New Stained Glass Installations at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York houses the second-largest collection of medieval stained glass in the world (the Victoria & Albert’s collection being the largest). Now, in a unique feature and book review, we report on how curators at the Metropolitan have been installing new displays of the glass in both the main museum near Central Park and its wonderful Cloisters branch in Upper Manhattan. At the same time we take a close look at two beautifully-produced Corpus Vitrearum (USA) volumes cataloguing the French and English glass in the museum.
The Gallery for Western European Medieval Art from 1050 to 1300
Standing on a staircase landing and looking through an oculus, a bespectacled museum visitor in a drawing from a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine sets his sights on a decidedly Gothic lancet of stained glass. While the New Yorker piece was written about the discovery and rehabilitation of the oculus, a rare survivor from the 1880 building of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the drawing inadvertently calls attention to the prominence of stained glass in the Metropolitan’s recent reinstallation of one of its medieval galleries, now dedicated to western medieval art from 1030 to 1300. [Fig. 1]
Not only does this new arrangement inspire visitors to stop and examine the resplendent panels on view, but, with the brilliant alignment of French and German stained glass at the axes of the two corridors leading to the Medieval Galleries, museum-goers are literally drawn towards the light. [Fig. 2]
Peter Barnet, the Michel David-Weill Curator in Charge of the Department of Medieval Art and the Cloisters, reflected that it was his ‘goal in the new Medieval Europe Gallery to create a space where twelfth- and thirteenth-century works of art in all media—large and small—could be appreciated together.’ Recognizing from earlier reinstallations that ‘the works seen on axis from the corridors were crucial to the success of the gallery’, Barnet worked with his curatorial, conservation, and design colleagues to engineer these dramatic vistas.
Stained glass has played a significant role in the formation of the medieval collections at the Metropolitan since William R. Valentiner (1880–1958) was appointed as curator in 1907. 1982 saw the last major gallery installation of the Medieval Department’s stained glass – albeit in a broadside approach with panels grouped exclusively together. In the ensuing years as the Museum grew, the Medieval Galleries often devolved into a thoroughfare for visitors on their way to other collections. No longer. Not only is the current installation arresting, but the stained glass is fully integrated with works of sculpture, enamels, and precious metals, stimulating the visitor to explore their many visual correspondences. [Fig. 3]
For example, the lancet with panels from the life of St Vincent and the history of his relics (1245–47) from the Parisian abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (discussed in Vidimus 21, is aligned with the silver-gilt reliquary bust of St Yrieux (Limousin; 1225–50) from the church of Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche and the newly acquired head of Joseph (c.1230) from the limestone choir screen of the cathedral of Chartres.
This subtle but thoughtful grouping eloquently demonstrates the broad application of Gothic naturalism in France during the second half of the thirteenth century. In addition, curator Barbara Drake Boehm purposely drew parallels between an enamel plaque depicting a horse and rider found at Gourdon (c.1220) with the equestrian figures of Childebert and Clothar from the Saint-Germain-des-Prés glass. ‘The juxtaposition emphasizes an aesthetic shared between different techniques,’ observed Boehm, ‘but it also demonstrates how imagery from the chivalric world enriched the telling of sacred stories during this period.’ In addition to stressing such formal criteria, the curators deliberately placed the St Vincent glass – with its panels depicting the history of the saint’s relics at Saint-Germain-des-Prés – in this location to anchor a sector of the gallery devoted to the cult of relics, with reliquaries and liturgical objects. This kind of contextualization goes to the heart of the new Medieval Europe Gallery, prompting the New York Times to observe that ‘it is hard to think of another gallery in the museum – at least of Western art — where there is more going on, historically and aesthetically.’
