Glass for Emperors: the Glazing of Königsfelden Abbey
The 14th-century stained glass at the Swiss Abbey of Königsfelden is among the most beautiful in Europe, famous for its historical importance, its quality, its rarity, and its revolutionary use of perspective and depth. [Figs. 1. and 2. Exterior and interior views of the Abbey] In December 2008 Vidimus spoke to Dr Brigitte Kurmnan-Schwarz, of the Vitrocentre, Romont, Switzerland, about her newly-published CVMA volume on the glass, already highly regarded.
The Abbey was founded by the distraught wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Albrecht I, after he had been murdered in 1308 by his nephew. According to the earliest accounts of Königsfelden, the high altar of the church stands on the spot where Albrecht was slain. The monastery was given to the Franciscan Order, formed in 1209 by St Francis of Assisi, and was built as a dual foundation of monks and nuns, the nuns belonging to the Poor Clares, ordo sanctae Clarae, a Franciscan organisation for women, formed by St Clare of Assisi and St Francis in 1212.
The first monastic buildings appeared in 1310 and the outer walls of the church have recently been dated to 1312-13. A year later the church was roofed and the nave windows were probably glazed before 1316 when the remains of Albrecht’s widow, Queen Elizabeth of Gorizia-Tyrol, were translated from Vienna to a newly-constructed crypt in the church that was intended to become the Hapsburg Family mausoleum.
The initial glazing scheme seems to have comprised ornamental grisaille glass together with heraldic shields symbolising the Hapsburgs and their empire. Following the consecration of the nave in 1320, the abbey’s wealth and prestige grew dramatically. Elizabeth’s daughter, Queen Agnes, the widow of King Andrew III of Hungary, encouraged gifts and benefactions to the church from other family members. In 1329-30 the choir of the church was built and the glazing of the eastern axial windows was probably completed at this time, as we know from a chronicle written in the 1360s, after Agnes’ death, that the choir was consecrated in that year.
The glass in the eastern windows depicts the Life of Christ from his Infancy, in nII, to his Passion, in the centre (I), and scenes of his Resurrection, in the third window, sII. Most of the original glass survives and the subjects replicate the dedication of the high altar in the church which was devoted to ‘the body, the blood and the cross of Christ’. [Fig. 3. Christ on the cross from window I.]
Initially, the remaining eight lancet windows of the choir were probably decorated in an ornamental grisaille style, similar to the decoration of the nave. One unanswered question from this period concerns the glazing of the west window of the church. Was it the same as the nave? Under the foundation rules of the church, the choir and eastern end of the building was reserved for the monks. The nuns had their own area for worship at the western end of the church, which was entered from the Clarissan cloister on the south. It is possible that along with some known grisaille patterning, this window might have included some figurative glass, such as a crucifixion scene. Unfortunately it is impossible to attempt a reconstruction of this window in any meaningful sense. Apart from a lack of written evidence, the stonework of the window has been dramatically reordered, destroying any original archaeological evidence.
The current arrangement of the window was made during a drastic restoration campaign between 1896 and 1900 when panels showing St Clare and Christ with St John, were moved to their present position. The panels had previously belonged to some of the monastic buildings before subsequently being inserted into the choir to fill in missing gaps.
Putting speculation about the west window aside, about ten years after the consecration of the choir the glazing scheme at the eastern end of the church underwent a dramatic transformation. The ornamental glazing of the eight main lights were replaced with figurative glass, with n.III, n.IV, s.III and s.IV made c.1340 and the four most westerly lights, n.V, n.VI, s.V and s.VI probably finished slightly later, say in the first half of the 1340s.
The eight choir windows show:
On the north side
n.III: St Elizabeth of Hungary and scenes from the Life of St John the Baptist and St Katherine. [Fig. 4. Salome with the head of St John the Baptist]
n. IV Six Apostles. [Fig. 5. St Matthew]
n.V: The Life of St Francis. [Fig.6. The Death of St Francis]
n.VI: The Life of St Anne
On the south side:
s.III: St Stephen and scenes from the Life of St Paul and the Death of the Virgin Mary
s.IV: Six Apostles,
s.V: Scenes from the Life of St Nicholas of Myra
s.VI: The Life of St Clare
Apart from the main subject scenes, the windows also contain angels, patriarchs and prophets from the Old Testament, for example, the Apostles in n.IV and s. IV, as well as numerous other decorative details. [Fig. 7. Detail from the St Anne window, n.VI ] The iconography of these windows can be related to altars known to have existed in the church.
