Diaper Patterns in Antique Mosaic Windows

Diaper Patterns in Antique Mosaic Windows

Diaper and other patterns in antique and ancient mosaic windows.

Craftsman Style

Something, however, had to be done to prevent especially the whites, yellows, and pale blues, and in some degree all but the dark colours, from taking more than their due part in the general effect. It was not always possible to reduce the area of the glass of an aggressive tint to the dimensions required. To have reduced a line of white, for example, to the narrowness at which it would tell for what was wanted, would have been to make it so narrow that the accumulation of dust and dirt between the leads would soon have clogged it and blotted it out altogether. What they did was to paint it heavily with pattern. For example, they would paint out great part of a white line and leave only a row of beads, with so much paint between and around them that certainly not more than one-third of the area of the glass was left clear, and the effect at the right distance (as at Angers) would be that of a continuous string of pearls. They would in the same way paint a strip of glass solid, and merely pick out a zigzag or some such pattern upon it, with or without a marginal thread of light on each side (Le Mans). Rather than lower the brightness of the glass by a tint of pigment they would coat it with solid brown, and pick out upon it a minute diaper of cross-hatched lines and dots, by that means reducing the volume of transmitted light without much interfering with its purity (S. Remi, Reims, below). Diaper of more interesting kind afforded a ready means of lowering shades of glass which were too light or too bright for the purpose required, and for supplying in effect the deficiencies of the pot-metal palette.

S Remi, Rheims
S Remi, Rheims.

Below are some fragments of diaper pattern so picked out, from Canterbury, which would possibly never have been devised if the designer had had to his hand just the shade of blue glass he wanted. Something certainly of the elaboration of pattern which distinguishes the earliest glass comes of the desire to qualify its colour. Viollet le Due endeavours to explain with scientific precision which are the colours which spread most, and how they spread. His analysis is useful as well as interesting; but absolute definition of the effect of radiation is possible only with regard to a rigidly fixed range of colours to which no colourist would ever confine himself. A man gets by experience to know the value of his colours in their place, and thinks out his scheme accordingly. He puts, as a matter of course, more painting into pale draperies than into dark, and so on; but to a great extent he acts upon that subtle sort of reasoning which we call feeling. Intuition it may be, but it is the intuition of a man who knows.

Poitiers Cathedral
Poitiers Cathedral.

The simple method of early execution went hand in hand with equal simplicity of design the one almost necessitated the other and the earlier the window the more plainly is its pattern pronounced, light against dark, or, less usually, (as in some most interesting remains of very early glass from Chalons now at the Musee des Arts Decor atifs at Paris) in full, strong colour upon white. In twelfth century work especially, figures and ornament alike are always frankly shown en silhouette. Witness the design on pages 33 and 115. Similar relief or isolation of the figure against the background is shown in the thirteenth century bishops, occupying two divisions of a rose window at Salisbury, on page 275; and again in the little subject from Lyons, where S. Peter is being led off by the gaoler to prison.

Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral.

In proportion as the aim of the artist becomes more pictorial he groups his figures more in clumps (you see indications of that at Canterbury), whence comes much of the confusion of effect characteristic of the thirteenth century as it advances, not in this respect in the direction of improvement. In his haste to tell a story he tells it less effectively. Where an early subject is unintelligible (supposing it to be in good preservation) it is almost invariably owing to the figures not being clearly enough cut out against the background. Isolation of the design seems to be a necessary condition of success in glass of the simple, scarcely painted, kind. In ornament, where the artist had nothing to think of but artistic effect, he invariably and to a much later period defined it unmistakably against contrasting colour. That is illustrated on page 117, part of a thirteenth century window at Salisbury, and in the border below, as well as various others of the period, pages 129, 130, and elsewhere.


