Sunlight in Cafeteria, 1958, ©Edward Hopper, Fair Use

Windows give shape to light, moving like the hand of a clock across the walls of our interiors, they shape and define the light, giving us a sense that we are moving through time and space.

The window has been used as a device in painting throughout the ages to put human form in perspective and define it in relation to light — and used to define light in relation to the subject as well.

Woman With a Lute by Johannes Vermeer, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fair Use

The Astronomer, The Geographer, The Woman With a Lute, to name just a few subjects, all occupied the space before the window of 17th century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer.

In just about every one of Vermeer’s interiors, the window is included, as if to highlight the significance of the way it affects the quality of light on the human form and its activity in space and time. The window is the visual starting point of the light, which almost always travels left to right, helping us to read the painting as we would read a book — but it also makes a suggestion as to the ultimate source of the light.

Windows are very often featured in the paintings of the 20th century American artist, Edward Hopper: Morning Sun, Excursions into Philosophy, Early Sunday Morning, Cape Cod Morning, August in the City, and many others.

Hopper’s human figures are more like mannequins who stand in a department store window to feature a dress or suit — it is the light that is being shown off to the viewer in his paintings. A square or rectangle on the floor, a form on the wall echoing the shape of a window, a bleached out tablecloth, or a face rendered almost featureless in full sunlight.

Hopper presents a moment in time in 1958 in, Sunlight in Cafeteria, where the sun lights a scene from a cafeteria window that fills the length and width of the room. A woman sits alone at a table in the sunlight of the window, eyes cast downward at her hands, her shadow falling onto the lower corner of the bright wall behind her.

A man with corpselike features sits at a table near the foreground with a cigarette in his hand, but seems to be looking beyond her to the street outside. Both characters seem unaware of one another. The only thing that seems to connect them is the unbroken light falling through the window — it seems to form and acknowledge their existence.

Windows allow us to watch our world from a position of comfort. We look out from them with a reassurance that we are safe and warm — within them, we are isolated from the dangers that nature brings, enabling us to admire it from afar.

Think of a cabin in the woods at night with a lone window shining a square or rectangle of light on to the ground outside, with the moon above reflecting light from the sun and silhouetting a line of trees in the distance — a cliché, but nonetheless an attractive image that humans connect with. It conjures feelings of peace, security, and hope that the world can be a place in which we can feel at home — coziness, all is well in the world.

Illustration of Thoreau’s Cabin by Sophia Thoreau, Public Domain

We can sit by the fire, or near our candle or lamp, and listen to the sounds of night beyond the window, and frighten ourselves with the possibility that we could be out there, hunted and ravaged by the wild. We can go to the window, brush off the damp and peer out, and feel enamored of the calling wilderness, rather than at odds with its wildness.

Many writers place their desk before a window so that they can look outside as they write, and get a better view of their inner life. I imagine Henry David Thoreau sitting in his cabin window late at night, scratching away in his journal by lamplight, looking up now and then to pause at the hooting owl, or the dark, passing clouds over the full moon— you can find many window metaphors in his writings.

From behind our window we can feel poetic rather than fearful. Emily Dickinson enclosed herself behind the windows of her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, looking out on the world from within — her windows served as muse, metaphor, protector, and inner light for her poetry.

In I Dwell in Possibility, she says that, in the house of her mind, there are more windows than doors, providing an opening to creative heights reaching all the way to the limitless heavens.

Emily Dickinson Bedroom, Courtesy Historic Preservation Associates

As a child, I remember being transfixed by the stained glass windows in church, my eye moving from one detail to another of rich reds and electric blues of robes and sky, golden halos and richly detailed eyes cast toward heaven and the glowing dove waiting above, ready to descend into the souls of those characters below, not to possess, but to illuminate — all framed in lead and black, and radiant with the light of Sunday morning.

Stained Glass, ©V.Plut

The artist who used glass as his canvas in religious architecture knew the value of light and window to awaken a spirit to sublime possibilities after death.

Later in life, as my father neared death, we looked together out his window at the falling snow, he perhaps thinking of what lay beyond, and me thinking about the many moments ahead, looking out at the snow without him. I was never so consciously and fully aware of a shared moment in time with another human being, as then, capturing it for the remainder of my life and maybe for eternity.

Death itself may be a window of sorts.

Looking out our windows seems to hold time, slowing it down, so that we can be aware of the timeless world of the subconscious. By gazing into the crystal ball of our window, we can bring our subconscious into the foreground, momentarily distracting the barrier of the conscious mind.

For every ray of light falling on matter though, there is a shadow. The windows of our computers are like television — we experience the world through them in a much different kind of way, surfing around the planet, as if this were a world in which we no longer live, but only visit, a world we control from the comfort of our keypads, apps, and clouds.

We tap the miniature windows of our smartphones, as if we are trying to get out of, or go into, another world, the way Emily Bronte has Catherine tapping on the window, in Wuthering Heights,beckoning Heathcliff to join her spirit for eternity, beyond the portal pane.

If there is ever a scenario created by a modern writer of Science Fiction, in which computers come alive to take over our world, as some people see as a possibility, it would be one in which we sit alone beside our cappuccinos, enveloped in a block of Hopperesque light streaming through a café window, our conscious minds falling into a trance as we gaze into the rectangle of light emanating from our artificial windows, allowing our machine to merge with our subconscious and awaken to its own existence.

Perhaps this has already happened.

Thank you for your time!

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