The Art Of Renaissance Stained Glass At The National Gallery

By Richard Moss | 07 November 2007
a stained glass work of art depicting a couple in bed sleeping

German (Lower Rhine), Tobias and Sarah on their Wedding Night, about 1520. © V&A Images / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Richard Moss chills out and enjoys the National Gallery's latest exhibition about stained glass.

A new exhibition has opened at the National Gallery in London that explores the beautiful craft of German Renaissance glass and its relationship to painting of the period.

Art of Light runs until February 17 2008 and is an exhibition full of light and colour, with some fine paintings from the National Gallery’s collection lined up next to stunning examples of stained glass borrowed from the V&A.

It's a surprisingly diverse and intense range, with many of the glass examples mirroring the use of pigments in painting resulting in many interesting parallels between the two forms – from subject matter to technique and style.

Stained glass makers of the time boasted an immense sophistication in the way they used colour and utilised a surprising feast of lustrous deep purples, verdant greens and flesh coloured pinks.

a stained glass work of art showing two figures before a medieval kitchen interior

German, from the cloister of Mariawald Abbey. Esau gives up his Birthright, 1521© V&A Images / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many of the pieces are of course ecclesiastical and tell many an interesting Biblical story, like the opening work, which focuses on the story of Tobias and Sarah. It's a book that doesn’t survive in Protestant versions of the Bible even though the rendering here is distinctly Puritan in tone.

Tobias was warned by the Archangel Gabriel not to consummate his marriage for the first three nights (Sarah, having already ‘seen off’ seven husbands) and the couple, in their medieval attire, are shown tucked up very chastely in bed, with their nightcaps and slippers neatly arranged.

Beyond the story it’s a beautiful piece, full of sumptuous detail. A single tear shape of red glass evokes the folds of the hanging bed curtain, whilst the pattern of the green bed cover is cleverly created by outlining the folds with black and staining with yellow to create green. Even the dog curled up on the bed-cover boasts fir created with vitreous paints showing how the glass craftsman worked in the same way that an artist would draw and paint.

a stained glass circle showing an angel against a yellow circle

German, after Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). The Virgin as Queen of Heaven, about 1530© V&A Images / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It’s an impactful work full of quiet beauty and grace that perfectly illustrates the legitimacy of treating stained and painted glass as works of art – an impression heightened by the fact that most of the pieces appear as individually framed works – rather than parts of great ensembles. Later a recreation of a whole cloister window of the Mariawald Abbey gives an idea of the impact of these pieces together.

The first paring of painting and glass is a portrait of an unknown man by Hans Baldung Grien next to a beautiful example of stained glass by one of the few names to have survived from the period, Lukas Zeiner.

Zeiner would have painted each piece of this intricate heraldic stained window separately – from designs supplied by the likes of Baldung and Dürer, who would have made several designs for glass but would have never entered the workshops of the stained glass craftsmen. The two worlds, although interdependent, remained separate and the great painters of the time left it to the skills of men like Zeiner to interpret their designs.

a triptych of stained glass panels showing scenes before the crucifixion of Christ

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(Above) German, after Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) The Flagellation, Ecce Homo and The Entombment, mid-16th century. © V&A Images / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The central section of the exhibition explores this symbiosis more closely with some examples of glass roundel designs by the artist Jörg Brue the elder. A very fashionable artist of the period, his designs were meant to be inserted into domestic houses, the glass discs were lightly stained to allow in the light.

By way of contrast, the other side of the room boasts an ecclesiastical version of the domestic roundel. The Virgin as the Queen of Heaven, after Dürer, dates from about 1530 and is a stunning piece bursting with mystical fire and light.

But whether for home, church, cathedral or abbey, the clever designs of the period are each intricately detailed - requiring a lot of skill to translate them onto a piece of glass.

Tracing was one solution but they also used engraving and woodcuts – as in the glass translation of Dürer’s three scenes from the passion – shown here together for the first time. The designs mark a move away from staining and are full of incredibly intense colours, including greens, purples and blues with the larger pieces worked up in the same way as paintings.

a stained glass panel showing a man washing in a stream

German, from the cloister of Mariawald Abbey, Naaman washing in the River Jordan, about 1520. © V&A Images / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Further on the artistry of the stained glass window is brought home by the recreation of the cloister window that once graced Mariawald Abbey, made after designs by Hans Baldung. Again it is full of painterly detail, with the window’s biblical stories transposed to the medieval period – with kitchen interiors, beautiful landscapes, forests, rippling waters and other pictorial effects.

Two altarpiece paintings mirror these techniques whilst a painting by the Master of Leiborn shows examples of stained glass in situ in the medieval interior, much like the Mariawald Abbey recreation.

The latter is a rare opportunity to see these works unified as a whole as they were taken, like much of the German Renaissance stained glass in the V&A collection, from the Abbey during the Napoleonic occupation of Germany. The pieces were often sold on and eventually made their way to England thanks to British collectors of the nineteenth century.

However, beyond the wheres and wherefores, this succinct exhibition is a soothing glimpse into another world – one of craftsmen and exquisite artwork and devotion. A film, accompanied by a gentle baroque soundtrack, takes visitors through the practice of stained-glass making. It’s a gentle progress that has a calming effect on the viewer – rather like the exhibition itself.

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