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‘He suggested..that I contact something called the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi’: An Interview with Madeline Caviness

Madeline Harrison Caviness [Fig. 1] is one of the most influential scholars of stained glass in the 20th century. Her output has been phenomenal and includes the CVMA (GB) catalogue of Canterbury Cathedral: itself an outstanding achievement. As Mary Richardson Professor of Art and Art History at Tufts University she was an inspiring tutor and winner of the Haskins Medal of the Medieval Academy of America. She has been Honorary President of the CVMA since 2000. A volume of essays has just been published in her honour: The Four Modes of Seeing.*

On a recent visit to England Madeline spoke to Vidimus about her life and work.

Fig. 1. Madeline Caviness in Hampton Court chapel, Herefordshire. © Catherine Beale

Fig. 1. Madeline Caviness in Hampton Court chapel, Herefordshire. © Catherine Beale

‘I was born in London just before World War II, but I spent most of my childhood in Chesham Bois (Bucks) on the outskirts of the city. I remember the bombings vividly. My father was a First World War veteran who combined a day job with service as an air raid warden.

I was interested in art from an early age, so you can imagine my disappointment after I won a place at Cambridge University (Newnhan College) only to discover that the subject was not taught anywhere in the university. As a result I thought the closest degree would be archaeology and anthropology, but after a year I realised that it was not for me, and switched to read English Literature which had a heavy medieval bias.

I developed a love for stained glass after seeing the magnificent 16th century windows in Kings College Chapel, which probably explains why I subsequently bought some panels of early glass when I stumbled across them in an antique shop in Sherborne, a small town in Dorset where my parents had moved while I was in college. I was keen to know more about what I had bought, so I took my purchases to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for an expert opinion. The curator was charming but confessed that since the retirement of Bernard Rackham, (1896–1964) the Museum had next to no expertise in stained glass. All he could suggest was that I contact something called the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi and directed me towards Francis Wormald, (1904–1972) a medieval palaeographer and art historian, who was the CVMA representative in England.

Fig. 2. Jean Lafond. Reproduced with permission of the André Chastel Centre, Paris.

Fig. 2. Jean Lafond. Reproduced with permission of the André Chastel Centre, Paris.

Fig. 3. Louis Grodecki. Reproduced with permission of the André Chastel Centre, Paris.

Fig. 3. Louis Grodecki. Reproduced with permission of the André Chastel Centre, Paris.

We met, and my life changed. Francis told me that no-one else was working in this field. The opportunities seemed exciting and I decided to devote myself to stained glass. To help me on my way Francis lobbied for me to be awarded a British Institute scholarship to study in France under the tutorship of Jean Lafond [Fig. 2] and Louis Grodecki, [Fig. 3] so I gave up my position at the British Council. Before I left London, Francis warned me that I would need a good knowledge of Latin if I was to survive but when I arrived in Paris one of Grodecki’s first questions was if I was fluent in German! I soon discovered that I had a lot to learn. Grodecki and Lafond were remarkable people, and very different from one another. Jean Lafond was in his 70s when I met him. He was a very gentle man, a great anglophile and yet burdened with a profound sadness. During the war his family-owned newspaper in Rouen had supported the Vichy Government. Accused of being a collaborator, he had been deeply hurt and never fully recovered. Grodecki on the other hand, loved dramas, real and manufactured. He thrived on argument. He had wanted to be an actor before switching to art history and at times I felt as if he was deliberately challenging us to see how we would react. He had been born in Poland and spoke fluent German. His knowledge of German stained glass and sources was invaluable in understanding Romanesque glass in northern Europe. No one could have asked for more passionate teachers.

As I came to the end of my scholarship, Jean suggested that I study a 14th-century window of the Life of Edward the Confessor at Fécamp in Normandy. The article I completed was published in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, under my family name, Harrison. That summer I returned to England where I started work on a preliminary catalogue of the medieval glass in Dorset before marrying my husband and moving to Boston where he lived. After working as a dressmaker and a librarian, I was admitted to Harvard as a graduate student to study art history and when my husband was drafted to serve in the USAF in Japan, I returned to England in 1967 and began researching my dissertation on the Trinity Chapel glass at Canterbury Cathedral.

