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Modern Morality

Although Paradiso has lost four windows when it installed two emergency exits, making sixteen stained-glass windows for this former church of the ‘Free Congregation’ is a time- consuming affair, and complicated both in terms of technology and content. The commissioner wants an arrangement of windows visualising the parameters of human existence, which requires a reorientation on existential facts and constants in human conduct. Such a query requires the greatest possible caution.
The virtually vanished old craft of glazing furthermore demands a technical reorientation. Berend Strik and I went to work in 1995. In 2003, six windows have found their definitive place in the Amsterdam pop temple.
Due to the end of the era in which ideology and faith were society’s constants, the formulation of existential truths for a public has become a precarious affair. Individualism entails that any choice for a representation of modern morality is checked by the numerous possibilities to make alternative choices which are equally valid. The resulting arbitrariness has been a complicating factor for us for a long time. In everything that can be conceived the question presents itself to what extent this personal thought could represent a universal value. Although we can never completely avoid it, the designs should be as little as possible a statement of two individuals, but – as formulated by the commissioner – an arrangement which is of all times and places.
Time is a tricky factor, too. The world is too fast for stained-glass. A telling image today may no more be recognised tomorrow due to lacking topicality. The cruellest dictator, who in the eyes of the world personifies evil, is caught up by current affairs when he has become a pathetic figure imprisoned in Scheveningen. A spell of time is needed to assess a design.
Moreover, the representation of morality, even when it concerns modern times, unwittingly ventures into religious tradition. The fact that stained-glass windows throughout the ages have mainly represented ecclesiastic morality even makes this inevitable. When in the wake of this we are looking for answers to existential questions, a position of arrogance is impending. Who are we to preach truth in a church or a pop temple? For this commission, it was therefore crucial to find a modus operandi which would legitimate the representations in our windows.
Refraining from ‘truth’, according to us, can be best compensated for if the inevitable personal interpretation is backed up by reality. We have searched for existential subjects which would address new ethical questions, provided we could witness these ourselves, whereby the accent shifts from truth to reality. Our self-imposed criterion is that no image may be arbitrarily chosen and that each image should be the result of a concept substantiated in reality; thus the choice for photography. In other words, we want to partake in what we are talking about to escape arbitrariness.
It is our intention to investigate sixteen themes and in each of them research a situation in which our concept presents itself as reality. It is a search for extreme situations in modern reality which give rise to new moral questions.
The first window should represent the Mother. A nun whom we knew told us that Mother Mary’s perfection is to be found in her willingness, after having been Christ’s tutor for a while, to subject herself to his authority. In that respect she is the most complete and perfect woman and that is why she is so much adored; because she is so human.
In Paradiso the mother is a heavily pregnant career woman. Not a virgin, but a modern woman who makes essential and existential choices. A woman who in very paradoxical circumstances is capable of penetrating existence. In her translucency, literally shining with heavenly light, she shows that also in secular modern life spiritual transmission is essential.
After a few responses to an advertisement in a number of newspapers and a few unsuccessful meetings with pregnant career women who did not comply with the profile, we met with heavily pregnant Dorethée Leijenaar in Prague, managing director of ‘the service company positive’, a company which teaches the positive western spirit of commerce to former Communist businesses. After some correspondence she decided that she could sympathise with our thoughts and offered her co-operation. We visited and photographed her in her Prague office. This photo has been digitally adjusted and reworked into stained-glass.
We decided for the old method of figurative stained-glass, albeit that the use of photography entailed the development of a new technology. During the last century the focus in leaded glass windows has shifted from figuration and staining to abstraction and sculpturally conceived forms. Lead was used in earlier days where the glass was deficient or broken in the oven. The focus now is more on the form of the glass surface, leading to collage-like compositions. The windows by Jan Dibbets, Toon Verhoef and Marien Schouten are the most recent examples of that approach.
After a trip along French cathedrals and a few glass ateliers we could quickly come to the conclusion that stained-glass windows are the most beautiful but that hardly anyone still masters the old craft. The spectre of an amateurishly painted Mona Lisa looms large. Since the choice has been made for stained-glass windows, glaziers firm Brabant bv has developed a technique to combine staining glass with photography.
We have interpreted the design commission as a necessity for the development of a feasible concept. Consequently, it has been tested by making the first window. Concept, process, technique and result are now open to assessment by the commissioner. If the commission is approved this would therefore imply approval of the procedure proposed.
This does not mean that all the windows are to be designed and placed at the same time, but that there is to be a history of development for each window. Each design will be another story. In order to accommodate the subsidiser, these stories can be documented and used within the contours of visual art. This manner of working is time-consuming but in our opinion the best way to achieve a meaningful work of art.
In order to stress this, we will give an impression of the next window, which will be on the theme of ‘death’. Here, too, the question is in which direction to think. What is going on with death today? Do you end up in the hospital, in the old people’s home, in Bosnia or Bangladesh? What should our window be about and where will we end up?
Medical practice, euthanasia, abortion and the pill have put death in a completely different light. The modern extensions to life granted by medical development and the ensuing ethical ‘progress’ have made us decide to ask an aids patient to press the camera exposure button at the very moment he initiates his euthanasia. We have found a German aids patient willing to do this. We had not foreseen that he would start to consider this photograph – and the window – as an important part of his dying ritual, but it emphasises the significance of our modus operandi. When he will die is not known.


Source: Hans van Houwelingen, clarification proposal for stained-glass windows, Paradiso, 1995
Note: In 2001 the aids patient wrote a note saying his new medicines had caught on well. “I am doing all kinds of things, except dying,” he remarked.