Renaissance Glass Painting

Renaissance Glass Painting

Glass painting in the Renaissance.

Craftsman Style

The quality par excellence of Renaissance glass was its painting; its dependence upon paint was its defect. Until about the middle of the sixteenth century the painter goes on perfecting himself in his special direction, neglecting, to some extent, considerations of construction on the one hand, and of colour upon the other, which cannot with impunity be ignored in glass, but achieving pictorially such conspicuous success that there may be question, among all but ardent admirers of glass that is essentially glass-like, as to whether the loss, alike in depth and in translucency of colour, as well as of constructional fitness, may not be fully compensated for by the gain in fullness of pictorial expression. According as we value most the qualities of glass in glass, or the qualities of a picture in no matter what material, will our verdict be. But there comes a point when the painter so far oversteps the limit of consistency, so clearly attempts to do in glass what cannot be done in it, so plainly sacrifices to qualities which he cannot get the qualities which stained glass offers him, that he ceases to be any longer working in glass, and is only attempting upon glass what had very much better have been done in some other and more congenial medium.

The event goes to prove the seductiveness of the pictorial idea, and illustrates once more the danger of calling to your assistance a rival craft, which, by-and-by, may oust you from your own workshop. The consideration of the possibilities in the way of pictorial glass is reserved for a chapter by itself. It concerns us for the moment only in so far as the pictorial intention affected, as it very seriously did, the technique of glass painting.

In pursuit of the pictorial the painter strayed from his allegiance to glass. He learnt to depend upon his manipulation instead of upon his material; and that facility of his in painting led him astray. He not only began to use paint where before he would, as a matter of course, have glazed-in coloured glass, but to lay it on so heavily as seriously to detract from that translucency which is the glory of glass.

It is rash to say, at a glance, whether glass has been too heavily painted or not. I once made a careful note, in writing, that certain windows in the church of S. Alpin, at Chalons, were over-painted. After a lapse of two or three years I made another equally careful note to the effect that they were thin, and wanted stronger painting. It was not until, determined to solve the mystery of these contradictory memoranda, I went a third time to Chalons, that I discovered, that with the light shining full upon them the windows were thin, that by a dull light they were heavy, and that by a certain just sufficiently subdued light they were all that could be desired. There is indiscretion, at least, in painting in such a key that only one particular light does justice to your work; but the artist in glass is always very much at the mercy of chance in this respect. He cannot choose the light in which his work shall be seen, and the painter of Chalons may have been more unfortunate than in any way to blame. There comes, however, a degree of heaviness in painted glass about which there can be no discussion. When the paint is laid on so thick that under ordinary conditions of light the glass is obscure, or when it is so heavy that the light necessary to illuminate it is more than is good for the rest of the window, the bounds of moderation have surely been passed. And in the latter half of the sixteenth century it was less and less the custom to take heed of considerations other than pictorial; so that by degrees the translucency of glass was sacrificed habitually to strength of effect depending not so much upon colour, which is the strength of glass, as upon the relief obtained by shadow, just the one quality not to be obtained in glass painting. For the quality of shadow depends upon its transparency; and shadow painted upon glass, through which the light is to come, must needs be obscure, must lack, in proportion as it is dark, the mysterious quality of light in darkness, which is the charm of shadow. The misuse of shading which eventually prevailed may best be explained by reference to its beginnings, already in the first half of the century, when most consummate work was yet being done. For example, in the masterpieces of Bernard van Orley, at S. Gudule, Brussels, one of which is illustrated overleaf; it is a mere diagram, giving no idea of the splendour of the glass, but it is enough to serve our purpose.

The execution of the window is, in its kind, equal to the breadth and dignity of the design. The painter has done, if not quite all that he proposed to do, all that was possible in paint upon glass. Any fault to find in him, then, must be with what he meant to do, not what he did. To speak justly, there is no fault to find with any one, but only with the condition of things. We have here, associated with the glass painter, a more famous artist, the greatest of his time in Flanders, pupil of Michael Angelo, court painter, and otherwise distinguished. It was not to be expected that he should be learned in all the wisdom of the glass painter, nor yet, human nature being what it is, that he should submit himself, lowly and reverently, to the man better acquainted with the capacities of glass. All that the glass painter could do was to translate the design of the master into glass as best he might, not perhaps as best he could have done had there been no great master to consult in the matter.

