Abstraction as a Window to the Divine

Churches in Europe are part historical monument, part art, part functional worship space, and part tourist attraction. My daughter Ellie keeps saying “I’ll go into any church,” and I couldn’t agree more. If they’ll let me in, I wanna take a look. We’ve been tracking down a number of churches off the beaten path (well, the normal “tourist” path) here in Paris, and we’ve had a number of surprises: incredible musicians practicing on historic pipe organs, photographs of destruction endured during war years, exquisite high relief sculptures marking the Stations of the Cross, and restored interiors with naves painted dark blue with stars in the Medieval fashion. We haven’t yet felt like any of our stops was a waste of time, and we have barely scratched the surface!

One thing that intrigues me about churches and cathedrals is that they are living, breathing, and evolving spaces. They don’t just stay the same over time. They’ve endured fires, pollution, revolutions, wars, and even remodels that reflect the current fashions and popular aesthetics of various times. They aren’t static. I love the delightful eclecticism of most churches, where you can see everything from a Medieval polychrome wooden statue of the Virgin Mary to a Baroque funerary monument to a sleek altar by modern artists like Goudji.

The Goudji Altar, housing a relic of Saint Clotilde from the Basilica of Sainte Clotilde in Paris, France
Brief video pan of Sainte Clotilde while the organist is practicing. Gorgeous instrument made by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in the 19th C.

One of the things I get most excited about is when I see modern, abstract stained glassed windows. I love original windows, but so few of them survive. Why not update them? I find the juxtaposition of the abstract windows in a much older space jarring enough that I tend to contemplate them more and just soak up the beauty made possible by painted glass and light. And yes, I am now finally to the actual point of this post–using abstraction as a means to communicate the intangible and divine.

There is a lovely Gothic church in the Latin quarter by the name of Saint-Séverin with an astounding set of abstract windows by French avant-garde artist Jean Bazaine (1904-2001). The theme is the Seven Sacraments, and each is given a scriptural reference so technically, they are semi-abstract, since you are given a clue as to the intention of the windows. One of my favorites is the Baptism window, which offers the reference of Corinthians 10: 1-2:

“…I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea;

And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea;”

Corinthians 10:1-2

There are no direct visual references to baptism, except perhaps the predominance of blue, suggesting water. If you didn’t know the reference, you might just enjoy the window for the aesthetic beauty of it alone. But with the reference, the window invites you to contemplate baptism. What might that mean? It depends completely on you, the viewer. Perhaps you would be reminded of your own baptism, or the baptism of a loved one. Maybe your thoughts are drawn to the baptism of Christ and you contemplate His example. Or perhaps your thoughts take a more theological turn, and you ponder the meaning and purpose of baptism–on becoming a member of God’s church and having your sins washed away. For many, abstraction communicates emotions through shapes and colors. What does baptism feel like? That’s the beauty of abstraction–you aren’t told what to think or even clearly directed with exact images. It’s both an inward and intimate experience for patient and open viewers. Art historian Aaron Rosen notes, “Indeed, when it comes to representing concepts like eternity or infinity, or conjuring states of terror or ecstasy, sometimes works of art with no apparent religious symbolism can be the most effective” (Art & Religion in the 21st Century, p. 17). Paired with the church’s font, this chapel took my breath away.

Jean Bazaine, “Baptism,” Saint-Severin, Paris, France

Jean Bazaine was an artist who turned to abstraction because it fit his spiritual imperatives, saying,  “Art at all periods has always been non-figurative… the destiny of the world is not a choice between ‘figurative’ and ‘non-figurative’ but between the incarnate and the non-incarnate, which is very different” (Bazaine: Notes sur la Peinture).  For spiritually minded artists compelled to create abstract art, adequately expressing the essence of the non-incarnate–the intangible truths or divine transcendent–is often a primary motivation.

There are many examples of modern, abstract windows in churches in France. Just as a sample, check out a series by Claude Courageux from Saint-Gervais, another church in Paris associated with a monastery. As you can see, this is a Biblical series with words along the bottom of some of them. To me, these feel very cosmic and epic, with the grand, dramatic gestures.

Before signing off, the last thing I would like to point out is that stained glass is in fact an important *painting* medium. Many of my students think that “stained glass” windows are created like a jigsaw puzzle of cut, colored class. While there are sometimes aspects of this, they are more often than anything painted glass. Painters use a special kind of paint called vitreous paint, which is basically full of tiny glass particles that fuse to the glass when the windows are fired in a kiln. There are many varying techniques involved in creating stained glass, but that is one of the primary ones. No painting medium is so reliant on light to “work.” Considering the divine associations with “light,” isn’t stained glass the perfect medium for churches?

Until next time!

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