In a previous blog piece, I mentioned the habit some renaissance painters had, of painting saints and other figures from the religious past in landscapes which would be recognisable to the viewers. The background of this image of St. Jerome, for example, is apparently a town near where the picture was painted.
As I suggested, it gives an odd effect to the painting, as if the viewer were standing with the saint, looking back at the town they know, bringing the two worlds into collision. There’s even potential for this to be noticed by the person looking at the painting with a shock of recognition: they thought they were standing in that town, looking into a painting, when they see that they’re actually looking “through the painting” back at the town where they’re standing.
I was reminded of this sitting in church last Sunday. I worship at St. John the Baptist, the parish church in Beeston, a small town which became something of a suburb of Nottingham. The seat where the acolytes sit is next to one of my favourite stained-glass windows in the church, and during part of the liturgy I found myself looking at it. The part by me is an image of the Last Supper – closest to the seat is this angel (nicknamed by me the “sulkeh-pretteh seraph”)
The rest of the window looks like this:
I’m often caught by the intricate details on the garments of the disciples around the table, or the expressions on their faces, but that Sunday I looked at the background. I’d never noticed before that there’s a bit of landscape sketched in the upper corner, beyond the archway:
I looked closer, to find what appeared to be exactly the kind of building I’d seen in the paintings at the Ashmolean. Christ and the disciples were having their meal in a foreground, whilst some Tuscan castle or other loomed vaguely behind them. The artist of this window, installed in the 1850s, had been influenced by the art of the Italian renaissance and added this little detail to our Nottinghamshire window.
But then l looked again at the castle, and something about the shape of it reminded me of another kind of building. When I had time, I went to find those buildings, which are about five minutes’ walk up the road from the church. This are the Anglo-Scotian Mills, one of the local centres of the lace industry which made Nottingham prosperous in the Victorian period.
This can’t be the actual building the artist intended to depict in the window, since the stained glass was produced in the 1850s, and this particular mill wasn’t built until the 1890s. But it was the kind of building the window had reminded me of, and there were similar lace factories in Beeston and Nottingham all through the nineteenth century. The quarter of the city known as the Lace Market is now full of chic apartments inside Victorian industrial buildings.
I’m absolutely delighted by this possibility: that the artist of the window in Beeston parish church took the convention from Renaissance religious painting of setting Biblical scenes in recognizable landscapes, and put a tiny collection of lace factory buildings in the corner of the Last Supper. If this is the case, anyone looking at this window is seeing Christ and his disciples sharing the meal which the Gospels describe, whilst also embedded in the history, the economy and the politics of the town.
This raises more questions than it answers, of course. The most famous appearance of factories in hymns is the “dark Satanic mills” of Blake’s “Jerusalem”: what kind of contrasting vision does this present of them in the religious life of Victorian Beeston? To those who noticed this detail in the window, would they have represented the power of the local factory-owners, the familiar workplace which paid the bills, a blot on the modern landscape, or all of these to different people? Given the Methodist beliefs of several mill owners in Beeston, and the chapels built explicitly for their workers, what does a lace mill in a stained glass window imply about the internal politics of Christianity in this Victorian town?
I’m willing to be told I’m wrong, of course, and that this is actually a slightly unusual shape of Italian castle. Or even not a particularly unusual one. I may be rushing into this theory because I am so fascinated by the possibilities it opens up. It is, of course, only speculation, and a speculation caused by a technique observed in the religious art of another era. But it is an intriguing idea, that the artist chose to sketch a lace mill in the background of Christ and the disciples breaking the bread at the Last Supper.