I think everyone responds to the glowing, liquid beauty of glass, with its essence of light playing through it in magical ways. I have always felt that, for instance, one of the most amazingly rapturous places for stained glass in the world is Chartres Cathedral.
My introduction to Chartres was walking into the Cathedral, cleared of all pews, as part of a student pilgrimage on foot from Paris. The afternoon sun was streaming in, blue, scarlet, gold, but it was the overall impression of the blue that I remember. It was the most magical serious introduction to stained glass, all the more amazing because most of it dates from the early 13th century.
Later, back in Paris, I learnt to love Sainte Chapelle's windows equally, but there, the slenderness of the stone structure adds to the extraordinary magic of the stained glass. Despite its almost secular feel today, the stained glass takes one back to times when this was the chapel built by King Louis IX in the 1230-40s to house his scared relics, including Christ's Crown of Thorns. Only the most wondrous of structures was worthy of such sacred objects.
I was recently reminded of the magical sensations that these stained glass windows engendered in me while I was reading a truly beautiful book, Stained and Art Glass. A Unique History of Glass Design and Making, by Judith Neiswander and Caroline Swash. The depth and breadth of the contents are impressive and of course fascinating, taking the reader from the earliest glass making up to 2004, (the book was published in 2005), in North America, Europe, Australia and Asia.
As the use of glass in architecture and in objets d'art increased in the last century, with new materials, techniques and a hugely increased interest in the beauty and properties of glass, so there has also been a divide that has grown up between individuality and more anonymous approaches to glass making. This amazing medieval art form - stained glass - was a group creation, with very few windows ever signed. Church windows told the illiterate faithful about the Scriptures through narrative or symbolism; there were just a few books written on the subject of glass manufacture itself. By the last century, however, glass had become an art form where individuals can become like Dale Chilhuly, often described as the rock star of glass.
In this Neiswander/Swash book, there is an interesting quote by Patrick Reyntiens, a noted British glass artist who translated John Piper's designs into stained glass for Coventry Cathedral, for example. In 1990, writing in The Beauty of Stained Glass, he remarked, "On the one hand, 'art' is the triumph of the individual, the prophetic side of man - the liberation of people's aspirations. It is the guarantee of individuality and personal worth. On the other, 'design' is the expression of the sinews of society, of those activities that hold the whole of the fabric of society together"
I think that this is a really perspicacious remark - it also pertains to every single creative discipline. Every artist endeavours to further his or her individuality, basically in order to survive and succeed in that creative field. We all seek to have our own voice ring out, our own optic and means of expression. Of course, every artist suffers serious pangs of self-doubt and angst, but also learns to follow doggedly that star, that small inner voice that one has to trust. "Aspirations", the "prophetic side of man" - they are the pathways to artistic individuality.
Reyntiens is correct about design being "the sinews of society". One only has to think of the astonishing architecture of our times, the urban planning and design of our burgeoning cities, even the intricacies of software or Web design... There may be individuals who stand out in the design world, but their creations tend more to the impersonal, the machine-made, the anonymous, made on a far larger scale than any artistic creation every could be. In essence, made for the underpinnings of our society.
Glass, stained, etched, blown, cast or shaped, is one of the most perfect media to demonstrate this dichotomy in the world of creativity. It allows artists to excel as individuals, while lending itself to wonderful old and new enhancements to societal life.