stained glass in lightbox, 40 7/8 x 34 1/2 inches
Collection of Cynthia and Peter Liebman
Thus, when—out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God—the loveliness of the many colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the Universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner .1
Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis (ca. 1081–1151)
A tool of “spiritual enlightenment,” the medieval art of stained glass was born into the Gothic world of Christendom.2 Punctuating the massive stone walls of Gothic churches and cathedrals, breathtaking windows of colored light illuminated dark interiors, protected worshippers from the outside elements, and carried messages to the laity about the history of salvation. But above all, the stained-glass window's beautiful, translucent tapestry of light was a symbol of God's eternal presence and abiding love, as well as a metaphor for the process of spiritual awakening.3 Just as impenetrable stone was transformed by ephemeral light, so too was the viewer as he or she reflected on the intangible nature of God.
Expressed through symbols and allegory so that all who saw them might understand, Gothic stained-glass windows illustrated key episodes in the lives of Christ and the Virgin, saints, apostles, and martyrs, and depicted biblical symbols and parables of the Gospels. Images and scenes leaded together into windows literally and symbolically shed light on the central drama of salvation and taught worshippers how to lead a proper Christian life. Over time, stained-glass windows became more sophisticated in their design, as did the themes they depicted. Resonating with everyday life were themes that represented what Christians should not do—and the consequences of such actions. Popular were illustrations of the Vices and Virtues, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Apocalypse, and Judgment Day—all treated with grotesque humor, replete with bubbling cauldrons and grotesque demons, but rendered in the shimmering, jewel-like prism of stained glass.
Judith Schaechter's works reside within this rich and weighty tradition of ecclesiastical glass. Although an atheist who securely locates her art in the secular world, Schaechter shares the medieval stained-glass artist's conviction that art has the capacity to transform its beholder, and that such inspiration takes place through an emotional connection. The intrinsic beauty of stained glass—with its intense luminosity and sumptuous color—is the vehicle for conversion, reverence, and enlightenment.
Like her medieval predecessors, Schaechter honors martyrlike figures in her works. Hers, however, are regular individuals who have suffered pain or endured loss, and who may evoke in us feelings of compassion, empathy, or acceptance. Transforming great sorrow into objects of great beauty, Schaechter hopes that we will internalize some portion of that transformation in our own lives. She wants us to emotionally connect.
An emotional connection is nearly guaranteed with Dreams of the Fisherman's Wife (2004), among Schaechter's most ambitious works to date. A large piece whose thick, vertical lead lines suggest a triptych, the work in size and format is reminiscent of religious paintings, specifically Gothic and Renaissance-era altarpieces that grace and accentuate church chancels. Like all of Schaechter's stained glass works, Dreams of the Fisherman's Wife refrains from depicting a specific individual or particular event, instead offering up a scenario in which we, the viewers, can allow our imaginations to run free in order to construct individual stories. According to the artist, her imagery develops from doodles and quickly conceived sketches that she creates while otherwise occupied in such mindless activities as watching television and speaking on the telephone. These somewhat “automatic” drawings reflect a host of interests, subconscious or not. Given this information, it is not surprising to learn that a reproduction of Botticelli's Birth of Venus (ca. 1485) hung on Schaechter's studio wall for many years, or that she has a deep love of Japanese erotic prints, particularly those that depict the theme of the woman/octopus union.4
As in most of Schaechter's works, the primary focus of Dreams of the Fisherman's Wife is the female figure. This character, who might be described as “the universal woman,” appears frequently throughout Schaechter's twenty-year oeuvre, albeit in a variety of manifestations. In this work, the woman looks sadly at the sea, perhaps longing for a husband who has been navigating it for a seemingly interminable time, or perhaps even grieving for a husband who has been lost to its depths. Her pained and sorrowful countenance is one of very few clues that Schaechter includes for us to latch onto and use as a springboard for completing a narrative. Whatever we may imagine, however, it seems that the protagonist's story must surely have an unhappy ending. We cannot help but share her sadness.
