I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I am also using it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone.
Suggestions welcome!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Shameless Request for Assistance: Medievalist Stained Glass

I have a theory. And a deadline. Not the most comfortable collocation.

The theory is that many medievalist films shy away from representing "real" or "realistic" medieval stained glass when they show interiors of churches. There are a number of possible reasons for this:
  • technical: "real" medieval windows can seem very dark
  • practical: (a) they might distract from the main action and (b) their scale and point of view is all wrong for the big screen
  • respectful: real medieval stained glass shows Biblical imagery that sits uncomfortably, potentially, with the chivalric ethos that dominates much medievalist film
  • ideological: (a) real medieval stained glass would risk interpellating the viewer as Christian; and (b) the medieval church is often presented as corrupt and forbidding, not joyful and celebratory
  • aesthetic: movies like their churches to appear either austere and cold (Name of the Rose), not full of riotous colour; or lit by candles: e.g. the wedding scene in Camelot
  • stylistic: medievalist movies prefer abstract or new age symbolism to Christian symbols (The Magic Sword: Quest for Camelot; Excalibur?)
There are a few other things I want to talk about here: Vincent Ward said, for example, that when making the coloured stock parts of The Navigator he wanted to use a colour palette that drew on the vivid reds and blues of medieval stained glass. I also want to talk about the scene in the Tale of Beryn where the Pardoner and the Miller try and decipher the stained glass images in Canterbury Cathedral.

What I have to do now is watch as many medieval movies as I can in a short time. And it is here, dear readers, that I would welcome your input, whether it seems to confirm my theory or not.

What can you remember about the representation of stained glass, or glass in churches, in medievalist movies?

Srsly, my deadline is very tight; and this is for prospective publication in an on-line format later this year. I wouldn't normally present such half-baked ideas on the blog; and am just going to risk someone thinking this is a good idea for an essay and writing it instead. I reckon I can do this faster than just about anyone, anyway!

I'll be very happy to credit assistance, either by name or pseudonym, as you prefer.


Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I like the opening sequence of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, in which the stained glass is used to tell the back story -- but that tale is 100% secular, and the stained glass is so stylized and vibrant there is nothing medieval about it ... and yet there is everything medieval about it.

genevieve said...

Gee, Stephanie, that sounds like an excellent excuse to watch Excalibur again :-) but it sounds like you have that covered.
Is there anything else you want checked out? I could do with some film research for a change.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Genevieve, I was just thinking that exact same thing (the excuse) about Heath Ledger and Rufus Sewell -- any stained glass in A Knight's Tale? And what about those Pasolinis?

kvond said...


If you would accept the musing of a non-Medievalist, I like your theory intuitions quite a bit. As a sidenote of it, it calls to mind my own sense that medieval glass was the "cinema" of its day, it's own technicolor, narrative, affective lightshow which surely must have dazzled in the way that early century cinema once did. In some of your thesis points I get the implicit sense that contemporary cinema simply wishes to not engage archaic cinema, a kind of refusal or impossibility of looking down its own dark hole.

This is notably absent, as are many of your points, in a film like Andrei Rublev, whose entire project is to connect image making itself (if we allow a substitution of icon for glass, and even then it is not until the end of the film that we see the magnificent products, perhaps realizing that the entire film was stained glass of a kind).

Karl Steel said...

Sadly, all I can remember, and that possibly incorrectly, is a scene w/ stained glass in The Seventh Seal. I'd guess, however, that were SS in color, and if my memory is correct, it'd serve as a rare counterexample to the pattern you've observed.

Karl Steel said...

And another less-than-helpful suggestion....

although it's been 15 years since I saw it, Anchoress should be a good place to check for the presence or absence of stained glass. She's walled up in a church, after all. I'd guess that this will fit all of your criteria.

Janice said...

Check out "Ladyhawke" -- I reviewed the final scene and the stained glass window imagery isn't "front and centre" but it plays an important part in the story. The central section of the window is destroyed to let the eclipse be visible for the climax so there are several shots of the window that might be of us to your work!

meli said...

hmmmm... the only medievalish movieish thing i've seen recently is the entire cadfael series... that's set in a monastery (so a christian context) but i don't remember any imagery of stained glass. could be wrong though...

Myra Seaman said...

Your reference, Karl, to Anchoress encouraged me to recall various key interior scenes from the movie (which I can't believe you've not seen in 15 years! I do love it for so many reasons, one of which is the way students respond in total shock and sometimes horror to it). I'm having a hard time seeing stained glass in that film, however much it would suit aesthetically, given its size. If there IS stained glass, it would be there to make a particular modern point, I should think.

Eileen Joy said...

