Adventures in Light and Color

Review: Adventures in Light and Color
Charles J. Connick

Mr. Connick’s delightful and valuable book is well named, for the text has the liveliness and joy that spell true adventure, and we are lured from page to page by new revelations of the interplay of light and color, while the illustrations make the most fascinating of “picture books”.  This is no volume for the technician or craftsman alone: it has much for all ages and conditions of men, women and children, and he would be dull indeed who could not find herein pleasure, profit, inspiration and fresh understanding, not only of stained glass windows, but of all the marvelous gamut of color revealed by living light.  Such simple, everyday objects as traffic lights are seen with new eyes and we learn what beauty may be produced from bits of broken and discarded colored glass.  The time range is from ancient Egypt and the first makers and users of glass to the present day, with emphasis, of course, on those splendid centuries of the Middle Ages which gave the great cathedrals their wondrous windows, unsurpassed in beauty.  The range of allusion is almost equally great, for Mr. Connick’s reading has touched Theophilus, Saint James, the Abbe Suger, Browning, Whitman, Havelock Ellis, Lewis Mumford, Emerson, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Josephus, Pliny and many others.

The illustrations in color and black and white, add greatly to the volume and offer fascinating opportunities for study: even the small head or tail pieces have charm and suggestion.  Indeed, such riches are contained in this glass book that the reviewer can suggest only a few and counsels everyone to “read, mark and inwardly digest”, by no means omitting frequent study of those European magnets for stained glass lovers, the Tree of Jesse window in Chartres and the Crucifixion window in Poitiers.

Mr. Connick’s own words of old windows versus the modern and once popular “picture” window, must be quoted: “Ancient windows have no relation to smooth and static pictures: they are in another region entirely.  Old masterpieces in the craft are jeweled designs, wrought in glass, lead, iron and light.  They were made by master craftsmen who happened also to be artists, worshippers, and citizens of a very active world.  Patterns of glass were made more significant, not more realistic, by patterns of paint.  I had to know early windows well before I realized that paint patterns were used to control the action of light through patterned color, much as swell-shutters restrain open sound in organ tone.  I had to know something of the world those windows came from before I appreciated the poetic language of worship at that time – symbolism.  If those craftsmen were eager worshippers they must have also had an understanding of light action that we now call scientific.  But no scientific term could explain their expression of joy and praise in active color and light.”  It must always be remembered that painting and other artistic media using color must rely on the opaque (mosaic excepted), while in stained glass as in nature, light is an integral part of color itself, modifying, changing, balancing, vitalizing.  Were we to employ a musical simile, we might liken a great rose window to a great symphony, its changing lights to different conductors evoking each from the same pattern, different emotional overtones.

Chapter headings such as “Azure is Heaven’s First Hue”, “The Red Winged Seraphim”, “A Great Singing Symbol”, “Children and Symbolists”, “Contrasting Qualities of Light”, “Harps in the Wind”, “Craftsmen Who Rode Winged Horses”, “A Playground for the Sun”; the knowledge that ruby, sapphire and emerald are still used as trade names for glass in sheets today; the account of a pilgrimage or two from Mr. Connick’s workshop to France to aid in the restoration of Rheims glass; the use of the very “modern” Brancusi bird to show the author’s eye for line and significant form, wherever found, are only a few of the rewarding discoveries awaiting the reader.  And to show that the 12th century and our own age both produce artists keenly alive, not only to beauty, but to the function that lies behind the use of beauty, there is included these words of Lewis Mumford’s, speaking of the Orozco murals at Dartmouth: “Here was expounded a fresh conception of art – That art is not the empty plaything of the rich and idle, but a necessary expression of the emotional and imaginative and ideological life of communities, as important for their existence as their daily bread.”  An d hear Mr. Connick again: “The priests, craftsmen, architects and artists who left us the rich heritage we call Christian art were poets in their own right: they had never lost their childlike pleasure in the simple things of earth which they made into symbols of the spiritual world and its development.”

“Adventures in Light and Color” is of necessity too expensive a book to be found in every home, but I could wish every Children’s Room in every Library would put a copy where it is accessible to its frequenters, for there are special messages for the young.  “Children are healthy lovers of the beauty that is best expressed in musical sound, pure color and light.  As an artist I have discovered that great masterpieces of art and of the crafts, almost without exception, have something of the direct simplicity and freshness of a child.  Also that such masterpieces bring gratifying responses from the shining eyes of children.**

** In fact, one of the choice stories to enrich the history of stained glass during the last hundred years is the story of a child.  It is about Viollet-le-Duc who confused the singing color of a great rose window with the music from the cathedral organ, and so gave the world a fresh symbol, the ‘Singing Window.’”

A joyful project carried out by Mr., Connick, which he describes in his book, is the decoration of a rest room in a Children’s Hospital and small chapel adjoining; and his hopes to extend to the creation of a Sunday School room already present in a dream in his own mind, gay and sunlit and colorful.  Happy the children who might hear therein the great Bible stories while the Canticle of Brother Sun sings itself about them!

And a final word for us all: “It may not be too much to say that if we are to love stained glass windows, we should also love the mysterious charm of glaciers at all times of day, and especially in early evening.  We should know the patterning of water in brooks and rivers, with their reflections of skies, trees and flowers.  Above all, we should be aware of the grandeur in great spaces of sky and sea in all the tumultuous activities of all great natural forces.  The stained glass window belongs to Brother Sun and is in itself a mighty symbol of his natural beauty and power that may be translated into a new symbol of spiritual beauty.”

Elizabeth Carrington Cram