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Stained glass, from a Romanesque nave to a Canadian airport

A comprehensive history, and catalogues for collections in the Metropolitan and the Victoria and Albert Museums

Three recent titles push the boundaries for the study of stained glass. A new survey by Virginia C. Raguin presents a history of the whole craft, from the monumentally hieratic Romanesque kings and prophets in the nave of Augsburg Cathedral (early 12th century), to the transiently shimmering “Great wave” in layered float glass by Lutz Haufschild in the departure lounge of Vancouver International Airport (1996). The book is aimed at the general reader, or student, and written in an energetic style, never shrinking from impassioned advocacy. The first chapter focuses upon the special power of the medium to deploy light and colour within an architectural setting. For medieval viewers, the luminosity of glass carried symbolic connotations of transcendence and emanation from the divine, and contemporary architects are no less fascinated by its potential. Prominently displaying illuminated images and meanings, it is argued, stained glass was always intended to impress these upon its audiences.

Professor Raguin’s declared priority is to supply cultural contexts, on the sound principle that it “suffices only that a subsequent viewer be removed from the framing culture to render the image esoteric”. A chronological sequence of chapters on the Middle Ages balances categories of building with examples of buildings, changing patronage, devotional needs and choices of imagery, relating all of these to artistic decisions within the craft. Her treatment of glass painting from the 19th century onwards is perhaps less nuanced thematically, organised more often into national categories, or consideration of individuals and their workshops—a reflection of the vast amount of diverse and relatively well documented work, and of contemporary perceptions of nationality. The bewildering diversity of 20th-century glass is well illustrated in the final chapter. The colour photographs are mostly of good quality and the book is attractively priced, but the lack of references in the text to illustrations seriously compromises reading and there is some sloppy copy editing.

Two new catalogues present collections of stained glass in museums, demonstrating the particular opportunities that such conditions offer for close inspection. The longer is the first of several studies on the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, by the late Jane Hayward, focusing upon medieval glass from France and England. The collection is of outstanding importance. Reflecting traditional aesthetic preferences, it is strong in French glass of the late 12th and 13th centuries, with figurative panels from the cathedrals of Poitiers, Rouen, Soissons and Tours, and the abbeys of Saint-Yved at Braine and Saint-Germain des Prés in Paris. But there is also much else of interest, including superb grisaille (decoratively painted clear glass) of the 13th and 14th centuries, the acquisition of which was pioneered by the author, who was a curator of the museum’s medieval art department from 1969 until her death in 1994.

The history of collecting is central, for obvious reasons, to the study of medieval stained glass in America and Mary B. Shepard’s essay on the development of the museum’s landmark collection is well documented and lively. Acquisitions began surprisingly late (only in 1906), gathering pace under the German art historian and curators William R. Valentiner and Bashford Dean, curator of arms and armour (also a collector, zoologist and expert on prehistoric armoured fish). With the acquisition of the Cloisters collection in 1925 and the creation of a new museum for it in Fort Tryon Park, the purchase of further stained glass was essential to the medieval interiors recreated under curators Joseph Breck and James J. Rorimer. The survey closes with the place of Hayward herself, affectionately described by one colleague as the “Queen Mother of stained glass”, in developing a greater awareness of the medium’s special qualities. Over nearly 30 years in the museum, but also in cultivating a generation of younger scholars (including Virginia Raguin, whose book is discussed above), Hayward promoted stained glass as worthy of study in its own right. Hayward died in 1994 and, although much painstaking new work has gone into the publication, additions are modestly presented in brackets. This book is undoubtedly her monument.

The second catalogue, by Paul Williamson, presents 100 panels of medieval and Renaissance stained glass in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Shorter and cheaper than the Metropolitan production, it is carefully conceived for a different and general audience—which it should delight. Every item is illustrated in a colour plate of exceptional quality. A brief introduction outlines the history of the collection, the result of a steady accumulation in the second half of the 19th century and extraordinary acquisitions under Bernard Rackham, Keeper between 1914 and 1938. He oversaw the addition of the J. Pierpont Morgan, Jr Collection (1919) and the panels from James Wyatt’s Gothic pile of Ashridge Park in Hertfordshire (1928). At the back, short but informative catalogue entries update attributions in line with recent scholarship. Representing only a tiny part of the collection, the volume nevertheless suggests its range and depth. It should encourage new visitors to one of the world’s greatest but least known collections of stained glass.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘From a Romanesque nave to a Canadian airport'