: he called this window “la Belle Verrière of Infinite Variety.”

The windows Connick created for St. James Cathedral in 1916-17 were among his earliest full-scale “experiments” with what he had learned at Chartres. The window depicting our patron James shows him dressed as a pilgrim, carrying his staff and gourd. His hat is adorned with a scallop shell, and on his feet are sandals suited to this travel-worn pilgrim.

In his use of color Connick boldly turns away from the gentle, painterly effects sought after by his contemporaries. He juxtaposes deep greens, umbers, and blues in Saint James’ robes with intense touches of red in his halo and book.

The James window receives the strongest sunlight in the afternoons of summer, an effect Connick undoubtedly intended since we celebrate our patron’s feast in the month of July. But this is above all a “James of Infinite Variety,” which to be experienced fully must be experienced in many different lights.

Connick’s great insight into the art of stained glass is also a profound spiritual insight. Just as the art of stained-glass does not live until it is lets itself be “vulnerable to the light,” we also need to be (like our patron James) vulnerable to grace, even when it threatens to transform us in dazzling and unexpected ways.

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