Panel of the Month

An Ornamental Panel

from the Dominican Church at Colmar

by Michael Burger

Ornamental panel from the Dominican church in Colmar

Fig. 1. Ornamental panel from the Dominican church in Colmar (sVI 7a), photographed in 2009. © Michael Burger

Michael Burger is a doctoral student at the Medieval Studies Centre, University of Freiburg, researching ornamental glazing schemes of the Upper Rhine region, 1250–1350. He also works at the Research Centre for Stained Glass Studies (Corpus Vitrearum) in Freiburg. He has recently published on the stained glass of the Cistercian abbey Haina in Hesse and the Franciscan church of Esslingen.

This month our panel comes from the choir of the Dominican church in Colmar, in what is now the Alsace region of France. It is part of an exceptionally important survival, a relatively complete Dominican glazing scheme dating from the 1290s. Although the glass was dispersed in the years following the French Revolution, much was brought back to the church in the early years of the twentieth century and reinstalled in an arrangement that partly reconstructs the original. It is, besides the Predigerkirche at Erfurt, the only in situ example of a Dominican scheme in the former territory of the Holy Roman Empire.

Description of the Panel

In the panel two white rhombuses (diamond-shaped lozenges) the centre of each of which is occupied by a small head, are placed one above the other [Fig. 1].

One of the heads has a prominent tuft of curly hair on its forehead. The heads are framed by a yellow band decorated with annulets and four green oak-leaves on the diagonals. The rhombuses are set alternately on red and blue grounds, which in the spaces between the rhombuses are filled for the most part with abbreviated crosses. The centres of the latter are occupied by blue rosettes. Two oak stems work their way through the panel from bottom to top and intertwine around the heads and into the cross elements on each side. The white glass is filled with the leaves and acorns.

The Dominican Glazing Scheme

Our panel can be found in the choir of the Dominican church in Colmar, where it was originally part of an elaborate scheme of ornamental glazing.

The Dominican friars established themselves in Colmar in the year 1278, and the foundation stone of their church was laid on 24 May 1283 by Rudolf von Habsburg (1218–1291), Holy Roman emperor from 1273 until his death. As the Bishop of Colmar consecrated three altars in 1291, we may conclude that the eastern choir was completed in the same year and probably glazed around the same time. The nave was finally built in the first decades of the fourteenth century.

The Dominican church has a nave of six bays, and a long, narrow and tall choir of five bays terminating in a five-sided apse. On each face of the apse and in each of the five bays of the southern wall of the choir is a three-light window, around 12.5m high. The two westernmost windows are shorter at the foot because of the sacristy built against the church [Figs 2 and 3]. The window openings in the north wall of the choir, which were conceived on a smaller scale because of the neighbouring conventual buildings, were probably walled up from the beginning.

The current arrangement of the stained glass dates from the early twentieth century (see below), and contains 30–40% medieval glass. It is a reasonable approximation of the medieval scheme, although it introduces a register of figures in the middle of each window that was not present in the side windows of the original.

The Dominican church in Colmar: view into the choir

Fig. 2. The Dominican church in Colmar: view into the choir, photographed in 2009. © Michael Burger

Ground-plan of the Dominican church in Colmar

Fig. 3. Ground-plan of the Dominican church in Colmar indicating the windows. Drawn by Rüdiger Becksmann, 1967

With the exception of the axial window, each window originally contained in its lower register three standing figure in architectural niches, surmounted by a rich decorative scheme that extended to the full height of the main lights. The windows on the south side of the choir contained images of Dominican saints, while those flanking the east window contained figures of the Apostles. The axial window had two figural registers; the upper one held a representation of the Crucifixion, while the lower one probably depicted an image of the Virgin Mary, the patron of the church.

Each window contained two unique decorative designs, one of which filled its central light while the other filled the flanking lights, resulting in an ‘a-b-a’ pattern. Evidence for eighteen of the twenty designs survives. Our panel is found in the outer lights of sVI, the third window from the west on the south side of the choir.

The overall effect was one of great decorative richness, with a depth of colour characteristic of ornamental stained glass in the region of the Upper Rhine and quite different from the silvery effect of contemporary grisaille schemes in France or Great Britain, such as Merton College, Oxford [Fig. 4].

