The Art of Simplicity: Bonawit’s Grisaille

The clerestory windows designed by G. Owen Bonawit in the nave of Christ Church seem to be one of the least described elements of the church’s artwork. The work was negotiated and subcontracted through architect Oscar H. Murray at Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Associates rather than commissioned directly through George G. Booth. Consequently, there are few documentary vestiges of the artist’s process in our records.

The windows can be studied through other materials held by the Archives, including architectural drawings, photographs, and the records of a window restoration project which commenced in 1993. In 1995, the Thompson Art Glass company made rubbings of the window for the purposes of identifying their care and preservation needs.

There are seventeen grisaille clerestory windows in the nave and chancel at Christ Church, which were analyzed as part of this stained-glass restoration project. They are made of clear antique glass upon which minute floral detail is painted and accentuated by the addition of small amounts of colored glass. In the chancel, there are two lancets and tracery of nine panels supported by T-bars including one ventilator panel. In the nave, they are comprised of three lancets and tracery with eight panels, with ventilator panels making up the bottom row.

Detail from Architectural drawing of Christ Church Cranbrook, North Elevation. April 30, 1925. Drawn by J.E.M./Oscar H. Murray, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Architects. [AD.10.33]. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Grisaille, literally meaning ‘to grey,’ is a type of stained glass that is mostly monochromatic, with a silver or grey tone being painted onto the finished glass. The purpose of the plainness of grisaille is twofold: they let more light into the space both literally and metaphorically in that they were intended to limit distraction from meditation.

The grisaille stained glass style is thought to have originated in French Cistercian abbeys after a prohibition on colored glass issued by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1134 in accordance with their charism of simplicity. St. Bernard, the master of paradox, also banned the use of figurative decoration according to the First Commandment of no graven images. Under his guidance, the Cistercians seek the face of God, a theological anomaly that produces an exquisite spiritual discipline and religious practice through which the monk contemplates holiness by virtue of continually recognizing the poverty of their thoughts and feelings when weighed down by seeking to satisfy worldly desire. The style often employs natural or geometric patterns, much like a labyrinth.

The windows can best be observed by sitting in the aisle stalls of the nave, which are in themselves an unusual feature otherwise only found in Oxford college chapels. The walls of the nave were originally intended to display memorials and artwork, but the latter idea was revised due to the objection that it would bring a museum feel to a house of worship.

Aisle stalls in left side of sanctuary. June 23, 1946. Photographer, Harvey Croze. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Added in 1930, the aisle stalls offer a fine perspective from which to observe the grisaille, and Bonawit’s elegant craftmanship brings with it a history of monastic inspired light. Since a life without beauty is only half lived, the artistic eclecticism of Christ Church offers all those who enter the opportunity to embrace the other half both in its resplendency and in its simplicity.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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