An important factor in the success of these juxtapositions is that the glass has now been given an architectonic framework. In collaboration with the Museum’s curators, the exhibition designer, Dan Kershaw, provided these compositions with a series of graduated moldings, effectively grounding them within the wall so that they do not seem to float as apparitions of color. ‘We were fortunate,’ Barnet noted, ‘to find enough space behind the wall to allow the lighting system to be recessed so that the stained glass could be installed in the wall rather than on a light box protruding from the wall as in the previous installation.’ Curator Charles Little singled out this improvement as being of singular importance, as it ‘finally shows the Museum’s collection of stained glass as a monumental art form.’ One felicitous departure from this approach is the installation of the nine fragmentary heads from the ambulatory glazing of the cathedral of Bourges (c.1214). [Fig. 4]
Art fragments are traditionally notoriously difficult to exhibit; fragments of stained glass, with their specific lighting requirements, are nearly impossible to put on display. Conservator Drew Anderson’s elegant and simple solution was to glaze the heads into a panel of quarries made of Lamberts Antique glass. Little had the panel hung at eye level in a display case with other small-scale objects, to take advantage of the gallery’s ambient light for the fragments’ illumination. As a result, the public can fully appreciate the virtuosity of these painted heads in an unobtrusive and sympathetic setting. In the coming months, panels from the later Middle Ages, including the splendid St Michael the Archangel from Paris (c.1500) – which has not been on view for nearly twenty years, will be installed in the Treasury gallery, providing a truly encyclopedic sweep of medieval stained glass. [This glass will be discussed in a forthcoming issue – Ed.]
Apart from the new installations in the Fifth Avenue building, important changes to the display of early glass have also been taking take place at the Met’s branch museum, the Cloisters, opened in 1938 as an evocative architectural home for a stunning collection of medieval art.
Taking advantage of conservation work on the building itself, Curator Timothy B. Husband has systematically been reinstalling much of the stained-glass collection. Like the discovery of the oculus in the Main Building on Fifth Avenue, renovations at the Cloisters allowed Husband and his colleagues to open a long-blocked window between the Cuxa Cloister and the Boppard Room, so-named after six panels of fifteenth-century glass from the Carmelite church at Boppard-am-Rheim. [Fig. 5]
Amazingly, the window from the 1930s building – including its wooden casements – had survived and was duly fitted with two newly-acquired German panels, an Adoration of the Magi (Munich, 1507) from the Circle of the Strassburger Werkstattgeneischaft, and a Circumcision (Cologne, 1460–70) made for a monastic foundation of the Kreuzbrüder (Brothers of the Cross) in the same city. The rejuvenation of this original window opening allows the panels to be softly illuminated by ambient light from the Cuxa Cloister. [Figs. 6 and 7]
Without a doubt, the ability to harness natural light for the exhibition of stained glass is one of unique advantages of a contextual museum like the Cloisters, allowing (as per former Museum Director James Rorimer, cited below) ‘the objects to speak for themselves, inviolate, as far as possible, from time and handling and changing taste.’ In this vein, panels illustrating a Man of Sorrows and the Mourning Virgin (Swabia, c. 1480), made for the chapter house of the cathedral of Constance by the associate of Peter Hemmel known only as the Lautenbach Master, are exhibited in the east central window of the Campin Room. [Figs. 8 and 9].
The panels’ meditative subject augments the gallery’s larger theme of personal devotion, but it also meshes with the earlier installation of German heraldic roundels (c.1500) which had found its inspiration in the coats of arms depicted in the nearby Annunciation Triptych (c.1425) by Robert Campin and an assistant (after which the room is named). Nor are all the new installations imposing. Unexpected gems like the little prophet in grisaille (Berry or South Lowlands, c.1390–1410) and the silver-stained head of a bishop, probably from Ghent (1440–60), reflect the intimacy of the Manuscript Room on the Museum’s lower level. [Fig.10]
The real revelation is in the transformation of the Early Gothic Hall. Not only have the three stone tracery windows undergone considerable restoration, but their lights have been completely modified to accommodate the astonishingly rich collection of thirteenth-century panels in the Cloisters Collection. Flexible armatures can now be adjusted to secure all shapes and sizes of panels. Colorless quarries fill the remaining spaces. Well-published works are here, including panels from the cathedrals of Soissons (c.1200–1210), Rouen (c.1200–1205), and Tours (c.1245–1248), as well from the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (c.1245–47). [Fig. 11]
There is much, however, that is new. Thirteenth-century border panels are skillfully integrated within the installations, ably demonstrating the integral relationship between ornament and overall window design. Similarly, the ravishing panel of grisaille from the axial chapel of Auxerre Cathedral (c.1240), acquired in 1982, finally makes its debut in a permanent gallery installation. The central window presents scenes of the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi from the Premonstratensian convent church at Altenberg-an-der-Lahn (Hesse, c.1290–1300), acquired in 1993 and 2003, respectively. Natural light especially suits the boldly contrasting palette of these German works, mellowing its electrifying yellow without reducing its intensity. [Fig. 12]
The fundamental role of grisaille in Gothic glazing is celebrated by a pair of windows on the north wall, one containing eight panels identified by the French stained glass scholar, Jean Lafond (1888–1975), as coming from the chapel of the Chateau at Rouen (c.1265) and the other exhibiting five panels from Rouen’s abbey church of Saint-Ouen (1320–30). They make a perfect side-by-side comparison. The mid thirteenth-century glass exhibits the densely crosshatched ground, geometrically-arranged strapwork, and abstracted foliage that defines grisaille from this period. [Fig. 13]
In contrast, the Saint-Ouen glass is typically fourteenth century, with an unpainted ground, undulating tendrils and naturalistic foliage with highlights of silver stain, and a latticework of gently bowing straps. Both ensembles are set into stone moldings carved from Indiana limestone, at once easily differentiated from the original medieval tracery, while also harmonizing with it. The decision to create proper stone moldings for the glass is a major contributor to the gallery’s success. As in the Medieval Europe Gallery in the Main Building, this kind of framing presents the glass within the monumental context fundamental to its understanding. Moreover, the windows have enough presence to balance the complex arrangements of the west wall while providing an architectonic environment for the polychrome sculpture of the Virgin (c.1250), elevated between the two windows to suggest her original placement atop the choir screen of Strasbourg Cathedral.
