Museum Home Past Exhibitions Images in Light: Newly Acquired Stained Glass

October 28, 2003–April 4, 2004 at the Getty Center

Portrait of a Canon / Unknown
Portrait of a Canon, Swiss, about 1520
audio Listen to a discussion about this image.

During the Gothic period and the Renaissance (1100s–1500s) stained glass was one of the foremost techniques of painting practiced in Europe. It may seem surprising to call stained glass a form of painting, but in fact it is. Look closely at the image here and note that the surfaces of each piece of glass are painted in a wide range of dark tones. One of the most widespread forms of painting, stained glass inspired the lives of the faithful through religious narratives in churches and cloisters, celebrated family and political ties in city halls, and even decorated the windows of private houses. This exhibition presents highlights from the recent acquisition of a group of stained glass panels, which broadens the scope of the J. Paul Getty Museum collection to include this significant medium.

Seraph / Unknown
Seraph, Reims Cathedral, France, about 1275–1299

Gothic Stained Glass

Some of the most powerful art produced in the High Middle Ages were stained-glass cycles, or visual stories, in French cathedrals. Among the most famous of these is in Reims Cathedral, from which this arresting lunette (a half moon–shape) originally came. The seraph, one of the six-winged angels that were thought to stand in the presence of God, is frighteningly formal, with thick strokes of black vitreous paint used to render its commanding eyes and facial features.

What is vitreous paint?
Glass painters used a special paint made of glass particles suspended in a liquid binder—vitreous means "consisting of glass"—to paint the side of glass that would face the interior of the building. During firing, the glass particles in the paint melted and merged with the glass surface to create a range of brown and black tones.

Virgin and Child / Unknown
The Virgin and Child, Master of Klosterneuberg, about 1335
audio Listen to a discussion about this image.

One of the most important medieval churches is the Abbey of Klosterneuberg outside Vienna. This panel from Klosterneuberg shows the great achievements of medieval stained glass. The painting demonstrates how pure, supple lines communicate tenderness and delicacy, even when viewed from a distance, as was often the case with medieval church glass. Simple fields of color (including the silver stain used in the yellow halos) complete the radiant effect.

Why is it called stained glass?
The term stained glass derives from the silver stain that was often applied to the side of the window that would face the outside of the building. When the glass was fired, the silver stain turned a yellow color that could range from lemon to gold.

Saint John / Unknown
Saint John, from a Crucifixion, possibly South German, about 1420

This emotion-filled panel eloquently demonstrates the essential means of expression of medieval glass painters. The delicate modeling of the face and hand was done by applying vitreous paint to clear glass and then stabbing it with a broad brush to create points of light. It was then contoured with a pointed brush, creating expressive, almost calligraphic linework, as seen in the tousled hair and distraught facial features of Saint John. Originally, this would have been part of a larger Crucifixion scene.

Heraldic Panel / Unknown
Heraldic Panel Showing the Eberler Family Arms, Swiss, about 1490
audio Listen to a discussion of this image.

Renaissance Stained Glass

By the late 1400s glass became more affordable, and houses were increasingly fitted with clear glass windows, sometimes inset with small stained-glass panels. This panel, showing a family coat of arms, was probably made for a private home. Typical of such panels, it is colorful, light, and humorous. A flirtatious maiden (not harmless, though—she's armed with a knife) demurely turns away from the aggressive boar that is the symbol of the Basel family of Eberler. At the top, young women and men hunt in a landscape, a pastime that was thought to lead to amorous dalliances.

Crucifixion, St. Christopher and Donor / Unknown
The Crucifixion, Saint Christopher and a Donor, French, about 1500–1510

The production of large-scale stained-glass windows for churches flourished in Europe during the Renaissance. These two monumental examples probably once decorated a chapel. On the left is a Crucifixion scene, and on the right is a young kneeling donor. As he adores The Crucifixion, the donor is protected by Saint Christopher, the giant who ferried the Christ child over a river. The brilliant color and complex workmanship of these panels indicate that they were a lavish expression of piety on the part of the young, unidentified donor.

Archangel Michael / Unknown
The Archangel Michael Vanquishing the Devil, possibly South Netherlandish, about 1530
audio Listen to a discussion of this image.

Silver-Stained Roundels

During the late 1400s glass windows in domestic interiors became ubiquitous, and small painted roundels like this one—a single piece of clear glass with vitreous paint and golden silver stain—became so popular that their production reached nearly industrial proportions by the 1520s. Purchased in large cycles or as single images, they were intended to amuse and instruct, with subjects like zodiac signs, religious imagery, portraits, and heraldry.

In this intricate example, the light brown paint has been stippled and scratched away with brushes and pointed sticks to achieve the delicate modeling in Saint Michael's drapery and the body of Satan. Silver stain was employed to maximum effect, ranging from the egg-yolk yellow flames engulfing Satan to the light lemon of the distant landscape.