Fig. 4. Memorial window to George Easton, Crypt nVIII 1b, Canterbury Cathedral. © The Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral (reproduced withpermission).

Fig. 4. Memorial window to George Easton, Crypt nVIII 1b, Canterbury Cathedral. © The Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral (reproduced withpermission).

Fig. 5. ’Made up’ panel in the ‘Romanesque style’ by Samuel Caldwell Jnr, a glazier in the cathedral. CVMA Catalogues are invaluable in identifying original glass. Earlier books about the cathedral listed this panel as genuine.

Fig. 5. ’Made up’ panel in the ‘Romanesque style’ by Samuel Caldwell Jnr, a glazier in the cathedral. CVMA Catalogues are invaluable in identifying original glass. Earlier books about the cathedral listed this panel as genuine.

The glass depicted the miracles of St Thomas Becket and was made between 1184 and 1220. Inevitably there had been restorations and I could not understand what had happened to the glass without seeing it close-to. Once again Francis Wormald came to the rescue, conjuring a grant which paid for my scaffolding. Over the next year I climbed ladders, crawled over roofs and inspected every panel, exterior and interior. My training in archaeology proved a useful background. Every day I made rubbings and notes. I could not have managed without the help of George Easton, a glazier at the Cathedral who came out of retirement to help me.[Fig. 4] He arrived at work at 10 am, looked at my notes and rubbings, discussed which pieces of glass were original and which were later inserts and then let me take him to lunch in the pub before he headed off home. He was a remarkably skilled but humble man, and I loved listening to him; too old to go to World War II, he was part of a very small team that took all the Cathedral glass out for safe storage.

When my field research was finished I joined my family in Japan. The 1968 student riots made it difficult to work in the local university and I felt very cut off from Canterbury until a Japanese colleague presented me with a mint copy of the five volume Miraculi Sancti Thomae (The Miracles of St Thomas) which he had found in the university library, deposited by a Christian missionary in the 19th century and never read from that day onwards. This work formed the basis of my first book – The Early Stained Glass of Canterbury Cathedral – and proved invaluable when I returned to Canterbury a few years later and wrote the British CVMA Volume on this major monument, The Windows of Christ Church Cathedral Canterbury, CVMA (GB) II, published in 1981.

Fig. 6. Composite window consisting of two parts of an ancestors of Christ series from Braine, Saint-Yved, clerestory, now in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, USA . © YF Pictures.

Fig. 6. Composite window consisting of two parts of an ancestors of Christ series from Braine, Saint-Yved, clerestory, now in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, USA . © YF Pictures.

Fig. 7. The interior of Hampton Court chapel today. © YF Pictures.

Fig. 7. The interior of Hampton Court chapel today. © YF Pictures.

By this time I was teaching art history at Tufts University in Boston and my interest in the transitional period between Romanesque and Gothic glass took me to France for a second time when I explored similarities between the early Canterbury windows and the glass at Saint-Remi (Reims) and the glass that had been dispersed from St-Yved at Braine [near Soissons – Ed.], which was subsequently published as Sumptuous Arts in the Royal Abbeys in Reims and Braine. [Figs. 5 and 6] I also worked on CVMA checklist catalogues in the United States and published other books and articles about stained glass. I served as President of the International Committee of the CVMA 1987–1995.

Although I have now formally retired from Tufts I am still working on stained glass. I gave a lecture at the 2008 CVMA conference in Switzerland on the meaning now, and in the past of, Kabinettscheiben, small rectangular, round or trefoil-shaped stained glass panels intended to be viewed at close quarters. Hopefully this will be published next year. I am also working on the history of the ‘Apostles Creed’ window in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts which used to be in the chapel at Hampton Court (Herefordshire) until it was sold in the 1920s.

The glass almost certainly came to Hampton Court from elsewhere, and very accurate measurements of one of the perpendicular windows in the south transept of Hereford Cathedral, taken recently by the cathedral architects using laser technology, have confirmed its original position there. I became interested in this glass in the late 1960s, and its recent removal from the museum for conservation has provided an ideal opportunity to revisit the subject [See Vidimus 15 – Ed.]. Now that I better understand its history, the conservator Diane Rousseau and I have been able to see how it was patched with old glass and cut down to fit the Hampton Court Chapel windows; this must have been done before 1683 when it was described there by an antiquarian, so it is a very early restoration. [Figs. 7 and 8]

Fig. 8. The Hampton Court window glass in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © February 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (reproduced with permission).

