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Travelogue H19

May 23, 2016

An organ concert at the Mainz Stephanerkirche was to bring the day’s tour to a close. Duties at an end, the guide bid the group farewell and left with the sound of clapping strong in his ears. At the ready stood the Stephanerkirche’s pastor who shepherded us inside. He followed in short order and closed the doors on our group and the other, which had preceded us through the city’s landmarks.

At that point, the pastor invited us to examine more closely the church’s different features, the contrast between the white walls and the red columns, the stern, dark wood pews, at last, the blue stained glass windows overhead. After a time, the pastor brought us back in and called our attention to those windows directly surrounding the altar, of which he went on to remark that they came from the hand of none other than Marc Chagall and numbered among his last glass works.

Even from the distance set out by the altar, the windows exercised a strong attraction over the group. I watched smartphones emerge from pockets and cameras rise to eye-level as each person sought to transpose the windows’ Biblical figures from their native setting to new contexts. Heads nodded here and then, and appreciative sighs and grunted suggested that the transposition had proved successful. Humans, angels and wildlife alike had found a home in the digital, a space open and accessible to all and thus strangely unhomelike.

Unable though we were to tear ourselves, I could not be certain how much my fellow visitors genuinely took in of the windows. Whether their brains’ visual centers had sufficient time and light to process each of the figures’ tints and shades, histories and body language, I could not say. I know that, in my case, I was unable to pull colors and lines into a coherent vision of distinct figures and so remained dazzled by the sheer wash of detail above.

My photographs from that day, captured by smartphone, faithfully reproduced my inability to make sense of the figures contained there. Through the backlight and strong grain of the pixels and comparison with other photographs found online, I can just make out certain of Chagall’s choice subjects, found here in different form and hue than those in another St. Stephen’s church with which I was more than passingly familiar. So do I find again the crucifixion and its inexpressive attendants, Noah before the Ark and Flood, Elijah bowed beneath weighty dreams, David playing on his lyre. Some new subjects work their way in, among whose number I counted Creator and Creation, as well as a lesser host of yellow-feathered angels, greenish-blue plants and blotted faces.

Yet the comparison betrays my own photographs in that those found elsewhere more clearly portray those stained glass subjects. In contrast, an inescapable graininess mars my own, and so they lack focus and remain closer to my experience of the windows that day. In my photographs I thus find the reproduction of perception, rather than of the thing perceived, and hold in my hands an imperfect mimesis but truer for that.

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