We were going to be in France anyway, so we tacked on a few Gothic churches and cathedrals to see whether the old French stained glass is really all it's cracked up to be.
I soon had no doubt. It's wonderful. We saw the immense walls of glowing colour at La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the unexpected late medieval wonders in the Eglise Abbatiale de Saint-Ouen, and what remains after the bombing in Rouen Cathedral. But what impressed me most were the donor windows in Chartres Cathedral (and those in Bourges) in which the groups of merchants and tradesmen who paid for a window are depicted at the base.
Coming back to a dormant sourdough starter which needed to be restarted, I was amazed at just how timeless the bakers are in their Chartres windows which date from the early 13th century. It's all still perfectly recognisable: the floury white apron, the rolled-up sleeves, the baker's hat, the turning and stretching of the dough, the flour sacks wound round a beam, the need for assistance with water, the heat required for baking.
There's the kneading, shaping, and proving of white doughs and perhaps enriched or wholewheat doughs, the strong hands and shoulders, the concentration and expertise.
And just outside the cathedral the boulangers are still stacking and displaying and selling their loaves.
I'm fascinated by these lower sections of medieval windows which depict ordinary lives. It seems to me that many Victorians lost sight of the common man when they made their version of Gothic windows and, as we are surrounded by nineteenth century windows in England, we tend to forget that the medieval makers were very much in touch with everyday life. And this is why I think that post-war stained glass, so much of which features people we work with, live with, or bump into in the street, is in fact very medieval - and medieval glass is still very modern.
After all, who hasn't sat down in a Clark's shoe shop and daintily proffered a foot to be shod while the salesman/woman gestures elegantly and convincingly towards the shoe that will be perfect for Madam?
As these windows show, the past, even the past of 900 years ago, is not really so far away.