Fig. 8. The Hampton Court window glass in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © February 2008 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (reproduced with permission).

Fig. 9. A fourteenth-century prophet from Koeningsfelden Abbey. © Dr Brigitte Kurman Schwarz.

Fig. 9. A fourteenth-century prophet from Koeningsfelden Abbey. © Dr Brigitte Kurman Schwarz.

At the same time as working in stained glass studies, my interests have broadened. I have always hated discrimination. Sometimes I wish that I had been a human rights lawyer. I have written about perceptions of women in medieval society–Visualising Women in the Middle Ages–and I am currently working on a profusely illustrated 14th century copy of the Sachsenspiegel, (Mirror of the Saxons) a German law book and legal code compiled around 1220–1235, and how its attitudes to women and Jews shaped the modern world. Wider cultural and political contexts are an important area for future researchers looking at medieval glass and the circumstances in which it was commissioned, made and seen. How glass related to other arts and media in the medieval church is another avenue which needs considerably more work. Another profitable avenue for study is how writers and curators in the 18th and 19th centuries ‘saw’ the middle ages and how they ‘presented’ these images to future generations, including our own. Often what we think we know about medieval Europe is what these experts selected to show us.’

Finally we asked Madeline to be our first volunteer in a new series in which Vidimus will ask interviewees to name five places which they think every stained glass enthusiast ought to see before they die: ‘Only five’ she exclaimed, ‘It’s not easy but I’ll kick off with the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, Canterbury Cathedral in England, St Remi in France, Koeningsfelden in Switzerland [Fig. 9] and lastly, the extraordinarily rich windows of Cologne Cathedral that range from the 13th to the 16th century’.

Madeline Caviness was talking to Roger Rosewell

* The Four Modes of Seeing: Approaches to Medieval Imagery in Honor of Madeline Harrison Caviness, Evelyn Staudinger Lane, Elizabeth Carson Pastan and Ellen M. Shortell (eds). Ashgate, 2009. A review of this important book will appear in our next issue.

Leverhulme Trust Research Project on the Conservation and Research of Medieval Window Glass

The Leverhulme Trust is generously funding a major project entitled ‘The Composition, Corrosion and Origins of Medieval Window Glass’. Run by Cardiff University, in partnership with the Stained Glass Research School at the University of York, the project aims to improve our understanding of the production, distribution and deterioration of stained glass as an aide towards its conservation.

Dr Ian Freestone, the Co-Director of the project, explains the latest developments:

Fig. 1. Cross section of a fragment of flashed red glass, showing a complex arrangement of coloured layers near the surface.

Fig. 1. Cross section of a fragment of flashed red glass, showing a complex arrangement of coloured layers near the surface.

The removal of the Great East Window of York Minster has provided us with a unique opportunity to study the glass from one of Europe’s most important medieval windows. We plan to sample 10 of the 287 panels to determine if John Thornton, the glazier who made the window between 1405–1408, was able to rely on a steady and constant supply of glass. Did he obtain all of his colours from a single supplier or are they likely to have been made in different glasshouses? Where are these glasshouses likely to have been located? How has the chemical composition of the glass affected the rates of decay?

So far, we have sampled 6 panels from the east window. By taking minute samples of glass from the edges of pieces which have been removed from the leads as part of the conservation process, we are able conduct detailed microscopic and compositional studies. [Fig.1]

These samples provide insights into the way the glass was made, where it may have come from and the way it was obtained by the glaziers. The samples are very small. The edges from which the glass is removed are covered by the leads when the panel is reconstructed and hence are invisible to the viewer. We may contrast this with the analysis of medieval paints and pigments from wall paintings, where the sample is inevitably removed from a visible area. From a numerical perspective, if we were to take a sample of about 2 x 2 x 2 mm, from a panel containing about half a square metre of glass of 2 mm thickness, we would have removed about 0.001% of the total amount of glass present. This is a minute quantity. It is the equivalent of taking a speck of blood from a human adult for a DNA test. Furthermore, our samples will continue to be available for use by future researchers.