Grisaille continues to be on Husband’s plate. Windows in the Langon Chapel, so-named after the site of a disused church in south-east France from which the stonework was salvaged, will be fitted with a significant collection of grisaille panels from the cathedrals of Bourges (1250–70) and Sées (1270–80), joining grisaille from Saint-Urbain at Troyes (1260–70) purchased by the Museum in 1936 specifically for the chapel’s axial window. Rather than float these panels in quarries, the grisaille patterns will be continued throughout each window. Husband explains that ‘the original panels will be outlined with heavier leads, so that they are clearly identifiable, but the compositions will read as a complete window. Our goal is to present a space in which the windows are visually coherent.’ New crown glass has been blown for the project and the grisaille patterns are in the process of being painted. Husband hopes the gallery will be finished by the end of 2009.
Nearly seventy-five years earlier, Rorimer mused while planning the building that would become the Cloisters that ‘what we particularly need for the new Cloisters more than anything else, is stained glass.’ Husband might still agree as he looks to glaze all appropriate window openings in the Museum. Indeed, growing the Museum’s collection of stained glass remains a vibrant enterprise, ever enriching the visitor’s experience of the Middle Ages in the midst of Manhattan.
Mary B Shepard
Vidimus is particularly grateful to Christine Brennan and Matthew Westerby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for their assistance with this item.
On the newly installed galleries at the Metropolitan and its branch museum, the Cloisters:
* Macy Halfor, ‘Four Eyes,’ The New Yorker, December 1, 2008. http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2008/12/01/081201ta_talk_halford
* Roberta Smith, ‘Illuminating the Dark Ages,’The New York Times , Arts / Art & Design, December 5, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/05/arts/design/05ange.html
* Carol Vogel, ‘Getting a Clearer Look at the Cloisters’ Stained Glass,’ The New York Times, Arts, June 17, 2006. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D03EFDC1131F934A25755C0A9609C8B63
On Stained Glass at the Metropolitan: www.metmuseum.org
* Peter Barnet, ‘Recent acquisitions (1999–2008) of medieval art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters, New York,’ The Burlington Magazine, vol. CL/1268, November 2008, pp. 793–800.
* Madeline H. Caviness et al., ‘Stained Glass before 1700 in American Collections: New England and New York,’ (Corpus Vitrearum: United States, Checklist I), Studies in the History of Art, vol. 15, Washington, DC, 1985.
* Jane Hayward, English and French Medieval Stained Glass in the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2 vols. Corpus Vitrearum USA, Part I, revised and edited by Mary B. Shepard and Cynthia Clark, London and New York, 2003.
* Entries by Timothy B. Husband on newly acquired works of stained glass mentioned here and not covered in Hayward’s Corpus Vitrearum catalogue or in Checklist I can be found in the ‘Recent Acquisitions’ series published in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin: See Vols. LLII/2, 1994, pp. 8–19 (by Hayward); LIV/2, 1996, p. 20; LV/2, 1997, p. 22; LVII/2, 1999, pp. 20–21; XII/2, 2003, p. 14.
* See also James J. Rorimer, Medieval Monuments at the Cloisters, as they were and as they are, revised by Katherine Serell Rorimer, New York, 1972.