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The 500 year archive

The stained glass windows of Auch

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Prepare to be amazed.

It is the year 1514 and you are resident in a town in south west France where you might work as a carpenter. Your house and your work room has no electricity, no running water, and no glass in the windows. You cannot read and write beyond the marks you use on wood in your work. There are no books in your house and book shops don't exist. There are no pictures in your house. Your world is largely bereft of lettered information and graphic images.

Only the church and the nobles have access to such things with the church institutions having a near monopoly of non-craft knowledge and a virtual monopoly of books and their production. The church, the aristocracy and the odd rich merchant have pictures on the walls of their rooms. But the only ones you see are inside the church you go to every Sunday, instructive scenes from the bible, a book you have never seen nor touched.

Then one Sunday your priest says that certain of the congregation can go on a pilgrimage to the capital city of the region, Auch, where there is a cathedral which has the the most fabled thing you will ever see in your entire life, something that blazes with intensity, something that will change your life for ever, an exalted thing of the highest holiness. Are you willing to go? Yes, you say.

You travel in a group to Auch, a small city built on a promontory above a river, the centre of which is the Sainte Marie cathedral with its two immense square towers between which you enter. The group enters the church, with the people crossing themselves in front of the altar, and pass to the left side of the nave, and walk down between the nave and the gloriously embellished and richly decorated side chapels to a passage that runs right round the eastern end of the church, between the buttressed external wall and the walled-off high altar and choir stalls.

As you approach this wide passageway with bays between enormous columns soaring immense heights up to the vaulted ceiling, you see that each bay is in fact a window, a window filled with something that makes your soul sing, your eyes dazzled, your mind knocked back with awe, with wonder, with exaltation.

Because right there, in front of you and soaring fifty feet high, in a brilliant intensity of extravagant colour, are scenes from the bible, with people you could meet in everyday life, wearing clothes of colours as bright as fire; reds, greens, blues, gold and silver hues that are ablaze with extraordinary, with searing, intensity. They are realer than real; the sun's light streams through them and into your eyes, painting retinal images you have never-before imagined.

Auch Cathedral stained glass bay

Your eyes rise up towards the pointed arch at the of the top of the windows with scenes from heaven between the stone mullions, and down again, and across to the next window and the next. You have simply seen nothing, ever, in your entire life, to match the enormity of the impact of your first vision of the stained glass windows of Auch cathedral.

These 18 windows were built between 1507 and 1513, and survive to day, wondrous examples of renaissance stained glass that delivered the brilliance, the lustrous coloured intensity of projected 35mm slides, to sixteenth century peasants whose everyday graphic experience would have been outline pictures drawn in mud with a pointed stick. Imagine the reaction of stone age peoples on being shown a technicolor movie, the heart-stopping shock that you would experience on seeing such things.

The stained glass windows of Auch have survived for 500 years; being both image and archive in the same form. The technological lead of the Catholic Church in terms of graphic communications to ordinary people in the year of our Lord 1513 was at an extraordinary height, a fantastic and monumental advance on anything that had gone before. It has likely never had such a lead since. These windows represent a high point and stood alone in that part of France for hundreds of years.

Auch stained glass window part

Then came printing, colour printing, photography, colour photography, and digital cameras, and now there are millions of images in the digital world of these windows. What confidence do we have that any one of these digital images will be visible to a human eye five hundred years hence?

The archive problem is one of format. As soon as we store images in digital, not analogue, form then the storing and reading mechanism's life becomes a concern as does the durability of the digital format itself.

We are coming towards a realisation that we need a few digital file formats, few enough and capable enough that we can store the information we want in them, and then just keeping on copying the files from one reading and writing format to another as time passes: from tape to CD, to DVD, to BluRay, to SATA disk, to SAS disk, to …. well, we don't care; it can go to the cloud and the cloud service suppliers can store the bits on whatever device they want, just so long as we can read and write our TIFFs and JPEGs.

Then in five hundred years time, in a thousand years time, trillions of pictures of the Auch windows will be stored and accessible in the cloud. But not one of them, not even one part of them, against the graphic rich background of our everyday environment, will have the jaw-dropping impact of people seeing them for the very first time in 1514, and realising that humans could do wondrous things for themselves. Truly, information storage can be a marvellous thing. ®

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