The high proportion of ornamental, non-figural panels in Dominican churches may have had its origin in the ideal of poverty associated with the mendicant orders. Although, unlike the Cistercians, the Dominicans did not formally prohibit the use of imagery by statute, their scheme in Colmar does resemble the kind of model advocated by the Franciscans. In 1260, the Franciscans passed a resolution forbidding the use of figurative images in any windows other than that behind the high altar, for which a representation of the Crucifixion and particular Franciscan saints (Virgin Mary, St John, St Francis and St Anthony) were allowed. The glazing of the Dominican church of Colmar, with the Crucifixion in the axial window and the Dominican saints in the southern windows, could be interpreted as a similar approach. Although the glazing schemes of the Dominican churches in Cologne, Strasbourg, Freiburg im Breisgau and Konstanz (now mostly destroyed) have more figural images than Colmar, they also contained extensive ornamental parts. On the other hand, such mixed glazing systems were not confined to the mendicant orders, also being used in parish, collegiate, episcopal and monastic churches.

Window from Merton College Chapel, Oxford

Fig. 4. Window from Merton College Chapel, Oxford. © Painton Cowen, courtesy The Warden and Fellows of Merton College Oxford

The Dispersal of the Glass

In 1791, like many religious houses in France, the Low Countries and southern Germany, the monastery was suppressed in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Over the next century, the church, which was converted into a poultry market in 1807, was robbed of all its stained glass [Fig. 5].

The Dominican church in Colmar: view of the interior c.1900

Fig. 5. The Dominican church in Colmar: view of the interior c.1900. Archives Départementales du Haute-Rhin Colmar, Fonds Herzog, Sign. 13J 68-116

Church of St Martin in Colmar: choir window c.1900

Fig. 6. Church of St Martin in Colmar: choir window c.1900 with panels from the Dominican church. Archives municipales Colmar

The majority of the panels were removed after 1823 and were used, together with stained glass from other churches in Colmar, to glaze the windows of the main parish and collegiate church of St Martin. Because the panels from the choir of the Dominican church were much narrower than the lights of the choir windows at St Martin’s, they were cut down and installed turned through 90° [Fig. 6].

When the Ott Brothers from Strasbourg restored the stained glass of the church of St Martin between 1903 and 1910, they removed all the panels thought not to belong there. The panels were deposited in the city archives and replaced in the Dominican church between 1917 and 1927 by the Munich workshop of F. X. Zettler, whose historicizing arrangement of the glass can still be seen today.

Many other panels from the Dominican church at Colmar found their way to private collections and other churches as far afield as Berlin and the Czech Republic. They may have left the town as early as 1815, when an Austrian general, Johann Maria, Count of Frimont, is thought to have been in possession of ‘14 or 15 boxes of valuable old stained glass’ from Colmar (Further Reading: Becksmann, p. 48). Thereafter, the routes taken by the stained glass cannot be reconstructed in detail, but ornamental panels from Colmar are gradually being identified in different places through the work of the Corpus Vitrearum in Germany. Two panels identical in pattern to the one shown here are known. One is in the axial window of the choir in Brandenburg Cathedral. The other was formerly in a window in the ‘armoury’ furnished by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) between 1817 and 1818 for the palace of Prince Frederick of Prussia (1794–1863). The window, now destroyed, is recorded in a painting by the Prussian painter Carl Friedrich Zimmermann (1796–1820).

Other panels reached Freiburg im Breisgau. Probably purchased by the Freiburg merchant Joseph Vanotti in 1819 in Colmar, they were used, along with stained glass from other churches in Freiburg and Konstanz, to fill gaps in the windows of Freiburg Minster, which had fallen victim to war, storms, and the Baroque taste for light. The result was often an iconographic mish-mash. In cases where the original iconography of the scenes was obvious, attempts were made to reconstruct some panels. By this time, knowledge of the techniques of medieval glass-painting had been lost. Instead, the small heads from the ornamental Colmar panels were cut out and used to complete the angels, Christ Child and a camel leader in a quatrefoil composition with the Adoration of the Magi, produced by the minster glazier Anton Billeisen around 1820 [Fig. 7]. There was probably no suitable fragment available for the right-hand king, and the cold painting of the outlines in oils shows the glazier’s clumsiness. The remains of the butchered panels, and the quatrefoil composition, have since passed into the collection of the Augustinermuseum in Freiburg [Fig. 8].