It has not been possible so far to identify the artists and glaziers who created this cycle of windows, although some, such as n.III, s.III and s.IV may be attributed to the same hand. It seems almost certain that the artists who worked on these windows, came from either Basel or Strasbourg, rather than being Italian, as some earlier commentators believed. As well as being vibrant centres for stained glass, both Basel and Strasbourg housed important Franciscan administrative centres.
Although direct comparison between the glazing at Königsfelden and glass of a similar period in Basel is impossible as a result of a catastrophic earthquake in 1356 which inflicted tremendous damage on the city’s churches, comparisons with the Strasbourg area are more fruitful. Windows in the parish church of Westhofen, made around 1340, are stylistically very similar to the figurative glass at Königsfelden, namely figures with large heads and slight bodies.
The most important stylistic feature of the Königsfelden glass, especially pronounced in the later choir windows, is what art historians call their ‘spatial innovation’, the way that the glass painters represent space in their designs. This includes perspectival recession in the framing devices and background settings and the use of secondary figures to add extra depth to scenes. [Fig. 8. detail from s.III] It has been suggested that the use of receding perspective and three dimensional effects shows Italian influence in the design of the glass, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Franciscans studied in Paris where such innovations were equally known. Queen Agnes had a close relationship with the papal court in Avignon where artists congregated. A painted altarpiece of around the same date at Klosterneuburg near Vienna also employs a similar technique.
After completing the Choir, Queen Agnes oversaw a final glazing programme for the church. Around 1360 the side aisle windows of the nave were decorated with a spectacular dynastic scheme which depicted important members of the Hapsburg family under architectural canopies. Although we know the details of this scheme from various records, only the figures of Duke Albert II and King Rudolph of Bohemia now survive.[Fig. 9. King Rudolph]
Queen Agnes of Hungary died in 1364. Her hopes for a great Hapsburg mausoleum did not long out-live her her as in 1415 the people of Berne ejected their Hapsburg rulers and the church became part of the canton of Berne, where it prospered serving the locally wealthy. However, even that arrangement proved relatively short-lived. The Protestant Reformation of 1528 ushered in its decline and by the 18th century the main church was used as a granary. The late 19th-century restoration of the church was a mixed affair, with some windows, such as n.VI (St Anne) practically repainted.
By far the best surviving glass may be found in the Life of Christ windows ( nII; I and s.II), and in n.V and s.VI, the windows depicting the founders of the monastic orders whose daily masses for the salvation of the Hapsburg family provided the rationale for the entire monument.
The glazing of Königsfelden is important in many ways. It can truly be said to be glazing fit for emperors. The Hapsburgs were one of the most important families in 14th-century Europe; indeed their descendants sat on the imperial throne of the Austro–Hungarian empire until its collapse at the end of the First World War. Next, the quality of the glass is simply superb. Its rich colours, rhythm, and painting techniques propel it to the very forefront of 14th-century European art. It is outstandingly beautiful.
Finally, Königsfelden is also exceptional in that it is one of the few very complete surviving glazing schemes of one of the medieval medicant orders – monks who depended directly on the charity of others for their livelihoods.
It is a place which has to be seen. Once seen, it is never forgotten.’
Dr Brigitte Kurman Schwarz is based at the Vitrocentre in Romont. She also lectures at Zurich University. Her German-only text book on Königsfelden is as much a work of art as the glass itself. The book includes a detailed history of the glass, art-historical comparisons, restoration diagrams and a superb catalogue of every panel. Colour photographs appear on almost every page and the book also includes a supplement of 74 full page colour plates of stunning quality. Brigitte Kurmann-Schwarz has been International President of the CVMA since 2004.
Die Mittelaterlichen Glasmalereien der Ehemaligen Klosrerkirche Königsfelden. Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi: Schweiz II Published by Stämpfli, Verlag, Berne, 2008, Hard back cover only, Price: 100 Euros.