Picturing the Celestial City: The Medieval Stained Glass of Beauvais Cathedral

Picturing the Celestial City: The Medieval Stained Glass of Beauvais Cathedral

by Michael W. Cothren
2006 Princeton University Press, 288 pages, $95
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This is a richly researched and beautifully produced book, welcome among the studies on Beauvais. Stephen Murray’s Beauvais Cathedral: Architecture of Transcendence (1989) gave us a close architectural analysis. Meredith Lillich’s work profiled stained glass of this period in a broad way. In The Armor of Light: Stained Glass in Western France 1250-1325 (1993), she noted many of the trends at Beauvais, especially the mingling of uncolored glass (grisaille) and color. Cothren’s book expands on these studies.

The author examines four successive campaigns: first the three windows of the axial chapel, second, the original glazing of the choir, third the glazing of the upper windows after the collapse of the vaults in 1284, and finally restorations and new windows in the 1340s. It is frustrating that he presents little speculation on what might have been in the other chapels, a total of sixteen windows. Might it have been grisaille, similar to the axial chapel of Auxerre? Precedents are found at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, roughly contemporary with Beauvais. The more complex the architecture, apparently, the more intense the impulse to bring in greater light with uncolored glass.

The three double-lancet windows in the axial chapel that depict a Bishop Saint, Tree of Jesse/Infancy of Christ, and Legend of Theophilus are visibly different. In ninety-six pages, Cothren argues that the variety is related to subject matter. Highly conservative formats of the Jesse Tree/ Infancy window support the use of a retardataire local style. The more progressive Bishop Saint window may refer to all four sainted bishops of the See, as well as the current prelate, Robert de Cressonsacq (bishop 1238-48), very likely the patron. The Bishop Saint window he associates with the cathedral of Rouen, but the Theophilus window with Parisian styles, specifically Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The latter, however, to this reviewer, recalls the three dimensionality of Laon’s windows, which include a Theophilus story (1210-15). This approach to evaluating narrative parallels that of Alyce Jordan in Visualizing Kingship in the Sainte-Chapelle(2002).



Analysis of the second campaign of 1255-65 takes less space. The original glazing of the upper choir that survived the collapse of the vaults in 1284 consists of twelve standing figures. The axial window shows the suffering Christ (Christus patiens), an innovation of the mid–thirteenth century, associated with the new spirituality of the Franciscans and the construction of Paris’s Sainte Chapelle around relics of the Passion. The figures are set in grisaille connecting them to the new “band window” explored by Lillich. The straight bays of the choir would presumably have carried images of prophets or saints (precursors or followers). The original glazing of the triforium was also in uncolored glass, accented with colored bosses and fillets. Grisaille at this time was usually enhanced with neutral paint in leaf designs against crosshatched grounds. Here Cothren ventures some hypotheses about reglazing or the use of temporary windows. Two transept roses whose architecture dates to the late 1220s and early 1230s presumably received their glass between 1255 and 1265; were they replacing a temporary closure or were old windows destroyed to make way for the new? The cathedral’s grisaille is a colorless ground in straight lattice patterns, which Cothren sees as displaying “uncommonly bold and monumental simplicity.” Could the choice also have been cost saving? Later he does suggest that “thrift may have been a motivating factor” during Guillaume’s episcopacy. Indeed to the critic Guillermy visiting in 1858 the display was “completely mediocre,” an assessment that Cothren disputes.

The third and fourth campaigns were engaged in repair. Several extant windows in the chapels, installed in the 1290s after the collapse, reveal the themes of St. Vincent and the Apostles. Here the forms are expressionist and apparently betray different painters operating within a single workshop. The artistic quality of several of the windows is spectacular. The campaign of the 1340s was extensive, producing the most glass that has been left to us. All the openings in the rebuilt straight bays of the choir were filled with band windows. Here prominent donors, including Jean de Marigny (Bishop of Beauvais, 1313-1347) and the Roche Guyon family appear. Same lancets are linked visually to construct narratives of the Stoning of Stephen and the Life of St. Denis, patron saint of France.

Overall, Cothren makes challenging assumptions: that the extraordinary architecture of Beauvais often remained with temporary closings; that stylistic diversity was the norm in the axial chapel, but the “overarching unity” brought a visual continuity to an ensemble built in three separate stages; that in the final campaign of the 1340s, the designers produced windows with deliberate archaisms in an attempt to harmonize the images with those dating almost seventy-five years earlier. These are provocative ideas, but based on extremely thorough research.