The empathy we experience in Dreams of the Fisherman's Wife finds parallels in the works Dog Mama (2002) and Claire de Lune (2002). One look at the haggard heroine in Dog Mama and we are sure to empathize. Tired and disheveled, she tenderly holds in her arms a scared little dog. We might assume that the girl has rescued the poor, innocent creature from a certainly unfortunate fate. A savior of sorts, Schaechter's heroine wears a saw-blade halo and hovers above a donkey, undoubtedly referring to the biblical story of Mary's flight to Egypt. Instead of carrying the Christ-child, Schaechter's “virgin” holds a dog dressed in a bonnet, a surrogate baby perhaps, especially given the title of the work. At the same time, Schaechter speaks to the special bonds that exist between people and animals, especially children and their pets. Dog Mama recalls an innocent time when children love their pets so intensely that they dress them as dolls or care for them like babies (behaviors that some of us never outgrew). This pure love and unflagging devotion are the core subjects of Dog Mama —subjects perfectly suited to ecclesiastical art for sure, but which are avoided at nearly all costs in most of contemporary art. Yet Schaechter embraces the challenge of heralding sincerity as an appropriate subject, just as she has espoused a medium that is usually associated with craft and hobby.
The connection between Dog Mama and a biblical passage is further underscored by the format in which Schaechter has chosen to portray it. Foregoing the typical horizontal scheme, which allows for a more traditional unfolding of narrative events, the artist has instead stacked her images like a totem pole and has flouted the rules of traditional stained-glass techniques by using the lead lines as abstract elements that are not based on the image. In some ways, Dog Mama resembles the tall and narrow clerestory windows of Gothic cathedrals that provided much-needed light while also illuminating biblical personalities in very simplified form so they could be read from below. With an economy of detail, Schaechter similarly offers insight into a saintly figure, but one that is very much of this earthly world.
Also merging the sacred and profane is 8th Virtue (2003–04), a strange and disturbing image of a nude female figure grasping a hatchet in one hand and a flower in the other. There are only seven accepted virtues—faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. What is the eighth virtue? Has it been lost or forgotten? Or is it imaginary? Because Schaechter offers little regarding her intentions, we must decide what her 8th Virtue represents on our own. Wielding weapon and blossom, perhaps she is the female symbol of strength—powerful yet sensitive, formidable yet beautiful. And with blood-red veins snaking throughout, perhaps 8th Virtue serves as a reminder to women that they, too, embody all these attributes.
The influence of ecclesiastical stained glass is clearly evident throughout Schaechter's body of work. It is ever present in the age-old medium and techniques she uses, but can also be discovered in other aspects of her work. In Beehive Heaven (2004), rays of light shine down from above, a reference to the world beyond, while bees spew forth from the female figure's mouth, like a scene straight out of the book of Revelation (or one might view the hive as representing the church and the bees as the faithful). Religious associations can also be made with Snakes and Ladders (2002), its title a reference to a game that often has occult connotations, and Specimens (2004), whose bizarre grotesqueries are reminiscent of those favored by Gothic artists in their illustrations of the Apocalypse. Melding the past with the present, the religious with the secular, and the universal with the everyday, Judith Schaechter has created a unique body of work that resonates with power and meaning, and which simply defies time and place. And, as a result, she has transformed us, her audience, into believers in the transformative potential of art.
1. Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, excerpts from De Administratione and Scriptum Consecrationis , trans. and ed. Erwin Panofsky (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946). Quoted in Virginia Chieffo Raguin, Stained Glass: From Its Origins to the Present (New York: Quintet Publishing Limited, 2003), 14.
2. For a thorough and beautifully illustrated history of stained glass, see Raguin.
3. Both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible contain multiple references to light.
4. Shunga , or Japanese erotic prints, have a long history and were extremely popular during the Edo Period (1603–1867). The famed Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai created one of the most recognizable images of female/octopus coupling, entitled The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (ca. 1820).