14.10.04, Lillich, The Gothic Stained Glass of Reims Cathedral

Main Article Content

Elizabeth Carson Pastan

The Medieval Review 14.10.04

Lillich, Meredith Parsons. The Gothic Stained Glass of Reims Cathedral. University Park, PA:The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011. Pp. 340. ISBN: 9780271037776 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Elizabeth Carson Pastan
Emory University

Read this book! In The Gothic Stained Glass of Reims Cathedral you'll discover the excitement of learning about a cathedral's glazing program by Meredith Parsons Lillich, an art historian who has spent over two decades focused on this monument and a lifetime devoted to the study of stained glass. Both the study of medieval stained glass and the monographic approach are invigorated here. It is also a very handsomely produced volume, consisting of seven chapters, plus a prolegomena and a coda, eight appendices, 259 illustrations many of which are in color, including clarifying color diagrams, such as those shown on pp. 200-1, documenting the position and attributes of figures in the stained-glass windows of the nave clerestory.

The cathedral emerges as a living monument, with a retrievable past and thematic coherence. As Lillich states, "The subject programs of the Reims glass are the primary focus here," succinctly adding that she wants to advance understanding of "the who, when, why and how of this great enterprise" (xix). She offers a clear and well-organized chronology of the extant glass, which she dates c. 1227-1290, and suggests different patronage scenarios related to it. After an overview of the history of the site in Chapter 1, the chapters are organized around the location of the glass moving from east to west: Chapter 2, "The Rosaces of the Chevet;" Chapter 3, "The Lancets of the Chevet;" Chapter 4, "The Transepts;" Chapter 5, "The Rosaces of the Nave;" Chapter 6, "The Lancets of the Nave;" and Chapter 7, "The Glazing of the West Facade." The study proceeds on the basis of four underlying concepts: 1) that style is not a reliable basis for the study of these windows (5), owing in large measure to extensive restorations and to losses that the building sustained, particularly from bombing in World War I; 2) that Reims's glazing is "intensely site specific" (6), particularly given its role, which the glass helps to articulate, as the coronation church of the kings of France; 3) that location within the building matters--the window subjects coordinate closely with their placement within the architectural environment and in relation to ceremonies conducted there--even the ordering of the clerestory windows with their images of the suffragan bishops, each accompanied by the "facade" of his cathedral, follows the hierarchy of seating for the provincial councils established by the archbishop of Reims in 1231 (20, and 68-9) [1]; and 4) finally that the coronation of the kings of France impacted the glazing program directly (developed in Chapter 5, pp. 152-71 and interwoven adroitly throughout), although the coronation ceremony itself is not depicted (220).

This study is fully informed by fine recent scholarship on different aspects of the building and its context. The notes are chock full of references to other works on Reims Cathedral, including (in alphabetical order): Barbara Abou El Haj on social conflict in the town, Sylvie Balcon's several publications on the visual documentation of the lost stained glass, Walter Berry and Robert Neiss on the archaeology of the site, William W. Clark on the exterior sculpture of the chevet; the monograph on Reims Cathedral by Bruno Decrock and Patrick Demouy (and many others by the latter), Elizabeth Emery on revival of interest in Reims following its bombing by the Germans in World War I, Richard A. Jackson on the coronation texts and rituals, Peter Kurmann on the representation of architectural "facades" of suffragan dioceses in the choir clerestory glazing, the analysis of the dendrochronology by Anne Prache, Anne Robertson on the musical liturgy, and the study of the verso sculpture of the facade by Donna Sadler. Lillich also cites scholarship on contemporaneous glazing programs, including Beauvais (to which she makes the most extensive reference), Braine, her prior work on Châlons-en-Champagne, as well as the stained glass at Chartres, Laon, the Sainte-Chapelle, Saint-Remi of Reims, Soissons, and Troyes Cathedral. While informed by this scholarship, Lillich is not telling anyone else's story about the cathedral, but maintains her own clear focus on Reims's stained glass. There is an art to writing a book that is both synthetic and original, and Lillich succeeds admirably.

You cannot fully comprehend the text without reading the notes and looking carefully at the well-chosen array of images, which include many helpful plans, pre-World War I photos, good details, and documentation of glass that has since been lost. One delightful surprise is the discussion of the choir clerestory lancets (esp. 72-8), where details such as the rendering of the fictive rose windows and gargoyles on the stained-glass building facades, and the way the eyes of the large figures were leaded as eyeglasses (an enhancement for visibility, also found at Chartres) or as "goggles" (where a separate pane of blue glass for the iris was also leaded, producing an eerie effect) come alive thanks to Lillich's painstaking analyses, which are well supported by color details. Likewise her scrutiny of the cathedral's remarkable north transept rose, with its unusual selection of scenes from Genesis and contemporaneous bestiaries, focuses the reader's attention on the visual imagery. I was disappointed and yet persuaded that the two medallions of seraphim in this country, at the Getty and in Ann Arbor, are not from Reims, at least not from the western rose window as has previously been argued (Appendix 8, 263-4).

