‘A Type of Transmuted Divinity’

Volume 51, Issue 1 :: James Hadley

Lycurgus Cultic Cup, Roman, circa 300 C.E.

Lycurgus Cultic Cup, Roman, circa 300 C.E. © Trustees of the British Museum, Used with Permission

As a material that suggests the presence of the divine, glass has no parallel.

If one were to search for an Ur-spirituality of glass in the ancient world, its antecedents would likely be found in the “material” of fire and fire’s observable properties. Anthropologists indicate that Homo erectus adopted the use of fire as a source of warmth, protection, and a method for cooking food. So strong were the effects of fire control that they ushered in one of the first paradigm shifts for evolving humanity; fire allowed for human geographic dispersal, cultural innovations, changes to diet and behavior. Indeed, there is likely a relationship to emerging human consciousness and the advent of religious experience associated with fire. A primitive sense of cause and effect saw in the sun some divine fiery first principle that ruled the world with the binaries of cold/heat and dark/light. Inasmuch as humanoids used fire, they too could approach the divine, they too participated in some way with the divine other located in the flame. This emerging religious consciousness was even more subtle however, as evolutionary biologists have noted the capacity of the chimpanzee to interact with fire with a level of informed manipulation and not simply the animal instinct of fear. Perhaps this psycho-emotional perception of fire was the foundation of religious awe whereby humanoids were provoked to respect and fear, approach and flee, the fire-like divine mystery that was capable of both saving and destroying.

Beyond fire’s mechanical history, the flame developed strong psycho-spiritual associations in the history of human culture, becoming one of the primary and enduring themes of religion. An example of the symbol’s ubiquity is seen throughout the ancient world in the form of the phoenix. From Egypt, to Mesopotamia, to the Orient’s Fenghuang, a bird is born from the fire of the sun, and is said to die and rise from the mystical fire within. In the West, at least by the time of early antiquity, the rudimentary religious symbol of fire is refined along the lines of philosophical and artistic developments. A key clue is found in Greek mythology. Prometheus steals fire from Helios (the sun) and gives it to humanity and in so doing bestows the gift of memory and intelligence—realities found in light itself. Thus fire’s many characteristics are focused upon its capacity to illuminate, a metaphor for sharing in the divine quality of intelligence and wisdom. In this new framework fire specifically is subverted in favor of light with its origin in the sun, moon, and stars. In as much as the material of fire becomes secondary, it should not be surprising that this shift was given new material embodiment. Fire was no longer the focus, as much as a material that could be illuminated with light. In fact, from an etymological perspective it is telling that the primary ceremony to celebrate Prometheus and his gift of light and knowledge was the torch race called the lampadedromia. One sees clearly the derivative connection with lamps, or receptacles of light. It is at this point really that a spirituality of glass emerges per se in the ancient world.

Bøler Church, Oslo, Norway by Hansen-Bjørndal Arkitekter AS, 2011.

Bøler Church, Oslo, Norway by Hansen-Bjørndal Arkitekter AS, 2011.

The antecedent of glass, technologically speaking, was the material of beads and mosaics. Vitreous substances such as beads and smalti (mosaics) were adept at reflecting light. Subsequently, techniques allowed for glass to be composed into objects. Inspired by natural agates and crystalline rocks that were translucent and could be carved into containers, glass work eventually obtained the same application in Ancient Egypt, Syro-Judea, and finally the Roman Empire, where it was mass produced in Alexandria. It was from the furnaces of North Africa in the first century CE that glass was not only manufactured for domestic and sacred utensils but took on an architectural form being used to fill windows for the first time.

These early lamps and cultic cups of onyx, alabaster, and glass were symbolically poignant in a way other vitreous precursors were not. Unlike beads and smalti, translucent containers didn’t simply reflect light; as a matter of science their interior molecular structures actually “contained” light through a process of reflection and refraction. Light simply didn’t glance off the surface, but seemed to rest in the glass and glow outward. As a matter of religious experience, the interior glow of glass was associated with divine light that illuminated the world, the human soul, and the mind. This was most forcefully articulated by the second-century philosopher Plotinus, who argued that the divine principle was not a sun deity, rather it was “the One.” The One spilled out into creation, of which its highest physical manifestation was light. Light was not simply metaphor, but packets of materialized divinity. Glass, therefore, took up its role, especially in Christianity, as the mediating force of this divine substance that, albeit on different levels of reality, both illuminated the human soul with wisdom and made glass glow.

In trying to identify a spirituality of glass today, there is something essential in this historical approach. The capacity of glass to speak of the spiritual is directly related to its ability to visibly mediate light, especially by its capacity to hold light internally. This of course does not happen in industrialized translucent sheet glass, but through seeded, etched, laminated, fused, slumped, and colored craft glass. Perhaps we are shy about accepting Plotinus’ assertion that glass reveals a type of transmuted divinity. But I don’t think we necessarily should be. Switching our metaphorical framework is helpful; Light is both wave and particle simultaneously—the divine both-and. The speed of light in a vacuum is a universal constant—divine subsistence. Light is present even when it cannot be seen—divine omnipresence. Contemporary spirituality tends to see God as the ultimate ground of the universe and inasmuch God is “within” light just as any other material. At the same time, as a material attuned to our primary sense of vision, it has a unique role in our religious experience. Again, a metaphor is necessary. We are vessels that are to be illuminated, just as cultic glass objects glow from their interiors. Drawing from modern science, we might be surprised to know that the quantum physics that govern light play out in our biological realities, even if today we can’t recognize as homo ritualis that the sun governs our lives.

To my way of thinking, glass arts that do not embody light are rather without spirit in our places of worship. Modern transparent float-glass windows simply fail because of their complete passability. They fail to draw attention to the effects of light and simply let the observer visually move beyond. Art glass tends to be more successful, but here too the vocabulary of color or image can override the centrality of light, as in Gerhard Richter’s pixelated window in the Cologne Cathedral. Similarly, mirrored glass in religious architecture seems rather out of place. Besides Philip Johnson’s mammoth Crystal Cathedral, which sought to reflect the California sky and its natural surrounds, such glass is self-referential, simply repeating back what has already been visually queued up to the viewer. No revelations here.

Hence, a spirituality of glass is expressed most clearly, it seems to me, in some object or window that in its material relationship between light and glass has the capacity to draw the viewer into itself and call forth a type of contemplation, searching, seeking out of that divine fire which seems captured within the material. Recognizing the spirituality of glass on a practical level ultimately demands that religious architecture stop treating windows as holes punched in walls but, rather, something far more profound.

The author is an Oblate of Saint Benedict and currently teaches the history, theology, and design of liturgical art and architecture at The Catholic University of America’s Rome Campus, as well as culture and faith for the Australian Catholic University, and doctrine for Saint John’s School of Mission (Nottingham, UK). He can be reached at: Hadley@cua.edu.