It is the almost unanimous verdict of the inexpert that the lead lines very seriously detract from the beauty of early windows. How much more beautiful they would be, it is said, without those ugly black lines! Possibly the expert and the lover of old glass have unconsciously brought themselves not to see what they do not want to see; and the leads may, soberly and judiciously speaking, seriously interfere with the form of the design. But, in the first place, the beauty of early glass is in its colour, not in its form. That is very clearly shown in the illustrations to this chapter and the next ; which give, unfortunately, nothing of the beauty and real glory of the glass, but only its design and execution ; they appear perhaps in black and white so merely grotesque, that it may be difficult to any one not familiar with the glass itself to understand why so much should be said in its praise. In reality the lack of beauty, especially apparent in the figure drawing of the early glass painters when reduced to monochrome, taken in conjunction with the magnificent effect of many of the earliest windows (which no colourist has ever yet been known to deny) is proof in itself how entirely their art depended upon colour, colour, it should be added, of a quality quite unapproachable by any other medium than that of translucent glass or actual jewellery. No one who appreciates at anything like its full value the magnificence of that colour will think the interference of occasional lead lines a heavy price to pay for it.

For, and this is the second point to be explained in reference to leading, the leads, were they never so objectionable, are actually the price we pay for the glory of early glass. It is by their aid we get those mosaics of pot-metal, the depth and richness of which to this day, with all our science of chemistry, we cannot approach by any process of enamelling. Moreover, though merely constructional leads, taking a direction contrary to the design, may at times disturb the eye, (they scarcely ever disturb the effect) they add to the richness of the glass in a way its unlearned admirers little dream. Not only is the depth and intensity of the colour very greatly enhanced by the deep black setting of lead, a veritable network of shade in which jewels of bright colour are caught, but it is by the use of a multiplicity of small pieces of glass (instead of a single sheet, out of which the drapery of a figure could be cut all in one piece, the ideal of the ignorant!), that the supreme beauty of colour is reached. Examine the bloom of a peach or of a child's complexion, and see how it is made up of specks of blue and grey and purple and yellow amongst the pink and white of which it is supposed to consist. Every artist, of course, knows that a colour is beautiful according to the variety in it; and a " Ruby " background (as it is usually called), which is made up of little bits of glass of various shades of red, not only crimson, scarlet, and orange, but purple and wine-colour of all shades from deepest claret to tawny port, is as far beyond what is possible in a sheet of even red glass as the colour of a lady's hand is beyond the possible competition of pearl powder or a pink kid glove. Not only, therefore, were the small pieces of glass in early windows, and the consequent leads, inevitable, but they are actually at the very root of its beauty ; and the artificer of the dark ages was wiser in his generation than the children of this era of enlightenment. He did not butt his head against immovable obstacles, but built upon them as a foundation. Hence his success, and in it a lesson to the glazier for all time which was taken to heart (as will be shown presently) by craftsmen even of a period too readily supposed to have been given over entirely to painting upon glass.

Let there be no misunderstanding about what is claimed for the earliest windows. The method of mosaic, eked out with a minimum of tracing in opaque pigment, does not lend itself very kindly to picture; and it is in ornament that the thirteenth century glazier is pre-eminent. There is even something barbaric about the splendour of his achievement. Might it not be said that in all absolutely ornamental decoration there is something of the barbaric?which may go to account for the rarity of real ornament, or any true appreciation of it, among modern people.


We might not have to scratch the civilised man very deep to reach the savage in him., but he is, at all events, sophisticated enough to have lost his unaffected delight in strong bright colours and " meaningless" twistings of ornament. Be that as it may, the figure work of the thirteenth century window designer is distinctly less perfect than his scrolls and suchlike, partly, it is true, because of his inadequate figure-drawing, but partly also because his materials were not well adapted to anything remotely like pictorial representation. The figures in his subjects have, as before said, to be cut out against the background in order to be intelligible. Hence a stiff and ultra-formal scheme of design, and also a certain exaggeration of attitude, which in the hands of a naive and sometimes almost childish draughtsman becomes absolutely grotesque. This is most strikingly the case in the larger figures, sometimes considerably over life-size, standing all in a row in the clerestory lights of some of the great French cathedrals.