In turn, so rich (and at times blunt) are the notes that they would have benefitted from being placed at the bottom of the page, as true footnotes, rather than the endnotes offered at the end of all the chapters here. For example, one of the many gems is footnote 5 on p. 278, which lucidly discusses different scenarios as to when the clerestory glass was placed in the apertures in relation to the completion of the vaults. Likewise in the notes in particular Lillich does not waste words on scholarship she finds wanting, including her earlier works of "jeunesse" (see the notes on 284, 290, 295, 303, 309, and 325, where she discusses her own publications and those of others). Not uncharacteristic is her comment about the implications (or lack therein) of heraldic borders with the fleur de lis of the kings of France and the castles of Castille, where she opines, "I first start started beating this drum back in 1991" (305, n. 66).

As Lillich acknowledges, there is considerable disagreement about the dating of the glass in Reims Cathedral (see especially 61-75, and 214-18). Given the losses in the glazing program, and the lack of surviving large-scale glass of the mid-thirteenth-century from Paris for comparison, the reconstruction of the glazing program necessarily entails considerable informed inference. Her suggestion for the axial window, which she dates to the initiative of Archbishop Henri de Braine (c. 1227-31) vis à vis the other choir clerestory windows (c. 1231-4, followed by an hiatus corresponding to the canons' exile and then completed c. 1237-41) or the original disposition of the "Belles Verrières" (which are the reused older stained glass subjects in a new aperture, sometimes referred to as "spolia," a term Lillich does not favor) currently in Bay 118 of the south transept (see 62-3, 65-6, 75, 138-51) are cases in point. At the very least the reader will find a thorough and well-reasoned narrative that takes into account what can be established and clearly advances Lillich's own hypotheses.

Not surprising in view of Lillich's many published studies of rose windows and grisailles (or uncolored ornamental windows), these are strong contributions in her new book. The passage that opens her fourth chapter on the transepts, where she describes "the strength and excitement of the dominating frame provided by paired transept roses," demonstrates how these themes merge:

"The grisailles and roses of the transepts provide a unique setting for the high altar in the crossing, which emphasizes, with great success, the "specialness" of this focal point of the church... The separate treatment of this area successfully highlights its importance--and not only for coronations--but is not allowed to interfere with the strong repetitive rhythms that give the architecture its grand sweep... At Reims the grisaille framework polarizes and intensifies the effect of the roses while also of course providing the altar, in the crossing, with much greater lighting" (105).

Readers familiar with Lillich's previous publications such as her article, "King Solomon in Bed, Archbishop Hincmar, the Ordo of 1250 and the Stained-glass Program of the Nave of Reims Cathedral" published in Speculum in 2005, will find that the earlier work resonates anew here. Expanded, enhanced by color photography, the earlier study underlies Chapter 5 and Appendices 6 and 7, and in turn provides the basis for the analysis of the western rose in Chapter 7. Lillich argues that the rosace of Bay 121 depicting "King Solomon in Bed" is "so strange a theme that the programmer has provided the label 'SALOMON REX,' the only inscription in any of the nave rosaces" in order to highlight it (160). Its subject is based on Archbishop Hincmar of Reims' "tedious, banal and convoluted poem" of the mid-ninth century entitled, "In ferculum Salomonis" (164). In a stunning interpretation, Lillich then plausibly connects the unusual prominence of "Solomon in Bed" to the first event of the coronation day, when the bishops of Laon and Beauvais go to the archbishop's palace for the ritual of rousing the sleeping king.

The study of the subjects of the rosaces – the small, round six-lobed apertures above the clerestory lancets – is where the author undertakes some of her most incisive analyses. They provide the key to the two different campaigns of glazing in the nave and, along with the various attributes of figures in the clerestory windows demonstrated in the diagrams on pp. 200-1, serve to highlight the importance of the choir screen. They also introduce the unusual apostolic cycle in the choir (17-59, for this reader revelatory). However, more attention to the issue of their reception would have been useful. What emerges is a "programmer's" program that may not have needed to be legible in order to be meaningful. If so, what an interesting finding! I would have liked to see her address the physical and interpretive gulf between Fig. 1, a pre-World War I black and white view of the cathedral glazing that highlights the scale and steep angle of elevation at which the clerestory glazing and particularly the rosaces at their apex must be viewed (the vaults are approximately 123 feet high), and Fig. 24, which is the splendid color detail of the eastern rosace. Could the liturgical and para-liturgical ceremonies within the cathedral have brought the far-away subjects into focus? Or is it, as Lillich hints at certain points, a program for the intellectual contemplation of those who commissioned it, which included at different stages, the archbishop of Reims, its canons, and King Philippe le Bel?

The themes of the rosaces join many fascinating and unique findings that Lillich uncovers in the stained glass of Reims Cathedral including its finely attuned site-specificity, its lack of (extant) donor images, the unusual Old Testament theme of the northern rose window, the possible inspiration the Gothic window subjects draw from the glazing program of the earlier cathedral, and what she persuasively characterizes as the "authoritative and ceremonial affirmation" of the glazing program as a whole (239). One might not agree with all of the original analyses offered here, but anyone will find this a stimulating study that fully succeeds in highlighting the importance and novelty of this key Gothic cathedral's medieval stained glass.



1. See further discussion of this point in William W. Clark, "Reading Reims, I. The Sculptures on the Chapel Buttresses," Gesta 39 (2000), 143, n. 9.

Article Details

Author Biography

Elizabeth Carson Pastan

Emory University