Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 19, 2001
Barbara Butts, Lee Hendrix, and Scott Wolf Painting on Light: Drawings and Stained Glass in the Age of Dürer and Holbein Getty Trust Publications, 2000. 330 pp.; 178 color ills.; 127 b/w ills. Cloth $125.00 (0892365781)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, July 11–September 24, 2000; The Saint Louis Art Museum, November 4, 2000–January 7, 2001
Thumbnail

Painting on Light: Drawings and Stained Glass in the Age of Dürer and Holbein was a stunning exhibition of 152 drawings and examples of stained glass (see the exhibition review by Christiane Andersson in Burlington Magazine CXLII no. 1173, December 2000, pp. 801–803). The Los Angeles venue included a two-day international symposium (September 15–16, 2000). The exhibition was also seen at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Perhaps the single greatest achievement of this ambitious undertaking, including its handsome and fully-illustrated catalogue, is that it serves to remind us that stained glass played an enormously important role in Renaissance Germany and Switzerland, that its greatest masters and most opulent donors were by and large identical with those with whom we are already familiar in the area of panel painting and the graphic arts. For those of us unfamiliar with Renaissance stained glass it is as if whole extensions of the oeuvre of Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung Grien, Hans von Kulmbach, Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, Urs Graf, Hans Holbein the Younger, and others, have suddenly been discovered and offered up for study.

The catalogue begins with an introduction by the exhibition organizers, Barbara Butts and Lee Hendrix. They lay the groundwork for an understanding of the patrons, artists, centers of production, and techniques involved in stained glass manufacture in Renaissance Germany and Switzerland. Several themes emerge here that are borne out through the remainder of the catalogue; for example, the authors observe that drawings produced for stained glass design often (though not always) have special characteristics that lend themselves to interpretation in the medium of stained glass, notably the use of washes or simple shading rather than complex passages of cross-hatching. The foundation is also laid for our understanding of stained glass manufacture as a collaborative process, and the catalytic role of the fifteenth-century Strasbourg stained glass workshops is briefly introduced. It should be acknowledged at the outset that one indication of the high regard for the concept of this study and for its team is the willingness of fifty-seven institutions to lend among their most cherished treasures. Very few loan requests were turned down for this exhibition with the result that the catalogue deals not only with representative pieces, but also with masterworks.

The themes of the three main catalogue essays can be summarized as investigations of monumental windows, small and intimate windows, and problems of technique and conservation. The first of these essays is by Hartmut Scholz, “Monumental Stained Glass in Southern Germany in the Age of Dürer.” Scholz offers a detailed introduction to many of the chief centers of glass manufacture (Strasbourg, Freiburg, Nuremberg, Augsburg, Munich, Landshut) and emphasizes that the Strasbourg shops played a defining role. Especially useful is an introduction to the “Strasbourg cooperative,” a loose consortium of five talented glass painters led by Peter Hemmel. While this cooperative had largely died out by 1500, its impetus reached well into the sixteenth century. For example, Nuremberg’s leading glass painter in the early sixteenth century, Veit Hirsvogel the Elder, had been a journeyman in Strasbourg in the 1480s. The Hirsvogel shop ultimately worked on imperial commissions and with artists such as Dürer, Kulmbach, and Baldung. Furthermore, Scholz observes how local talents emerged in the sixteenth century amidst the presence of the earlier magisterial works of the Strasbourg workshops that still occupied prominent positions in the choir windows of Nuremberg, Augsburg, and Freiburg.

Barbara Giesicke and Mylène Ruoss consider a special category of windows in their essay, “In Honor of Friendship: Function, Meaning, and Iconography in Civic Stained-Glass Donations in Switzerland and Southern Germany.” As the authors note, “The era in which the main function of stained-glass painting was to fill houses of God with sublimely colored light and remind the faithful of the teachings of the church, the gospel, and the legends of the saints was coming to an end and, indeed, finally came to an end with the advent of the Reformation.” In their place emerged small heraldic glass panels that were offered to town halls to cement diplomatic initiatives, such as allegiance to the Swiss Confederation. The authors offer a welcome review of the political situation in Switzerland and Southern Germany as well as a number of detailed readings of specific heraldic panels.

In his essay, “On the Artistic Technique of Glass Painting in the Age of Dürer and Holbein and Its Conservation Problems,” Peter van Treeck reminds us at the outset that glass painting is fundamentally different from panel painting, relying, as it does, on the application of pigment to both sides of the support, not only to one. A full section is dedicated to the distinct materials and techniques used around 1490 to 1520 for monumental windows and for smaller and more intimate “cabinet panels.”

A biography of each artist precedes the catalogue entries, which are authored by the exhibition organizers (with the exception of cat. no. 4, by Timothy B. Husband). The entries are extensively researched, and each is accompanied by a header with full scholarly apparatus, including: technique, dimensions, provenance, inscriptions with translations, interpretations of coats of arms, watermarks, bibliography, and, for the windows, condition. Remarkably, the catalogue entries are anything but redundant, with each investigating the special set of problems posed by the work in question. Among the many major themes that thread through the catalogue sections are imperial iconography and imperial commissions (cat. nos. 13–14, 49, 51–54, 71–74, 83–90), attribution issues (cat. nos. cat. nos. 7, 18, 23–25), reformation iconography (cat. nos. 126–128), and the detective work of reconstructing and understanding complete stained glass cycles with recourse to documents, drawings, and early photographs (cat. nos. 11–17; 21–22, 23, 36–43, 51–54, 80–82, 83–90, 91–94, 98–109.)

Among the most spectacular works discussed in the catalogue are the small, intimate windows that adorned private studies, chapels, town halls, and parish churches. Outstanding examples include the drawings by Dürer of Death on a Horseback and Sixtus Tucher at His Open Grave of 1502 for trefoil windows that may have adorned the study of Tucher’s country house, and the window designed by Niklaus Manuel Deutsch showing King Josiah Has the Idols Destroyed from the church at Jegenstorf in Canton Bern of about 1530. These two masterworks, dramatically different in their iconographic, stylistic, and sociological underpinnings, represent the sweep of this study from the late medieval secular imagery that lingered early in the century to works profoundly informed by the protestant reformation thirty years later, and from the imperial city Nuremberg to the cities of the Swiss Confederation. Within this relatively tight framework of Painting on Light, Butts and Hendrix chart a brilliant efflorescence in stained glass design and manufacture, one that opens a new door on our understanding of the Renaissance in the North.

Stephen Goddard
Associate Director and Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, Professor of Art History, Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.