This was not the first time, by any means, that the designer and painter of a window were two men. There is no saying how soon that much sub-division of labour entered the glass worker's shop; but so long as they were both practical men, versed each in his art, and, to some extent, each in the technique of the other, it did not so much matter. When the painter from outside was called in to design, it mattered everything. What could he be expected to care for technique other than his own? What did he know about it? He was only an amateur so far as glass was concerned; and his influence made against workmanlikeness. He may have done marvels ; he did marvels ; but his very mastery made things worse. He bore himself so superbly that it was not seen what dangerous ground he trod on. Lesser men must needs all stumble along in his footsteps, until they fell; and in their fall they dragged their art with them.

The fault inherent in such work as the Brussels windows is neither Van Orley's nor the glass painter's ; it is in the mistaken aim of the designer striving less for colour in his windows than for relief. He succeeds in getting quite extraordinary relief, but at the expense of colour, which in glass is the most important S.G.F thing. The figures in the window illustrated are so strongly painted that even the white portions of their drapery stand out in dark relief against the pale-grey sky. That is not done, you may be sure, without considerable sacrifice of the light-giving quality of the glass. It is at a similar cost that the white-and-gold architecture stands out in almost the solidity of actual stone against the plain white diamond panes above, giving very much the false impression that it is placed in the window, and that you see through its arches and behind it into space. Another very striking thing in the composition is the telling mass of shadow on the soffit of the central arch. It produces its effect, and a very strong one. The festoons of yellow arabesque hanging in front of it tell out against it like beaten gold, and the rather poorish grey-blue background to the figures beneath it has by comparison an almost atmospheric quality. It is all very skilfully planned as light and dark; but there is absolutely no reason why that shadow should have been produced by heavy paint. Under certain conditions of light there are, it is true, gleams of light amidst this shadow. You can make out that the roof is coffered, and can perceive just a glow of warm colour; but most days and most of the day it is dead, dull, lifeless, colourless. The points to note are: (i) that this painted shadow must of necessity be dull; and (2) that on work of this scale at all events (the figures here are very much over lifesize), this abandonment of the mosaic method was not in the slightest degree called for. On the contrary, the simpler, easier, and more workmanlike thing to do would have been to glaze-in the shadow with deep rich pot-metal glass. That was done in earlier glass, and in glass of about the same period as this.

Mosaic Glass, Arezzo
Mosaic Glass, Arezzo.

Renaissance Window, S. Gudule, Brussels
Renaissance Window, S. Gudule, Brussels.

For example, at Liege, where there are beautiful windows of about the same period, very similar in design, the glass is altogether lighter and more brilliant, partly owing to the use of paint with a much lighter hand, but yet more to greater reliance upon pot-metal. In the Church of S. Jacques, as at S. Gudule, there are arched canopies with festoons in bright relief against a background of shadowed soffit; but there the shadow is obtained by glazing-in pot-metal, which has all the necessary depth, and is yet luminous and full of colour.

So also the deeply shadowed architectural background to the representation of the Daughter of Herodias dancing before Herod, in the Church of S. Vincent, at Rouen (overleaf), is leaded up in deep purple glass, through which you get peeps of distant atmospheric blue beyond. And this was quite a common practice among French glass painters of the early half of the sixteenth century, as at Auch, at Ecouen, at Beauvais, at Conches, where the architecture in shadow is leaded in shades of purple or purplish glass, which leave little for the painter to do upon the pot-metal. At Freiburg, in Germany, there is a window designed on lines very similar indeed to Van Orley's work, in which the shadowed parts are glazed in shades of deep blue and purple. In Italy it was the custom, already in the fifteenth century, to lead-in deep shadows in pot-metal; and they did not readily depart from it. Surely that is the way to get strong effects, and not by paint. You may take it as a test of workmanlike treatment, that the darks have been glazed-in, where it was possible, and not merely painted upon the glass.

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