On Leonor Antunes’ new stained glass window at St Lukes, The Box Plymouth

One of the permanent public art commissions of the Box Museum opening in Plymouth, is a new stained-glass window for St Lukes Church, made by major Portuguese artist, Leonor Antunes. It sits in the east wall of the building, which has been converted into a contemporary gallery space, and the grand unveiling of the window is accompanied by a full installation of work by the artist under the title Sequences, Inversions, Permutations. I went to see it last weekend and wanted to write specifically about the window as it’s a new permanent feature of the city. 

The window is an abstract marbled pattern of fused-glass in primary colours, green, and a cream white; these are mixed together in a fun, almost childlike series of interlocking reverse-letter-Cs of varying fatness. As the pattern runs down the glass it produces wavy lines of colour, that fluctuate in width with a sort of hand-drawn, almost whimsical quality. These lines work in stark contrast to the austere structure of the old window frame, which is very cleancut, with simple geometrical tracery,* consisting of what I’m going to call three upside down test tube shapes, and a five petalled flower above them. The flower forms the most basic of rose windows, nestled in between the curved ends of the test tubes and the top of the main arch of the window. What’s nice is how the curves of the test tubes are echoed at 90 degrees in the curves of the reverse-C shapes in the glass design, and how the uniform shape of the tracery and frame contrast with the looser, less regular colours in the glass; it makes for a pleasing visual counterpoint. The pattern continues through the rose at the top as if it wasn’t there, the tracery only cuts through the design, and there’s no other direct interaction. You get the sense that the pattern would continue on up indefinitely if the window was taller. There is one smudged area in the glass, which looks a bit like the effect of a black hole in space, or a sort of weird door to another dimension, as if the eye cannot quite compute what is being presented. According to the volunteer who attended to us while we were there, this smudge is not a mistake but an intentional representation of a misprint or actual smudge in (or on) the source pattern Antunes used.

The design is taken from a book in the Box’s archive called Insects of Surinam by Maria Sibylla Merian. That book, published in 1705, is an early example of the scientific illustration of insects in the South American east coast and Merian was one of the first naturalists to look at insects as a field of study. Apparently Antunes has meticulously copied one of those non-pages at the back of the book, which is just there to fill space and which you’d never normally bother to look at in any detail, especially when there are beautiful illustrations throughout. I’m not sure, but I suspect that this design wouldn’t have been an original by Merian, but just chucked in by the publisher, as the copy in the Box archive is from 1726 and presumably an “original” reprint of the “original” original. But anyway Antunes has reproduced it in glass, clearly a considerable technical feat in itself, and she has kept this smudge from the book in there too. Visually, that smudge somehow echoes the rose at the top of the tracery. It’s a feature, a bit of detail for us to hold onto amid the waves of sideways arches. At the same time, that detail is wholly mysterious, left unexplained and, given how quick the volunteer was to inform us, easily misinterpreted as a mistake.

It interests me that the artist chose a marginal page with an abstract pattern for the commission. The page is not significant in itself, other than it happens to be in the book about insects. There is something about those end bits of books, the way they are in a sense a necessary evil, a part of the form that is required to make the whole thing work, but supplementary, outside the text. Crucial to the printing process, maybe, but pretty insignificant to author and reader. As we read, our attention is held by the content. If it is a novel, we read the words and the words grab us and pull us along, the faster the better if it’s a thriller, or with illustrations, their beauty, precision or the interest of the subject matter holds our gaze. But when we have finished the content, once our attention is no longer held by it, as we turn the last page to realise there is nothing left, that is the moment when we can reflect on what we have just read or looked at, and start to think our own thoughts based on what we have just experienced, and find connections in our minds that slot into place, or change what we thought we knew. I can imagine Antunes discovering the book by Merian, looking at it for a while, browsing it’s contents disinterestedly at first, but then becoming inspired and excited to think of a naturalist who was a woman in a time when it was uncommon for women to travel, let alone be naturalists, that she was one of the first people to study insects, those creatures that have turned out to be so crucial to the ecosystem, and the significance of this dawning on Antunes as she turned to some random end page, and there finding the abstract shapes that she wanted for the window. 

I don’t know, maybe she just liked the pattern. But it feels right to be thinking about those moments of reflection outside the main thoroughfare, because as you come into the building of St Luke’s from outside, you are in a space where you can reflect for yourself on the world outside, on the bustling street you have just come in from, a main artery road into Plymouth just 20 or so metres away humming with a constant stream of buses and cars heading out to Mutley Plain. In the quiet of St Lukes you step out of that mode of being compelled (or compelling yourself) to do things, and in that sense the window feels like an invitation to reflect inward, on your response to the rest of solo exhibition in the building initially, but, beyond that, on the rest, the day thus far, the conversation with a friend, the pressing assignment, the struggle to survive, the thing you have done, whatever it is. The window then becomes the symbol of that space that allows you to realise the significance, to have that moment of seeing what matters. 

One of the challenges of using a space originally built for the purposes of practicing religion for the display of art, is that the art can come to take on an overdetermined, semi-spiritual aura, and gets put on a pedestal it does not want or deserve. It’s the same here. The new window is stunningly beautiful. It is captivating to look at, and fun; the bright primary colours really sing out in the low lighting of St Lukes. Isn’t that enough? I think sometimes the background, the story behind the piece can get in the way. It is interesting that it came from a book from the archive, and important to note that book was influential in the early studies of insects, important too to say it was by a pioneering woman working against the social norms of the time. But if you ignore that, the window is just as stimulating to look at. Standing in front of it, taking in the shapes Antunes has created, the colours, and then exploring with my eyes the contrast of the contemporary abstract of her work, against the classical abstract of the original window frame, I began to make the connections, enjoy the grandeur, find a pace of observing that was a different register to what I’m used to, different from looking at the animated light of a computer screen, or smartphone, or even just the everyday motion of the world around me. 

Leaving the building, in the little cramped lobby, as the daylight streamed in, as my eyes began to readjust to full sun, I thought about Antunes’s only quoted comment printed on the info board inside: “I really believe that art exists in a context, so I do not see my sculptures outside of the space where they exist.” I left the space, and in doing so I was taking myself out of the immediate context of the artwork, and I suppose it did feel like leaving something behind. The wider context, temporal and geographical, I cannot escape, and in that sense, I felt I would be taking the window with me as I left, or at least an impression of it (and a photo on my phone). But it’s the effect of that smudge, that warping of the pattern, that really keeps coming back to me as I think about it now. The subtle smudge, in looking like a hole in the fabric of the universe, seemed to hint at a paradox of any contemporary work of art really, but especially big public artworks like the window: that to be of its time, the artwork must be timeless, to be of its place, the artwork must be placeless, and to understand it, in the here and now, we have to go back and see it again and again and again. By hinting at this, the smudge makes the window complete.

* I had to look up what you call those stoney bits in church windows. Tracery is any of the parts inside the main frame that are not glass, the dividing lines of stone or metal or whatever. Mullions are the chunkier vertical columns in between.

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