The scale of these figures gave opportunity (heads all-of-a-piece show that it did not actually make it a necessity) for glazing the faces in several pieces of glass ; and it was quite the usual thing, as at Lyons (opposite) to glaze the flesh in pinkish-brown, the beard in white or grey or yellow or some dark colour, not seldom blue, which had at a distance very much the value of black, and the eyes in white. Sometimes even, as at Reims, the iris of the eye was not represented by a blot of paint but was itself glazed in blue. The effect of this might have been happier if the lines of the painting had been more of the same strength as the leads, and so strong enough to support them. As it is, the great white eyes start out of the picture and spoil it. They have a way of glaring at you fixedly; there is no speculation in their stare; they look more like huge goggles than live eyes. And it is not these only which are grotesque; the smaller figures in subject windows are, for the most part, rude and crude, to a degree which precludes one, or any one but an archaeologist pur sang, from taking them seriously as figure design. They are often really not so much like human figures as " bogies", ugly enough to frighten a child. What is more to be deplored is that they are so ugly as actually to have frightened away many a would-be artist in glass from the study of them, a study really essential to the proper understanding of his metier; for repellant as those bogey figures may be, they show more effectually than later, more attractive, and much more accomplished painting, the direction in which the glass painter should go, and must go, if he wants to make figures tell, say, in the clerestory of a great church.

Apart from the halo of sentiment about the earliest work, and who shall say how much of that sentiment we bring to it ourselves?, apart from the actual picturesqueness, and how much of that is due to age and accident?, there is in the earliest glass a feeling for the material and a sense of treatment seldom found in the work of more accomplished glass-painters. If there is not actually more to be learnt from it than from later and more consummate workmanship, there is at least no danger of its teaching a false gospel, as that may do.

From the grossest and most archaic figures, ungainly in form and fantastic in feature, stiff in pose and extravagant in action, out of all proportion to their place in the window, there are at least two invaluable lessons to be learnt the value of broad patches of unexpected colour, interrupting that monotony of effect to which the best-considered schemes of ornament incline, and the value of simplicity, directness, and downright rigidity of design. Severity of design is essential to largeness of style; it brings the glass into keeping with the grandeur of a noble church, into tune with the solemn chords of the organ. Modern windows may sometimes astound us by their aggressive cleverness, the old soothe and satisfy at the same time that they humble the devout admirer.

The confused effect of Early glass (except when the figures are on a very large scale) is commonly described as "kaleidoscopic". That is not a very clever description, and it is rather a misleading one. For, except in the case of the rose or wheel windows, common in France, Early glass is not designed on the radiating lines which the kaleidoscope inevitably gives. It is enough for the casual observer that the effect is made up of broken bits of bright colour ; and if they happen to occupy a circular space the likeness is complete to him. But to know the lines on which an Early Gothic window was built, is to see, through all confusion of effect, the evidence of design, and to resent the implication of thoughtless mechanism implied in the word kaleidoscopic. Nevertheless, little as the mediaeval glaziers meant it they were lavish of the thought they put into their art their glass does often delight us, something as the toy amuses children, because the first impression it produces upon us is a sense of colour, in which there is no too definite form to break the charm. There comes a point in our satisfaction in mere beauty (to some it comes sooner than to others too soon, perhaps) at which we feel the want of a meaning in it must find one, or our pleasure in it is spoilt; we even go so far as to put a meaning into it if it is not there ; but at first it is the mysterious which most attracts the imagination.

And even afterwards, when the mystery is solved, we are not sorry to forget its meaning for a while, to be free to put our own interpretation upon beauty, or to let it sway us without asking why, just as we are moved by music which carries us we know not where, we care not.

This is Diaper Patterns in Antique Mosaic Windows.

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