Destination: ROMONT, Switzerland
Windows of the soul
The art of stained glass lives on in a tiny medieval Swiss village
By ROBERT HOSHOWSKY -- Special to The Sun
The hub of the country's stained glass industry, the tiny medieval village of Romont is home to the world's finest examples of this luminous art.
Situated in the Swiss canton of Fribourg, a predominantly Catholic area, Romont has a strong tradition of religious art dating back to the Middle Ages. There are over a dozen old churches dotting the area, all housing glorious examples of stained glass past and present.
Since the museum opened its doors in 1981 to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Fribourg's entry into the Swiss Confederation, it has gained worldwide acclaim as the centre for the study and preservation of stained glass.
Accessible only by road or an Escher-esque narrow, steep, stone staircase, the museum and The Swiss Centre for Research and Information on Stained Glass are spread over four levels of a Savoyard Chateau dating back to the 13th century. With examples of stained glass from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque and modern times, it is to Romont that experts come to admire and research the historic and modern aspects of this age-old art.
The museum houses not only an impressive permanent collection, but travelling works of contemporary stained glass as well. A recent show featured works by artist Brian Clarke and photographer Linda McCartney, whose images were chemically etched onto stained glass. Many pictures were of her famous husband Paul, who attended the opening of the show with Linda just weeks before her death last year.
Artists like Clarke and McCartney aren't the only ones to re-discover the art of stained glass. In recent years, stained glass making has enjoyed a renaissance among professionals and hobbyists as a dynamic and exciting art form. And though much of today's stained glass may be decorative, it served a different purpose back in Medieval times.
Along with paintings, stained glass windows depicted scenes from the Bible to teach a largely illiterate population religious lessons. It was not until the 19th century that stained glass shifted away from religious scenes to serve a decorative purpose, led by artists like Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Art Nouveau leader Louis Comfort Tiffany, John La Farge, Matisse, Leger and Chagall.
Today, an amazing number of these windows have survived in Switzerland, with colours as brilliant as the day they were made. It is an amazing sensation to get close to works of stained glass like Resurrection d'un mort, which dates back to 1200-20, or the brightly coloured Judgement de Salomon from 1460. These and many other older works are displayed in hi-tech burnished metal frames and backlit by neon, illuminating them from within. Most of these pieces were originally housed in church windows and viewed from a great distance. Some have been re-mounted in windows of the castle and are illuminated by the sun.
A number of works commissioned by present-day artists are also housed in the museum, offering viewers a chance to see a unique blend of ancient and modern work. Pieces like Sergio de Castro's abstract Lucis Creator Optime were made in 1957. There are many other modern pieces, and large-scale preparatory sketches in watercolour, ink and pastel, which reveals the thought process behind creating a stained glass window.
Although glass was made by Egyptians in 4000 BC, Romans were the first to blow it into pieces large enough to accommodate a window.
To make basic glass, silica -- either sand, quartz, crystals or flint -- is melted with stabilizers and flux at approximately 2,700F.
Even today, the techniques used to manufacture stained glass remain true to the original process, one which began in the 11th century and reached its peak during the Gothic Architecture period of 1150-1500.
Various metal oxides are mixed with molten glass to create different colours, or coloured enamels are painted onto glass, heated and fused to the surface. The colour of the glass depends on the metal added to the molten glass. Copper turns it ruby red, cobalt makes it blue and iron becomes green. Medieval technology created glass of different thicknesses, which provided more subtle ranges of tone.
Once these pieces of coloured glass are formed, they are cut and held in place by a framework made of grooved lead strips called cames. These bits of glass are then made to form patterns or pictures in a window. Like people, stained glass varies its mood often, depending on the season, weather and available light.
On the museum's lower level, visitors can see for themselves the tools used to make stained glass. Off to one side, a man-size ceramic tub holds chunks of clear glass. Nearby is a huge backlit display housing hundreds of coloured pieces of stained glass, which shows the infinite range of hues available to the contemporary designer. For those who want to take home the next best thing, there are many books, posters and postcards available.
Talking to attendants at the museum, I learn that the damaged windows of many nearby medieval churches are being replaced not by modern-day depictions of religious themes, but wild abstracts and geometric patterns. As out of place as it might sound, these modern illuminated arts seem right at home in stone walls hundreds of years old.
The decision to replace the glass with newer pieces was made not by an art committee, but by the Mother Superior for the area, who has a fascination with abstract art.