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  • Picturing the Celestial City: The Medieval Stained Glass of Beauvais Cathedral
  • Barbara Abou-El-Haj
Picturing the Celestial City: The Medieval Stained Glass of Beauvais Cathedral. By Michael W. Cothren. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2006. Pp. xiv, 277. $85.00.)

The glazing programs of Beauvais cathedral were installed in four campaigns between 1240 and 1340.They form a composite of original glass surviving the catastrophic collapse of the vaults in 1284 and medieval and modern restorations and replacements. The entire ensemble is thoughtfully researched, meticulously observed, and abundantly illustrated in Michael Cothren's book. Intensive iconographic and formal analyses identify local and regional centers of artistic production and distinguish artistic transmission to and from the center, Paris.

The central interpretive frame in this study presents the cathedral as a Eucharistic theater,embracing a unified community of celebrants, patrons, and viewers or worshippers, two terms interchanged throughout the book. Four chapters follow the sequence of glazing campaigns: the Virgin Chapel (1240s); the original windows of the upper choir (ca. 1255–65); their postcollapse repair and refurbishment (1290s); restorations and new windows (1340s). Subsections in each chapter examine architectural and historical settings, conservation, iconography, style, narrative, though the author's approach is overwhelmingly formal.

The axial lancets of the Virgin Chapel depict the Infancy of Christ and Jesse Tree beneath a crucifixion in the small rose, typically presented as the altar offering, a chalice receiving Christ's blood. The windows align with the celebration on the main altar where the Eucharist would have been elevated in the direction of the crucified Christ. This alignment between liturgical celebration and stained-glass framing and articulating the sanctuary is extended along the central, vertical axis to the clerestory windows (chapter 2), where the axial [End Page 337] lancets are dedicated to full figures of the Virgin and Christ Crucified, again as the altar offering, accompanied by the apostles in radiating windows. All are monumental in scale and set within grisaille bands. From the axial chapel of the choir to the towering clerestory, the central Christian narrative of the incarnation and the central service of the Church instituted by Christ and his apostles are thus exceptionally legible. Cothren argues for a self-conscious effort by glass designers and painters to create continuity in design and subject, to unify visually and programmatically surviving, restored, and newly-created glass, to enhance dramatically the cathedral's huge liturgical stage.

Two rebellions in Beauvais coincided with the first and second campaigns. Cothren suggests that the windows to the left of the Virgin lancets in the axial chapel portraying an unidentified bishop-saint and king may have been installed by Bishop Robert de Cressonsacq (1238–48) to mark the resolution of the first rebellion (1232) prompted by Louis IX's imposition of a mayor. Opposite,Theophilus' history completes an ensemble disparate in content and style, partially remedied by the Virgin's reappearance as the intercessor who retrieves Theophilus' pact from the devil. The narrative is presented as a cautionary tale for those who exercise secular power. It is tempting, therefore, to see Theophilus as a negative pendant to the reconciled bishop-saint and king.

The sequence of events in the rebellion of 1266–68, the level of violence, and the extent to which the bishop was party to that violence are noted only to mark an interruption in building. Yet the rebellion testifies to considerable tension between the bishop and members of the commune,which suggests an alternative reading for the expansive depiction in the clerestory of sacred authority. Monumental apostles towering over the celebration of Mass also loomed over congregants, confirming the episcopal power arrogated by doctrine to their successor, so fiercely rejected in the same years.

The interpretive structure for this study assumes that what was enacted in ceremony and painted on glass was entirely benign and reached an undifferentiated, receptive audience in exactly the manner intended. Excepting donors identified by heraldic emblems, viewers, and worshipers remain an undifferentiated mass. The aesthetic unity and perfection of Beauvais's glazing programs argued in this study has as its tacit corollary a seamless community of the faithful. [End Page 338]

Barbara Abou-El-Haj
Binghamton University


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