Brian Clarke – who has been called the rock star of stained glass – has just had his stained-glass window in the Papal Chapel of the Apostolic Nunciature in Wimbledon blessed by the Pope on his visit. It's not everyday that Pope Benedict XVI gives an artist's work the thumbs up. But after the Pope said Mass at the chapel at the Vatican's embassy in London in front of the glowing stained-glass window and blessed it, Clarke was presented to him in an adjoining room. "I chatted to him about the window and the Pope told me that he 'greatly liked it'," says Clarke.
The window is made of transparent ultramarine and ruby red stained-glass, and depicts three tall burning candles, each surrounded by individual texts by Thomas More, John Fisher and John Henry Newman.
When the light passes through the transparent window, it creates shafts of ever-changing colour which fall within the space – and when it hits the text, the whole window oscillates with a shimmer. "There is something quite transcendental and magical about it," says Clarke. "It has a positive, mind-altering effect on you as if you were sun-kissed."
I meet Clarke, 57, at his house just off London's Kensington Church Street, to discuss the project. A housekeeper opens the door and takes me inside to wait in a room full of books about stained glass and relics, some laid out on the floor, before I'm led up a winding staircase.
Clarke is better known for massive projects, including the glowing blue stained-glass apex for the Pyramid of Peace in Kazakhstan, which was designed with his friend Norman Foster. So by his standards, this Papal commission was a small assignment. "I left the centre of the flame transparent because the chapel faces due west across Wimbledon Common," says Clarke. "And when the sun sets and comes in through those candle flames, the transparency picks up the colour of the sun and it starts to glow itself."
We are sitting in his enormous first-floor sitting-room, where his friend Zaha Hadid has designed a blue sofa to match Clarke's own stained-glass window above it of swirling ultramarine and red ribbons – fragments of 19th-century glass from a bombed-out church in Munich. Clarke is so passionate about stained glass that he dreams about it. "It's always on my mind. I love it so much I want to eat it," he says.
Even the windows in a small lavatory in his home have 12th-century glass fragments, including a head of a knight that he has incorporated into them. "Once you have tasted its thrill, it's difficult to escape it," he explains.
Clarke – who is also a painter – did the stained glass for the Pfizer building in New York, the Holocaust memorial in Darmstadt, the Victoria Quarter in Leeds, the Linkoping Cathedral in Sweden and even the lobby of the Apax group in Jermyn Street in London.
This latest commission for the Papal visit came about when advertising guru Sir Frank Lowe suggested Clarke for the job, after the Archbishop of Westminster sought his advice.
"They wanted to create something special for the Pope's visit. I think their first thought was that I'd do three figures of saints – but I don't do
saints. That's not my thing at all. But when I spoke to the Archbishop, it became clear that there was a possibility I could embrace the concept."
Born in Oldham, Lancashire, Clarke became a full-time art student at the age of 12. He won a scholarship to the Oldham School of Arts and Crafts – and at the same time avoided a life in the mines. He went to Burnley School of Art in 1968, and then the North Devon College of Art and Design in 1970.
He made his first stained glass at the age of 16 with a heraldic eagle design. Sometimes Clarke buys back his early work – which can be an expensive habit.
Early on in his career Clarke realised that he had to shake off the ecclesiastical image if he was going to make any impact in the medium. Limited by the religious imagery demanded by the church, he went elsewhere. "When I started working in the medium of stained glass, it was a dying art. I knew from a very early age that the future of the medium would only be assured if it had an application in public buildings and was not limited to ecclesiastical architecture. I looked for opportunities in all kinds of public buildings and declined opportunities in the church. I fought for that and continue to fight for that. It's a lifelong pilgrimage."
In 1978 he moved to London, where he met and became friends with David Bailey, Paul and Linda McCartney and Francis Bacon. He has always continued to paint – his current linear paintings include a series of canvasses using gold leaf – although his first love is stained glass.
"I've got some great photos of me with the Pope," he chuckles. "Now I'm able to call the shots more. Churches only call on me if they want me to do something challenging and exciting. As a consequence, with a long history behind me of substantial secular and public works, I feel now that I can re-engage occasionally, working in the church and giving it my best on a level that it deserves and I demand."
For his Papal assignment, Clarke has incorporated texts into the stained-glass window, including a page from Fisher's Sermon Against the Pernicious Doctrine of Martin Luther. There is a letter from More to Cardinal Wolsey about the act of succession in More's own hand. "We scanned the letter and etched his own handwriting over the glass." There's also a printed page from Newman's book An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.
"I like my work to enable the building to function in a way that hopefully tips the balance of the experience from being functional to being inspirational," says Clarke. "I think there is an extremely powerful argument to be made today for art to actually bring beauty and something of the sublime into the banality of mundane experience. So often now, art is limiting of that kind of encounter. I believe people respond to beauty both in nature and in art. When it involves the passage of light, it is uplifting in a way that is incomparable."
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