Embarrassingly, I am nothing of a medievalism film expert, but I did work in film at one point and I do know that many decisions are made on a set that have to do with how something looks on camera, with particular lighting, etc., which makes me inclined to accept the "technical" and "practical" theses [what does the DP think about how it *looks*? in other words]. Also, from knowing that, with many medievalistic and other historical films, historical "experts" are often hired to help with set design, props, costumes, etc., and that these "experts" often can't get anything right, is hysterically funny. But my classicist friends also tell me that the accuracies [set and setting-wise] of HBO's "Rome" were pretty amazingly right on.

kvond's comment also reminds me that "Andrei Reblev" is, perhaps, my favorite medievalistic film. I taught it in 2005 and want to watch it again. It has one of the most realistic representations of what happens when marauding warriors raze a village to the ground. The film was banned in Russia when it first came out.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Neither here nor there, but I think Dario Argento's lighting, especially in Suspiria perhaps, puts the stained glass back into cinema.

Would be interesting if Eisenstein filmed any stained glass, as he was apparently influenced re: montage by Ignatius of Loyola, filmic devotio moderna etc. Anna K. knows more about this.

Karl Steel said...

But my classicist friends also tell me that the accuracies [set and setting-wise] of HBO's "Rome" were pretty amazingly right on.Although w/ something like Gladiator, there's a clear Chromophobia going on, given the (ahistorical) sterile white of the marble.

Insofar as it's appropriate to talk about this w/ a B&W film, the same thing is clearly going on in Alexander Nevsky. It's as if all their set designers were 12th-c. Cistercians.

Jonathan Hsy said...

What about Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" ? Very self-conscious incorporation of religious iconography here, esp. when the Demi Moore gypsy character sings "God Help the Outcasts" to the enigmatically non-responsive statue of the Virgin Mary (also votive candles, parishioners at prayer - and vibrant closing shot of stained glass and rose window). Of course, the religious iconography foregrounds dramatic irony in this case - gypsy woman and/or hunchback are depicted as "more virtuous" than white/normative Christians- but interesting nonetheless.


Jonathan Hsy said...

On "Hunchback" - strange that this is one moments when elements of the cathedral architecture are "static." Elsewhere, bells ring, gargoyles move/talk; I think stillness = reverence here.

Vellum said...

Apologies if you've already considered this, but one thing you might want to keep in mind in your analysis is the type of movie and its intended audience -- so a pop-culture movie might represent stained glass in a completely different way than an art film or a romance or what-have-you. If, that is, you can get a large enough sample size to test that.

stray said...

Count me among those willing to be enlisted, if there's a title to be checked out and I can find it fast enough.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Amazing! You guys are incredible!

This is all tremendously useful; both in terms of detailed suggestions about specific films; and more general reflections on methodological issues, esp. Vellum and Kvond.

I'll try and post again about this in a few days: a kind of experiment about how an essay develops through this kind of conversation, perhaps.

Genevieve and Stray; thanks so much for offering to help. Let me have a think and a look around. Frankly, any detailed description of anything will be useful at this stage!

LanglandinSydney said...

Stephanie, what about wall paintings? That probably had a much greater impact upon more churchgoers than stained glass did in general --for one, probably a lot more widespread, for another, not so reliant upon just the right angle of the sun. Obviously since they're about all gone now, they don't appear in any medievalist films: but wow!

thiel said...

I am straying far from your initial request, egged on by reference to wall paintings and your own nod to pilgrims decoding stained glass in the Tale of Beryn, but the first book of the Aeneid has come to mind, in which Aeneas arrives in Carthage only to see his own city's (mis)adventures artistically depicted: he stops there, dumbly, "devouring what he saw so well design'd/ and with an empty picture fed his mind." Of course there are plenty of medieval examples of this learning-from-art trope.

Andrew Stephenson said...


In A Knight's Tale there are two scenes in cathedrals. The first one, at Rouen, shows nothing really. The second one, in Notre Dame (at 1:14), has stained glass windows set in the aisle wall in wide shot, but this is all done on a set and the windows are done with blue screen.

In Indian Jones and the Last Crusade (does this count?), at 0:26 there is the 'X Marks the Spot' scene. The window in the church/library is an important feature and is central to unlocking the code. The central figure is a knight with his shield, with flanking devotional figures (all mocked up for the film, of course).

I've not seen Angels and Demons yet, but my recollection of The Da Vinci Code is that it is full of important symbols and signs, so it might be worth quarrying.

Have fun,

Andrew S.

Matt said...

Minor note to this interesting discussion. Like Karl, I too thought there was a stained glass sequence in Seventh Seal. Turns out, the sequence dwells on a church mural, still in process, which the painter's named "The Dance of Death" There's certainly no veering away here, though.

Ceirseach said...

The only thing that occurs to me, aside from Hunchback, is the Black Knight riding his horse in through the stained-glass window to the banquet hall in episode 9 of Merlin. But a) not a church, since they avoid the question of religion overall, and b) the glass's significance is pretty much Something Pretty And Dramatic To Smash. You could also read it as being a challenge to the secular power of Uther's court, but it's a fair way from your topic, I think.

It's about 1:15 here. The window itself exists in the castle of Pierrefonds where they filmed the series, though the smashing is all CGI, of course.