15.05.08, Weaver and Caviness, The Ancestors of Christ Windows

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Mary B. Shepard

The Medieval Review 15.05.08

Weaver, Jeffrey, and Madeline H. Caviness. The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013. pp. 104. ISBN: 9781606061466 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Mary B. Shepard
University of Arkansas-Fort Smith
Mary.Shepard@uafs.edu

Eclipsed today by the aura of Thomas Becket and the vicissitudes of deterioration and reinstallation, the twelfth-century Ancestor of Christ Windows of Canterbury Cathedral are too frequently overlooked. Most online visitor guides, for example, follow the model of www.tourist-information-uk.com, which touts the cathedral's stained-glass windows as a monolithic block. Certainly in my own undergraduate teaching, I have focused on Gervase's account of the rebuilding of the choir in tandem with the extraordinary setting for the shrine of Thomas Becket at the east end of the cathedral building. The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral by Jeffrey Weaver, Associate Curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Madeline H. Caviness, Mary Richardson Professor Emeritus at Tufts University, should inspire us to broaden our focus. As a modestly sized but elegantly designed and illustrated book, it reminds us all--in this digital age--that codices have a unique power to convey the beauty of original works of art in a tangible, material way; books such as this palpably spark our curiosity and, in turn, inspire us to see these magnificent medieval masterpieces in the original. The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral makes us think afresh.

The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral was published in conjunction with the special exhibition, Canterbury and St Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister, on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles from the end of 2013 to February 2014. The exhibition, without the St. Albans Psalter, was retitled Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at The Cloisters and shown from February to May 2014 in New York City, at The Cloisters--The Metropolitan Museum of Art's branch museum devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. In these exhibition contexts The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral functioned as an effective catalog. I viewed the exhibition in New York and can well imagine visitors looking and then retreating to a perch in one of the adjoining cloisters to read, and then returning to look again more knowledgably. The exhibition developed out of the pressing need for structural reconstruction of the Great South Window of Canterbury Cathedral, where a number of the Ancestor of Christ Windows are now housed. A "lump of the tracery" had fallen from the window in 2009, resulting in a thorough examination of the stonework--revealing cracks and instability. [1] According to the cathedral's web site (www.canterbury-cathedral.org/2014/04/07/the-great-south-window/), the entire window has been dismantled and new stone moldings are being carved using limestone from France, as had been done originally. Some of the stained glass demounted from the window during construction is available for public viewing in the crypt of the cathedral; six of the Ancestor figures traveled to the United States as part of this special exhibition. The glass is expected to be reinstalled at the end of 2015.

While, on the one hand, The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral was prompted by the American exhibition of a select number of demounted ancestor figures, this also is a book that stands on its own. It is aimed at the interested general reader (and would be very successful with students), but scholars will find much to glean from it as well. It is organized in three sections. Weaver has contributed two chapters: one on the overarching context for the Ancestor Windows within the historical and religious program of the cathedral; the other specifically highlights the panels comprising the exhibition. Caviness wrote the culminating essay: a stimulating examination of the visual concept of lineage and ancestry in the twelfth century.

The additive architecture of Canterbury Cathedral can be difficult to grasp for someone who has not walked it, and Weaver does an admirable job of not only providing a comprehensible 'lay of the land,' but of articulating how the Ancestor of Christ Windows in the clerestory lights originally circumnavigated and unified the cathedral's eastern spaces, including the choir, eastern transepts, presbytery, and Trinity Chapel--the site of Becket's shrine. Here, text and image work together to convey the dimensions and layout of these complex spaces (Fig. 6, on p. 16, is particularly successful in this regard).

Synthesizing earlier scholarship by Caviness, Sandy Heslop, and Francis Woodman, Weaver skillfully articulates how much the Canterbury we see today was built upon traditions of the past. This is particularly true of the Ancestor of Christ Windows, which replaced a glazing in the previous choir built during the time of St. Anslem (c. 1093-1107) and may have continued an earlier twelfth-century iconographic program (19). So much of Canterbury is innovative, particularly in the Trinity Chapel, that it is essential to keep in mind the role played by the cathedral's history and the value that was placed on continuity--particularly in the early years of Gothic architecture.

