Stained Glass: Old Windows and New Views
April 06, 2007
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Fashions in the appreciation of art, just like fashions in clothes, change. What was once highly prized, such as the densely colored gothic glass of Notre-Dame of Paris, by the eighteenth century seemed oppressive and dark. In an effort to bring the cathedral into accord with modern taste, the lower windows were destroyed and replaced with non-figural uncolored windows. All that is left are the three rose windows, too high to merit removal. Loss also happens even when stained glass is deeply admired. The belief that a modern painter can copy old glass and produce an authentic image is now rejected. The replacing of damaged work with new copies, however, was once a standard practice and engaged in by patrons and artists committed to restoring their churches to their original splendor. It resulted in tragic over -intervention. Current attitudes advocate the retention of the original, no matter how fragmentary.
It is against the personalized nature of taste that the steward of historic buildings must raise a defense. Each style and subject was the product of patrons with deep convictions of the value of art to society. Produced by monks, bishops, kings, and also by grieving parents, parish subscription, and a host of anonymous patrons, the windows reflect the priorities of their makers. They speak to us over time, revealing as well, the commitment of those who have experienced and preserved them through centuries.
Architectural stained glass exists in tens of thousands of installations across the United States. Many glazing programs in America are between 100 and 75 years old and are approaching a critical moment for their conservation. Stewards of religious edifices need to see themselves as the primary forces in the continued use, adaptive reuse, and preservation of buildings. Many elements of building restoration for religious sites such as the heating or roof repairs, are issues encountered elsewhere, and therefore present somewhat understandable problems. Members of congregations may have considerable experience, and competitive standards are more readily available. Stained glass, however, seems strange, exotic, even intimidating. Its restoration, however, lends itself to the same kinds of evaluative steps, rational procedures, and transparency of discussion. As with any procedure, the best protection is an informed customer.
Owners of windows should realize that they can accomplish an impressive amount of evaluation and documentation on their own. Above all, the stewards of religious property need to involve a congregation or other members of the community in contributing to an analysis of the historical and structural nature of the windows. It is to be stressed that shared resources is the best method of furthering limited resources. Denominations, in particular, would be well advised to form collective resource centers. A preliminary campaign is essential before calling in a professional consultant or for asking stained glass studios to do any restoration. Without such an internal assessment, a congregation is liable to face contradictory and divisive suggestions, financial loss, and even substandard work. An evaluation needs to have visual and written components.
Make a photographic and written survey of windows. Digital imagery can greatly facilitate this practice, since it reduced the cost of experimentation. Use a tripod and the highest quality camera available. Asking for a local volunteer and even advertising in the local high school or community groups may bring forward valuable expertise. Taking the photographs is often straightforward and can be done in a two-day campaign. Thus, the amount of time and money invested can be controlled.
There should be a general series of images for historical purposes. Take, as well, details of significant aspects of the windows, details of faces, inscriptions, and particular decorative motifs. A bright overcast day gives the best lighting condition; shooting directly into light gives glare. Where it seems that the windows are in need of repair, take photographs in reflective light, that is, with light on the glass, not coming through it.
Research the social and historic value of windows. It is possible to determine the types of windows: traditional European techniques, those of the opalescent style, or modern techniques. Use books such as my recent Stained Glass from Its Origins to the Present (New York: Abrams, 2003), which dedicates almost half of the book to windows dating from the 18th through 20th centuries. Go through any information about the windows in (1) church records; (2) diocesan records; (3) newspapers of the time. One can also research the donors of the windows through genealogical sources and if know, the studios by some libraries that have shown a particular interest in the history of stained glass, e.g., Corning Museum of Glass (Corning, NY), Boston Public Library (Boston, MA), or the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum (New York City, NY). Make simple binders of this information, including prints of images; ordinary (not photographic) paper is adequate.
Such recommendations are the basis for an informed decision about the next state of a restoration, which is the invitation extended to a number of stained glass studios. Part 2 of this article will outline the steps of making a request for a proposal and for formulating the questions for evaluating a bid.
Dr. Virginia Raguin is Professor of Art History at The College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA. She is author of Stained Glass: From its Origins to the Present (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003) and The History of Stained Glass: The Art of Light, Medieval to Contemporary (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003). She is also the editor of Catholic Collective, Catholic Reflection 1538 - 1850: Objects As a Measure of Reflection on a Catholic Past and the Construction of a Recusant Identity in England and America (Washington, DC: The Catholic University Press, 2006).
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