The Windows of St John’s Church

Iris Aspinall Priest

“Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me! A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time. If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me! If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift! If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world Like a fine, an exquisite chisel…”(1)

It’s a misty spring morning, hoards of snow drops wave their bowed heads as the car speeds past on our way to Healey in Northumberland where Anne Vibeke Mou and James Hugonin have installed two new windows in St John’s Church.
        As Anne drives us through this scene of quintessential English countryside (think Midsomer Murders meets James Herriot) something both inconspicuous and charged with magic occurs. I had asked Anne how long it had taken to create the window and she explains about the month-long process and of using a particular, metal-pointed tool to painstakingly pierce the glass pane with thousands of tiny notches. As she talks, she mimes the action of the delicate, precise tap upon the glass illustrating it with a perfect imitation of the sound “cht.”. All at once that action and that sound, so embedded and perfectly reproduced here upon the air, charge the space with latency, with unrealized substance, invoked by that ‘chipping’ of the transparency between us and the world. To anyone who may have happened to glance into the car at that moment, this seemingly inconsequential action would have belied a much greater significance…
        Generally I find churches an intimidating embodiment of organised religion: uninviting, cloistered and incomprehensible. St John’s on the other hand appeared, even from the outset, like none of these things but rather a tenderly idiosyncratic place with its unusually sculpted shrubbery and the vestry tower which appeared almost as though it had been ‘tacked on’ as an after thought. Originally built by Quakers to serve the community, it is still used by the small community as a hub for social gathering, a point for the exchange of ideas and ceremony.
        It was interesting to reflect as we entered the church that neither of the artists commissioned to work on the new windows for St John’s believe in a deterministic God. Though quite often their work (and the work of some of the other artists in the Chance Finds Us group) is likened to a kind of Naturalistic Pantheism, there is no religious impetus to their practice. But the processes through which the work is created – which are lengthy, hermetic and rigorous – and the pace they invite the viewer to engage with the work in (meditatively, quietly carried upon the visual flux of an immense and intricate system of marks, with a sense of the time invested in their creation) does bear parallels to a kind of metaphysical endeavour or meditation. But the choice of commission was not dictated by a wholly religious credos but is instead part of a tradition (from early in St. John’s history) of commissioning artists of the time to create work indicative of their time.
        The first window we arrive at is Anne Vibeke Mou’s Untitled (Point engraving, 1270 x 365mm). And it is now that the magical precision of her mimed action in the car is re-invoked and crystallized. Before us, suspended between us and the world beyond the arched window, is a vaporous, veil-like cloud comprising thousands of minutiae indentations. The effect in the dull light of this March morning is of such subtlety that the work appears to be hovering on the periphery of being and non-being, between something and nothingness. I’m reminded of the quote, the philosophical maxim “why is there something rather than nothing?” (Leibniz). This something, although it is a fixed entity or a phenomena (fixed by physical and metaphorical means) is an manifestation of something which cannot be depicted. It is a trigger to a metaphysical beyond, rather than a crystallization of reality. The image itself is entirely changeable depending upon the external factors of weather conditions, the play of light, and the state of mind of the person viewing it. Sometimes the work can be liminal, almost not there at all (when the light outside and within the church is balanced), or else a dazzling, numinous entity when it refracts and reflects the sunlight directly. It is a work in a constant state of flux, subject to momentary and chance encounters or changes. In this window there is a process and a material that almost isn’t there ; the tiny chips at the surface of the glass are a way of subtracting to create form, to manipulate the refraction and reflection of light …The dedicated action involved, this method of mark making is essential to the formation or crystalization of a cloud, a weather system, an unrepresentable phenomena.
        Jamie Warde-Aldam the current church warden who commissioned the new windows explained the choice of artists because of the way in which their work is something to be discovered, explored and meditated upon (rather than being prescriptive or didactic):

“…James Hugonin and Anne Vibeke Mou, were chosen for a number of reasons, the most important being that the work invites contemplation…a poise, stillness and seriousness that hints at the sublime.”

        The durational quality of Mou’s window (both in process of creation and as experienced by the viewer) is mirrored in the encounter with James Hugonin’s window Contrary Rhythm (Glass) (Glass with Lead Border, 1292 x 385 x 17mm). In the morning light, the palette of dancing colours (yellows, ambers, blues, blacks and pinks) was muted and became defined as much by the opacity/ translucence of the juxtaposed rectangular pieces as by their colour relationships. Gazing at the brilliant, fluctuating window (somewhat dumb struck) it seemed somehow impossible to fix it, to see it all at once. The detail and position of the window (both low and close enough for the viewer to step up to) seemed to invite a more intimate inspection, upon which it became apparent that these coloured units – unlike in his paintings – hovered between the lines of the double grid structure. The individual rectangles of coloured glass varied incredibly in colour and opacity; some were flashed, others entirely transparent, some bearing the bubbles of the glass-blowers breath. Again the fine balance between the deliberate, chance and pseudo-chance appeared to be at play; how was this modulating, seemingly random arrangement composed?
        Contemplating the selection and tabulation of the pieces within the grid, it occurred to me that perhaps they were (like Anne’s Untitled) an arrested moment of a greater, dynamical system. An incomprehensible system which extended beyond the accessible, beyond visibility itself. Whereas the phenomena in Untitled was fixed and defined by tiny, repeated fractures, in Contrary Rhythm (Glass) the marks, the lexis of the piece is that of pure colour. Just as maths and science rely upon signs, numbers and language to distil, make manifest and circumnavigate the infinite complexities of the universe, in Hugonin’s grid it is the units of colour and tone which barely clothe the infinite. But unlike those previously cited ‘natural sciences’ Contrary Rhythm (Glass) does not attempt to define or explain, but rather to make manifest a glimpse of something ultimately beyond what is representable, to encourage a subjective, changeable contemplation of that beyond.
        Science attempts to apply system and order to the potentially infinite complexities of the universe. As does organised religion. Whereas stained glass windows in the past were originally used to provide everyone in the community with religious iconography that could exist without reliance on the written word (and therefore providing access to religion previously available only to the literate middle classes), these windows vault from the outmoded, illustrative forms of the past to offer a new kind of key to those ‘inner’ universes “Immensity is within ourselves…” as Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Space. They are not explicit, didactic or resolved, but instead open, evocative and meditative.
        In thinking about the permanence of these pieces, that aspect seemed integral to the work. As Anne remarked as we left the church

“…they’ll exist as people are born, christened, get married and are buried… that’s why it’s so important that people don’t completely ‘get’ them… people can live with them for a life time and still be discovering them… they provide the tools but not the answers…”

Iris Aspinall Priest © March 2011
The Windows of St John’s Church

(1) D.H. Lawrence, Song of a Man Who Has Come Through