Fig. 2. Panel 2e of the East Window of York Minster. © Dean and Chapter of York.

Fig. 2. Panel 2e of the East Window of York Minster. © Dean and Chapter of York.

The information from just one of the panels is already providing us with insights. Panel 2e shows the figure of Christ as the Judge at the Last Judgement. [Fig.2] Aspects of the figure led Dean Eric Milner-White, (Dean of the Minster 1941–1963) writing in 1953, to suggest that it was a composite arrangement, comprising glass from several sources. Our analysis has shown that the white glass in the panel, including the arms of Christ, is likely to have been derived from a single batch of glass. Only the head is exceptional and likely to have been inserted from another panel when the window was repaired, probably in the 19th century. We were of course able to recognise other repairs to the window, and identify glass from the 18th or 19th centuries, but the ability to use chemical analysis to identify medieval glass used as a repair is, as far as we know, unprecedented.

Provisional results for samples of white glass from other panels in the window confirm that each has a specific compositional range. It is therefore possible to distinguish between panels in the same window on the basis of the composition of their glass. It seems that we are recognising the fingerprints for the sheet, or sheets, of glass used to make each panel. Furthermore, the fingerprints of the white glasses are very different indeed from those used for the colours. It appears that the coloured glasses used by Thornton were made from different raw materials from those used for the white glasses. Trace elements suggest that the whites were made in a completely different region from the blues, the murreys or the flashed reds. The individual colours may be separated too, and each has its own distinctive composition.

In order to fully understand how Thornton procured his glass, we are sampling glass of about the same period from panels by Thornton and other glaziers in other buildings, such as Coventry Cathedral and New College, Oxford. Conservators and scientists at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA have kindly sampled and analysed glass from panels from Hampton Court, Herefordshire in their collection, which are thought to have been made by Thornton. We are also examining earlier windows, back to the 12th century, to determine if the sources of glass were similar.

As we sample the glass, a careful record is made of the states of preservation of the interior and exterior surfaces. Working in detail on a single window has the advantage that all of the original glass analysed will have had essentially the same environmental history. This allows us to establish the relationship between the tendency to corrode and the composition of the glass in more detail and with much more confidence than has previously been possible.

These types of insight depend on our ability to control the context of the material that we analyse. The fact that the samples are taken from unleaded panels, under guidance from art historians and conservators, means that we are able to be particularly confident about their date, and the extent to which they are likely to represent the original glass of the window.

Fig. 3. Sampling glass in the York Glaziers' Trust Studio.

Fig. 3. Sampling glass in the York Glaziers’ Trust Studio.

This work, which has proceeded with the kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of York, is only possible due to the involvement of the conservators at the York Glaziers Trust and elsewhere, who have welcomed the project enthusiastically and cooperated in the removal of samples by a member of the project team, or who have taken the samples themselves. [Fig. 3].

Their understanding of the panels on which they work is invaluable in ensuring that the sample taken is of maximum value. In addition to understanding the movement and supply of stained glass, another aim of the project is to refine our understanding of its corrosion and to provide conservators with the information that they need to explain why certain colours appear to corrode more than others, and to predict which are likely to be less stable.

If only we had a universal analyser which could provide this information without the difficult business of removing samples! However, it is very unlikely that so-called non-intrusive analysis will ever provide the information of the quality needed. Surface contamination, corroded glass, flashed colours and silver stain will always provide barriers which render truly non-intrusive analysis impossible, yielding at best an approximation to the true composition of the underlying pristine glass.

Furthermore, accurate analysis works on the principle of reproducibility – all of the conditions, such as the distance and angle between the sample and the analyser must always be the same. This will never be a practical proposition with in situ panels. Just as we have been promised unrealisable returns on our financial investments so, from time to time, we are promised the perfect analytical solution in the form of a new machine. A much more dependable and ultimately more rewarding course is to settle for the tried and tested approach which involves the analysis of a carefully selected sample. As equipment improves, our samples get smaller, but the need for them will not disappear.

Ian Freestone is Head of Archaeology and Conservation in the School of History and Archaeology, Cardiff University. He co-directs the Leverhulme-funded project ‘Composition, Corrosion and Origins of Medieval Stained Glass’ with Tim Ayers, Director of the Stained Glass Research School, in the History of Art Department, University of York.


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