I love stained glass windows… the colour, the details, the vibrancy of the stories are simply inspiring. The stained glass windows in the Abbey Museum collection are some of my favourite objects. That is why I was so excited to take a group of our staff and volunteers to the studio of leading conservators Gerry Cummins and Jill Stehn near Eumundi who are currently undertaking conservation of three of our windows which are usually housed in the Abbey Church.
What an amazing opportunity to see and hear not only how these ancient windows are conserved, but also the traditional method of manufacture, especially in the Middle Ages.
On welcoming us to their studio, which is like an Aladdin’s cave of coloured glass, paints, brushes and colouring pencils, Gerry talked about the difference between leadlight windows and stained glass. They are currently creating an amazing leadlight window to be installed in the large Baptistry in St Monica’s Cathedral in Cairns. Leadlight windows, I learnt, are made of pieces of coloured glass which are joined together with lead strips to create a picture or design. Windows, like those in the Abbey Museum collection, differ in that they are painted with images of people, plants, animals and other decorative designs and are termed stained glass.
We learnt that in the Middle Ages only small pieces of glass could be manufactured. Large windows were created by joining the small pieces of coloured and painted glass with lead strips.
Making a window in the Middle Ages consisted of many steps.
- drawing a full size cartoon or design
- marking out the sections that will be different colour glass
- cutting a piece of coloured glass to fit each section
- patterns and designs are painted onto the glass pieces using powdered oxides, before being placed into a kiln and fired.
- several layers may be painted on between firings to give greater depth and shading
- finally each painted piece is laid out on the cartoon before being joined with H-shaped lead strips.
- the window is now ready for installation
I was fascinated to know that glass paint was made of crushed clear glass and powdered oxides. These powdered paints can be mixed with a variety of liquids such as water, vinegar, gum Arabic, clove and lavender oils (which smell amazing) and human urine, preferably female (yes, that is right… I guess male urine just doesn’t cut the mustard)
With three windows from the Abbey Church undergoing conservation laid out on the table, it was exciting to see up close the stunning level of artistry and skill of the medieval and Victorian stained glass artists. With so many of the Museum’s windows made up of fragments of medieval glass there are always small details of medieval artistry to tantalise and provide glimpses into the medieval world. In one heraldic window (which we believe originally came from the Mortuary Chapel of the Baron Ferrers at Ettington in Warwickshire) there are a number of small border pieces depicting heraldic lions that are of the highest quality.
Gerry pointed out a technique demonstrated in a late Victorian period Sancta Maria window that had him in awe. The artist, Vernon Spreadbury, had used a lovely piece of green “flashed” glass for the robe. Flash glass is a medieval technique of creating beautiful coloured glass. It was done by using a piece of “white” or clear class and putting a “flash” of coloured glass on one side. And in the case of the Sancta Maria window the green flash had been etched away to create c-shaped teardrop pattern (they look a little like golden tadpoles) on her robe. The back side of these “teardrops” were then painted with silver nitrate which on firing stains a golden yellow. The skill to do this was amazing and if it hadn’t been pointed out most of us would have missed this artistic gem.
As the afternoon slipped past on my admiration for the medieval and Victorian stained glass artists grew. And parallel with this was my great respect for Gerry and Jill and their team as they work to restore our three windows to their former glory and ensure that future generations have the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired by the skill and artistic talents of the creators of the magnificent windows in the Abbey Church and Abbey Museum collection.