Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 23, 1999
Madeline Harrison Caviness Paintings on Glass: Studies in Romanesque and Gothic Monumental Art Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 1997. 284 pp.; 221 b/w ills. Cloth $159.95 (0860786382)
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Madeline Caviness introduces this volume herself by explaining her “penchant for re-joining fragments and reconstructing programs.” While that description narrowly summarizes the content of many of the articles, it hardly does them justice. The anthology comprises fifteen articles written by Caviness between 1962 and 1993, bringing together contributions to festschriften, catalogues and conferences that might not otherwise be readily accessible (in this review, the articles will be referred to by Roman numerals I-XV, as they are in the book). It is also clear that the practice of looking long and hard at paintings on glass gave Caviness insights into subjects that are vital to all medievalists: what kinds of source materials were used in composing narrative subjects (I); what restorations undertaken during the Middle Ages suggest about medieval responses to art (IV); how temporal events left their mark on ecclesiastical programs (VI); and how a given subject might be enriched by multiple readings (XIII). Among the many reasons to read this seminal body of work, the following will be highlighted in this review: the archeological method; the insights into building practices; and the insistence that visual evidence must be weighed carefully against textual sources.

One of the older articles, “Fifteenth-Century Stained Glass from the Chapel of Hampton Court Herefordshire: The Apostles’ Creed and Other Subjects” (XV), is representative of Caviness’s archeological method. Caviness begins with a careful analysis of glass that was dispersed from Hampton Court in 1924, including the eight stained-glass panels of apostles at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and panels with saints, inscriptions, and narrative subjects elsewhere including York Minister and Hereford Cathedral. She is able to demonstrate that, despite the strong stylistic cohesion in the group, the panels do not fit the existing apertures in Hampton Court. She marshals physical evidence, such as the cutting down of the individual panels, and the lack of coherence in the color scheme and positioning of the figures. She notes iconographic anomalies, including the fact that there are only eight apostles. Finally, she observes that the stonework that would have contained the panels is insufficient, leading her to suggest that Hampton Court received panels that had been commissioned for a larger building. Subsequent archival work by John Cornforth, cited in her introduction p. xi, supports Caviness’s hypothesis that the glass was removed from a larger building to Hampton Court for safekeeping from Iconoclasm.

What Caviness does not mention is her own continuing efforts to preserve and display the Boston panels. They are among the thousands of panels in the foundational investigations of American collections that she oversaw with the late Jane Hayward (Stained Glass before 1700 in American Collections: New England and New York, Corpus Vitrearum Checklist I, Studies in the History of Art, vol. 15, Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1985, pp. 44-5). In addition, they formed part of her inaugural address as President of the Medieval Academy (see “Learning from Forest Lawn,” Speculum 69 1994: p. 992) when she advocated that the Medieval Academy should not be exclusively concerned with the textual mediation of the past, as exemplified by the Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching series, but also with physical rehabilitation, a proposed Reinstallation for Teaching series.

It may come as some surprise that an art historian whose primary focus is stained glass has so much to contribute to architectural issues and decoration as a whole. Yet there are several contributions that stand out for their assessments of building campaigns. As the title suggests, “Canterbury Cathedral Clerestory: the Glazing Programme in Relation to the Campaigns of Construction” (V) correlates the three stained glass campaigns in the clerestory with the progression of the building and Gervase of Canterbury’s written account of the building history. Attending to this diverse evidence, Caviness is able to demonstrate a very close relationship between architects and glaziers, with the masons glazing the apertures as soon as the vaults were completed and while the scaffolding was still in place. In addition, her intimate familiarity with the building fabric, essential to her archeological method, has led to a number of architectural discoveries. Her observations about William of Sens’s use of flying buttresses in the choir, just over the pent roof of the tribune, and his redesign of them after the mid-1170s may indicate his incorporation of new French sources (see n. 21 and 23). In addition, articles on Saint-Remi and Mantes (II and IX), ostensibly dealing with glazing in the tribune or gallery level, have implications for the ongoing liturgical and architectural debate about how these upper passageways functioned.

Caviness’s interest in mediating between textual sources and visual sources, alluded to above, is the theme of a number of the articles in this volume. This is especially evident in one of her most recent articles included “Biblical Stories in Windows: Were They Bibles for the Poor?” (XIII), in which Gregory the Great’s famous topos of medieval art as a bible for the poor is examined in relation to actual building programs and found to be untenable: nine monumental glazing programs of the twelfth and thirteenth century (Saint-Denis, Canterbury, Assisi, Poitiers, Bourges, Rouen, Auxerre, the Saintes- Chapelles, and Chartres) are analyzed and are shown to contain few straight-forward narratives in biblical sequence. It has become so convenient to refer to windows as bibles for the poor that it is hard to believe that no one before Caviness had ever thought to read glazing programs for narrative content and evaluate the literary tradition in light of the visual material.

Finally, the book is valuable because is allows the assessment of Caviness’s scholarship as a whole. These articles embody the development of the relatively young field of glass studies and demonstrate how important this work is to medievalists in general, not just specialists in stained glass. None of these articles could be characterized as an easy read; the archeological rigor and the vast number of sources compiled in the footnotes guarantee against that. The assemblage of articles also highlights Caviness’s range; she both undertakes the systematic scrutiny of displaced panels and also imaginatively positions them contextually—be it in the wake of the Cistercian aesthetic controversy, as in the case of ornamental compositions from Saint Remi of Reims (II), or as part of Philip Augustus’s political attonement for his repudiation of Queen Ingebourg in the case of clerestory compositions at Soissons (VIII). Such intellectual nimbleness is all the more reason to bring together this remarkable body of work. Caviness’s more recent work in gender studies is not represented here, but the mastery of difficult material demonstrated in this rich selection suggests that volume two will likewise have much to offer.

Elizabeth Carson Pastan
Associate Professor, Art History Department, Emory University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.