Sunday 10 August 2014

Through Any Window

I love windows. I love that they are interfaces between the outward and the inward. That at a window I am invited to give a part of myself – perhaps a fragment of my future - to places I want to be. And that in turn I can receive back the sky’s endlessly varying diffuse light, as well as its direct sun and moonlight.

[European window scenes from our 2013 trip] 
Windows, of course, are fragile: the thinnest of barriers, almost literally illusory. They remind me that even the best of shelters is temporary; that I ultimately belong “out there”. You were made from dust, and to dust you will return”, as Genesis 3:19 has it.

One of my most vivid memories has me in a hostel in New Zealand. It is forty years ago, so details are scant. But these elements remain lucid. I am on the top bunk in the dormitory. I wake to a cold, clear morning and pull back the curtains. A bright sun streams into the room, warming me deliciously.

I have to shade my eyes to survey the scene outside. The hills are green, probably, but something else wipes that mere detail away. In the middle distance stands a classic volcano-shaped mountain. I know it’s a volcano: it is smoking!

The mountain was Ngauruhoe, mid-way through its 1973-75 period of eruption. I was possibly in the small town of Ohakune – the geography makes sense – staying in an old schoolhouse turned YHA.

That morning there was no hurry to leave. We were hitching around New Zealand, and still had a few days to reach Wellington. While others rattled and scrabbled to get ready to leave, I lay back in the sunshine, every now and then glancing in disbelief at Ngauruhoe. It was one of the most blissful experiences of my hitherto brief life.

[Blissfully sunny: inside Greenstone Hut, South Island, NZ]  
Glass windows, like those in the hostel, have been around since Roman times. That’s nearly as long as Mt Ngauruhoe, which only bubbled into being around 2 500 year ago. But the mass production of glass, which took some pointers from volcanic processes, only began in about the 17th century. After that glass windows began appearing in ordinary houses and public buildings.

There were window openings before that, of course, though they were usually louvred or shuttered. When they had to keep the elements out, they also excluded the light. That meant no blissfully comfortable volcano watching for most of our ancestors.

[A playful see-through sign invites you into the Waitakere Ranges, NZ] 

Since that 1974 experience, a few other windows have made fresh claims on my bliss count. Moving windows are among the strongest candidates, especially on trains and boats. (I exclude planes because I find their speed usually interferes with any real sense of invitation into the scene.)

A small port hole on a slow barge provides a fine example. Our trip, by bike and barge through Burgundy, offered us a fresh, circle-framed scene every morning. One morning it might be a forested canal verge, complete with calling birds; another an ancient town or village, with the French equivalents of butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers hurrying by.

A thousand or so years before ordinary window glass came along, churches regularly used stained glass in windows. It was more about light and glass telling stories, and evoking awe, than it was about letting light into the buildings. One sublime example is Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. As with so much else in Paris we had to queue to get inside the gothic chapel; and as with most Parisian waits, it was worth it.

[Inside La Sainte-Chapelle, Paris]

The two-storey building’s lower chapel, with its ribbed and richly painted ceiling, is extraordinary enough. But the vast rose windows and stained glass “wall curtains” of the upper chapel, left us breathless. Bearing in mind that the vast majority of mediaeval church goers were illiterate, the high windows aimed to recount the story of the Creation in over 1,100 pictures. That is some task for a window!

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