Weaver's lucid discussion of the three distinct glazing campaigns for the Ancestor of Christ Windows segues nicely to Caviness's subsequent analysis of the pictorialization of Christ's genealogy in the twelfth century. Each ancestor--Jared, Lamech, Noah, Phalec, Thara, and Abraham--is thoughtfully analyzed, including their place in Christ's genealogy, distinguishing style and composition, and relationship to contemporary manuscript illumination. And in this regard, the superb color photographs deserve special mention. Their clarity allows a reading all their own. Not only do we grasp the whole of the composition, but we revel in the details--from the skin folds of the finger joints to the bold gestural strokes of the drapery folds. The hair of Jared (cover and p. 48), for example, is revealed to be pulled tautly across the crown of his head only to burst into waves of tightly sprung curls around the sides of his face. His glance is purposeful and direct, as is the arching crook of his index figure.

Weaver encourages this kind of close looking by highlighting elements that are too frequently overlooked. For example, his insights into costume choices allow us to see the robes and buskins as far from generic trappings. As Janet Synder has demonstrated in her work on early French Gothic monumental sculpture, clothing in twelfth-century art can carry historical meaning and make contemporary associations. At Canterbury, the ancestors' attire does both. Similarly, borders--an integral component of window design--are given significant weight, with full-page color images. As a result, the reader gains an appreciation of the overall sumptuousness of these monumental paintings, which were meant not only to be seen and to be read, but to dazzle the viewer. The clerestory windows thus shaped a viewing environment at the "heart of the cathedral" (11) where the past and present were fused with the spiritual timelessness of sacrifice.

And just when the reader feels comfortable with the glass, Madeline Caviness--the foremost scholar on the stained glass of Canterbury Cathedral--ups the ante. Her essay does what good essays do: she challenges us to see things in another way. The depiction of the "male ancestors of Christ" (69) are specifically addressed in terms of how their different "viewing communities" interpreted this genealogical sequence encircling the upper reaches of the cathedral. She suggests that for the resident community this glazing program was a visual recitation of the sung liturgy, while to external visitors it served to confirm the authority of the church. She observes that Jews, who enjoyed a generally cooperative relationship with the cathedral community, could see themselves in the ancestor windows. But what of the fundamental female role in creating a genealogy? Caviness both probes the widespread presentation of Christ's ancestry (outside of the Virgin Mary) as a fundamentally male expression, but she also contrasts this approach with fascinating manuscript cycles (such as a thirteenth-century Armenian Gospel book [Baltimore, Walters MS W.539] and the twelfth-century Beatus of Saint-Sever [Paris, BnF MS lat. 8878]) that include Patriological consorts. Absence of women is her theme, particularly the choice of female exclusion.

If I have any quibbles with this splendid book it would be about the briefness of Weaver's discussion of the history of the Ancestor of Christ Windows, including their removal from their original installations and their repositioning in the Great West and South Windows of the cathedral. For scholars, reuse and reinstallation are familiar journeys taken in the lives of medieval works of art--not so for many of the readers of this book. Even more could have been done here to illuminate the history of these windows at Canterbury and how their location in the cathedral changed over the years. It is easy to 'arm-chair quarterback' a book like this and I am mindful that many pressures may have been brought to bear on what its contents would entail. Yet, having seen the surprisingly corrosive state of the panels exhibited in New York, I also wish that a nod to conservation issues involving these windows would have been included. These comments, however, do not diminish the richness to be found in The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral, particularly in how it reframes our thinking about the Canterbury glazing program. This book keeps our eye on the object and reminds us, at the end of the day, of the genius of the twelfth-century glass painters working at Canterbury.

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Note:

1. See the online article "Canterbury Cathedral: Great South Window" (1 September 2013) in Natural Stone Specialist for an extended account of the work being done: http://www.naturalstonespecialist.com/currentissue/unlockednewsarticle.php?id=6316.

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