Writing about Graham Sutherland in 1950, the critic Robert Melville observed: ‘When one looks at a picture one finds oneself over the frontier or one doesn’t. Criticism has no power of making converts to an experience which occurs without the intervention of reason … Criticism considers the sensitive flesh of the image and discovers its spiritual stature: indeed, unless we pursue the meaning of the image as language, painting may well fall silent and rest content in the pride of its flesh.’

This quotation is of relevance here for several reasons: because one of my principal roles as a writer is to function as an art critic; because Melville rightly identifies the limitations of criticism; and because he also points out criticism’s ability to uncover the spiritual stature of a work of art. I see my brief as a critic primarily as a purveyor of information, a sort of animated signpost, attempting to point out something that readers should then judge for themselves. I hope my enthusiasm or censure will inspire others to look and think independently. It is the act of looking at art — of sharing in this fundamental but highly sophisticated activity — that means most to me.

At this time of year, my thoughts turn invariably to the spiritual in an attempt to counteract the avalanche of materialism impossible to avoid now in a British Christmas. Art can help, for art is not just about pretty pictures to break up the wallpaper, it is also about our relationship to each other and to the world we inhabit, and about the spiritual dimension that exists behind surface appearances. It is food for the soul as well as for the eyes, and nowhere is this more evident than in the art of stained glass.

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The leading practitioner of stained glass in this country is Patrick Reyntiens. Of Belgian extraction, Reyntiens was born in London, at 63 Cadogan Square, 88 years ago. He has spoken of the slightly raffish quality of the area, which appealed to him: ‘far more stimulating than the more aristocratic streets and squares of Belgravia’. In the 1920s and 30s, Arnold Bennett lived four doors up, and, whenever she could, Reyntiens’s nanny used to push the pram containing young Patrick into the novelist’s legs ‘by mistake on purpose’ she loathed him so much. And every night at 6 p.m. Nanny read Dickens for half an hour to the young boy, which gave him his great enthusiasm for reading. (He has subsequently amassed a substantial library.)

Reyntiens grew up wanting to be an artist, and after Ampleforth he studied at Regent Street Polytechnic School of Art and then Edinburgh College of Art. At Edinburgh he met his future wife Anne Bruce (1927–2006), herself a painter of considerable distinction. Apart from five years in the Army during the war, Reyntiens has devoted his life to being an artist, but has spent most of his energies on stained glass. He needed a job because he wanted to get married, and a position was vacant as assistant to the stained-glass maestro Eddie Nuttgens (1892–1982), friend and neighbour of Eric Gill at Piggotts Hill, near High Wycombe. Reyntiens took the job and has never looked back.

He is most famous for his 35-year collaboration with John Piper, with whom he worked on such prestigious commissions as the Baptistery Window at Coventry Cathedral (1957–61), and the lantern tower of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (1963–7), for which he is jointly credited as designer. The relationship between the two men was not simply that of artist and technical adviser, but a more equal collaborative undertaking. Reyntiens likens the activity to the co-operative and interpretative venture of music. For instance, it was Reyntiens who suggested, when Piper was a little at a loss for inspiration, that he should metaphorically throw a bomb into the middle of the Coventry Baptistery window and design a great explosion of light around it. Similarly Reyntiens’s input was crucial for the new Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool. ‘I’d just been reading Dante,’ he says. ‘In the Purgatorio there’s a description of the Trinity as three great eyes of different colours winking at each other.’ Piper was intrigued if a little piqued. ‘It’s a pity Dante didn’t tell you what to do with the rest of the cathedral,’ he responded crisply.

The work with Piper has somewhat overshadowed Reyntiens’s individual creativity. He has worked extensively as a solo artist over the past half-century, designing and making stained glass for buildings up and down the country. At last this very substantial achievement has been fully documented in Libby Horner’s magisterial Patrick Reyntiens: Catalogue of Stained Glass (Sansom & Co, £60). The example illustrated here depicts the Virgin and Child, with attendant angels, in a three-light East window. It was designed, painted and made by Reyntiens in 1958–9 for St Mary’s, Hound Road, Netley Abbey, Southampton, a simple 13th-century church in the Early English style, described by Reyntiens as a ‘unique little building, intrinsically a powerhouse of spirituality and a venue for private prayer’. The commission was undertaken at the same time as he was working with Piper at Coventry, and Reyntiens considers it one of the best things he has ever done.

Pevsner, in his magisterial survey of the Buildings of England (Hampshire and the Isle of Wight), observed of this window that ‘the colouring bears only a partial relationship to the figures and is to a large extent composed as if the design were abstract. But the figures are strongly representational, with firm facial expressions and delicately composed hands and robes.’ The Virgin Mary is holding the infant Jesus, who opens his arms wide as if to bless or embrace the world. This gesture is immensely endearing, not to say moving, and is Reyntiens’s own interpretation rather than a standard item of traditional iconography in depictions of the Christ Child. He is not especially inspired by historical stained glass. He describes late 12th- and early 13th-century glass as being designed in ‘very pushy colours next to one another — exactly like Gilbert & George’ — though based on the look of the big flags emblazoned with armorial devices prevalent in the Middle Ages.

The colouration of the Hound window is mainly blue, mauve and green with touches of yellow and red, and the application of the paint on the glass is delicate — more like watercolour than oil in consistency. Reyntiens is a practising Roman Catholic and his strong faith is central to his life. Although Easter is the real high point of the Christian year, Christmas, he says, ‘gives an authority to the most important thing in your life — birth. The most amazing thing is our arriving in this whole situation.’ He gesticulates expressively with his hands. ‘I don’t know what beauty is really — except that in one way or another it is what we were all intended to experience. We don’t realise how incredible life is.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: art criticism, John Piper, Pataarick Reyntiens, Robert Melville, Stained glass