Anton Billeisen: quatrefoil composition of the Adoration of the Magi with fragments from the Dominican church in Colmar, c.1820, formerly in the Martyrs’ Window in Freiburg Minster

Fig. 7. Anton Billeisen: quatrefoil composition of the Adoration of the Magi with fragments from the Dominican church in Colmar, c.1820, formerly in the Martyrs’ Window in Freiburg Minster (sXXIII 1AB) and now in the Augustinermuseum Freiburg. CVMA Deutschland (Daniel Parello)

Remains of an ornamental panel from Colmar

Fig. 8. Remains of an ornamental panel from Colmar now in the Augustinermuseum, Freiburg im Breisgau. CVMA Deutschland (Daniel Parello)

The ornamental panels from the Franciscan church in Colmar suffered a similar fate. Panels from this church ended up in the Musée Cluny (Paris), the Germanisches Nationalmuseum (Nuremberg), the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum (Munich), the Historisches Museum (Regensburg) and the Collection Bremen (Krefeld). It is possible that further ornamental panels from Colmar churches have survived, but have not yet been identified.

The Whereabouts of Ornamental Panels from the Dominican Church in Colmar

• At least eight panels were installed in Freiburg Minster (Freiburg im Breisgau) during the nineteenth century. During the restoration undertaken by Fritz Geiges between 1908 and 1928, all were removed and mostly ended up in the Augustinermuseum (inv. nos. 95/M; 110/M;111/M;127M;128/M; 149M).

• Around eleven panels were arrived by an unknown route at Orlík Castle in the Czech Republic, where they were installed in the castle chapel.

• Ten panels, mostly undamaged, with other glass of Colmar provenance, are in the axial window of the choir of the cathedral in Brandenburg an der Havel (panels 10a+c, 11a+c, 13a–c, 14a+c, 15b).

• Ten panels from the choir of the Dominican church that were not reused during Zettler’s re-glazing of 1927 were eventually installed by Zettler in the clerestory windows (bays 123, 126 and 127) of St Martin’s in Colmar in 1928.

• Other ornamental panels exist in a private collection in Colmar.

• The Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin owned two ornamental panels. They were destroyed in 1945.

• Nine panels were installed in the window of the ‘armoury’ in the palace of Prince Frederick of Prussia. The palace, including the window, was destroyed in 1945.

Further Reading

On Colmar

Rüdiger Becksmann, ‘Die architektonische Rahmung des hochgotischen Bildfensters. Untersuchungen zur oberrheinischen Glasmalerei von 1250 bis 1350’, Forschungen zur Geschichte der Kunst am Oberrhein, ix/x (1967), pp. 46–59

Roland Recht, L’Alsace gothique de 1300 à 1365. Étude d’architecture religieuse, Colmar, 1974, pp. 127–34

Michel Hérold und Françoise Gatouillat, Les vitraux de Lorraine et d’Alsace, CVMA France, Recensement des vitraux anciens de la France 5, Paris, 1994, pp. 267–81

On the Later History of the Panels

Hermann Schmitz, Die Glasgemälde des Königlichen Kunstgewerbemuseums in Berlin, Berlin, 1913 (I, fig. 26; II, p. 3)

František Matouš, Mittelalterliche Glasmalerei in der Tschechoslowakei, CVMA Czechoslovakia, Vienna/Cologne/Graz, 1975, pp. 61–62

Karl-Joachim Maercker, ‘Brandenburg an der Havel. Elsässische Scheiben im Chormittelfenster des Domes’, Brandenburgische Denkmalpflege, ii/2, 1993, pp. 72–77

Himmelslicht. Europäische Glasmalerei im Jahrhundert des Kölner Dombaus (1248–1349), exh. cat., Schnütgen-Museum Cologne in cooperation with the German CVMA (Freiburg), Cologne, 1998, cat. nos. 41 (pp. 220–21), 50 (pp. 240–41), 94 (pp. 340–41)

Daniel Parello, ‘Von Helmle bis Geiges. Ein Jahrhundert historistischer Glasmalerei in Freiburg’, Veröffentlichungen aus dem Archiv der Stadt Freiburg im Breisgau, xxxi (2000), pp. 23–37

Rüdiger Becksmann, Die mittelalterlichen Glasmalereien in Freiburg im Breisgau, CVMA Deutschland, II/2, Berlin, 2010, tome 2, pp. 604–05

Eva Fitz, ‘Brandenburg, Dom’, in Ute Bednarz et al., Die mittelalterlichen Glasmalereien in Berlin und Brandenburg, CVMA Deutschland, XXII, Berlin, 2010, pp. 306–41

On ornamental glazing systems in general

Hartmut Scholz, ‘Ornamentverglasungen der Hochgotik’, Himmelslicht (see above), pp. 51–62


Brandenburg an der Havel

Picture by Carl Friedrich Zimmermann

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