Thomas Sutcliffe: Now everyone can see the light

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The Independent Online

Walking round the newly refurbished St Martin-in-the-Fields in central London the other day I was startled to hear what seemed a very large claim for the proselytising power of architectural furniture. The church's current vicar, the Reverend Nick Holtham, was talking about Shirazeh Houshiary's striking new design for the East Window, which won a competition to find a replacement for the stop-gap glazing that had filled the window since its Victorian predecessor had been blown out in the Blitz. Holtham praised the new window's design and then said (I'm quoting from memory here so can only vouch for the gist of his remark): "We've had three conversions so far." This seemed to me to suggest an extraordinary track record for an image that had only been in place a matter of weeks and I looked at it again with a new, and slightly wary, interest. Was it really so powerfully inspirational? Then I understood what he was actually saying. These weren't conversions to Christianity, they were conversions to the cause of the window itself. Three people had seen the light and admitted a bit of ecclesiastical modernism into their hearts.

Light is a big deal in this makeover – as it always has been in Christian iconography. Eric Parry Architects, who've overseen £36m worth of improvements and repairs, have created new light wells to illuminate the church's underground meeting and rehearsal rooms, as well as sweeping away an old polychrome paint scheme for the baroque interior and replacing the old subaqueous glass of the side windows with new clear glass. The interior – previously a down-at-heel affair – is now light and crisply defined in its details. And Houshiary's East Window, behind the altar, turns up the brilliance of the interior a couple of notches further, consisting entirely of unstained glass, marked only by white opacity and clean black glazing bars. Her design, variously described by journalists as "a cross as if seen reflected in water" and "a rather gynaecological reworking of the ultimate symbols of Christianity and modernity", consists of a woozy cross, with a tilted ellipse at its centre. It reminded me of Munch's Scream, which I don't think was the intention at all, but you can see how the devout will be able to see through its muted abstraction to a figurative presence behind.

You can see, too, how carefully it balances the doctrinal divisions of art as well as faith. Something straightforwardly pictorial would surely have been anathema in the current aesthetic climate, however much the more conservative members of the congregation might have liked it. And something more colourful would probably have jarred against the careful ecumenicism of the church's new interior. What was sought was something more universal – in the words of the brief, a design that would "embody light and above all encourage reflection and contemplation".

The corollary of the need for universality was that it mustn't be unhelpfully specific, and particularly not about the dogmas of the building in which it was to be placed. It's easy to imagine what a faux pas this might represent in a modern Anglican church – a window that unabashedly said: "We believe in the resurrected Christ, and if you don't, you may well find yourself out of place here." With so many overseas visitors to this church, so many guests who come for musical rather than spiritual uplift, Houshiary's essentially non-denominational window is far less likely to cause embarrassment.

Which suggests – if her design is representative of a modern approach to church glazing – that the stained-glass window has entirely reversed its purpose. Stained-glass windows used to be scripture for the illiterate, a teaching aid to which the priest could turn for visual illustration. Now they've mutated into aids for meditation – a numinous semi-abstraction that aims to act as a seed-crystal for a private and individual sense of the transcendent. If that's what's required, I reckon Houshiary's design will work as well as any, providing just enough handholds for a spiritual reverie without requiring you to sign up to a particular doctrine. But it does make you wonder about the rhetoric of letting light into the church. The baroque details of James Gibbs' interior are now wonderfully clear. But in terms of religion itself there's a sense that the light is allowed to pass unmediated by specific beliefs or specific scriptural underpinnings. It doesn't worry me a bit, as someone who prefers light untinted by confessional colouration, but it strikes me as quite an achievement all the same. Houshiary's window is almost completely transparent and yet usefully veils the details that might cause problems.