El Valor Històric Del Vitrall i Els Seus Problemes De Conservació: The Historical Value of Stained Glass and its Conservation Problems, Conference, La Mercè Cultural Centre, Girona, 17 October 2014
Katie Harrison reports
On the 17 October, La Mercè Cultural Centre, Girona, played host to a conference organized by Anna Santolaria, a recent graduate of the University of York’s MA in Stained Glass Conservation and Heritage Management and author of a ground-breaking new study into the Girona glazier’s tables. As a graduate of the same master’s programme, and a current White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities doctoral researcher at the University of York, I was kindly invited to speak at the conference, which has been heralded as an important event for raising the profile of stained glass in Catalonia and beyond.
The conference focused on issues surrounding the value and conservation of stained glass, with speakers ranging from members of the Catalan conservation community to renowned international experts and recent graduates of stained-glass conservation. The topics discussed were both diverse and stimulating, addressing the issues in a host of international contexts. The conference was opened by Àngels Solé, Director of the Centre de Restauració de Béns Mobles de Catalunya (CRBMC), which from its impressive custom-designed facilities near Barcelona undertakes research and conservation and provides advice and support to institutions and individuals. Solé highlighted the value of the conference for the study and conservation of Catalan stained glass, particularly given the need to raise public awareness of the medium and for appropriate approaches to its conservation.
This was a theme discussed more broadly by several speakers, including Sarah Jarron, independent stained-glass conservator and graduate of the York MA programme, who explored the significance and conservation values applied to stained glass. She addressed the ethical issues encountered in stained glass that are distinct from those of other media, and highlighted the frustrating lack of attention paid to stained glass in both architectural and museal settings. Dr Ivo Rauch, of Rauch Consultancy, Koblenz, examined the ethics of and approaches to stained glass from a different angle, exploring how value and significance are attributed through a thought-provoking comparison of Pitcairn’s copy of a censing angel with the original in Chartres. Rauch skilfully elucidated how such perceptions can affect the study and conservation of stained glass and outlined the essential steps in the development of a conservation concept.
Solé and Jarron’s call to raise the status of stained glass within the arts was particularly welcomed by Sarah Brown, Director of York Glaziers’ Trust and senior lecturer and course director of the MA in Stained Glass Conservation and Heritage Management at the University of York. Brown discussed the history of stained glass conservation at York Minster and the ground-breaking conservation of the Great East Window, which has led to significant improvements, not only in conservation practice, but also in public engagement with the medium. Displays such as The Orb, where conserved panels can be seen up-close, and the nearby Bedern Studio, where the public can see conservators at work, have dramatically increased visitor numbers and raised the profile of stained glass in York.
Anna Santolaria provided an introduction to her study of the Girona tables and discussed some of the most intriguing findings, stressing how valuable this research will be in understanding the history of the Girona glass and informing its future conservation. The importance of collaboration and the interdisciplinary approach adopted was evident. As well as resulting in the publication of a significant new study of the fourteenth-century glazing tables, Anna’s research has led to the renewal of the tables’ display in the Museu d’Art de Girona (Girona Museum of Art), providing a more informative and engaging presentation of these unique survivals, the only example of a glazing table for which the stained glass also survives.
Dr Sílvia Cañellas, of the Catalan CVMA, provided fascinating insights into the history of stained-glass conservation in Girona, setting her discussion within the broader international history. Her discussion of early medieval manuscript sources that record the employment of permanent staff to regularly check and repair the stained glass at Girona Cathedral was particularly interesting, given the sparse evidence for this practice elsewhere in Europe. Although Antoni Vila Delclòs of the Catalan CVMA was unfortunately unable to attend, Dr Cañellas kindly read his paper, in which he described the role and work of the Catalan CVMA and highlighted the welcome intention to open the Corpus to younger art historians and conservators to reinvigorate and advance the field of stained glass.
Cañellas’ overview of later approaches and dwindling preventive care, which reflect wider changes in Europe, provided a foil to May Domínguez’s discussion of the values Catalonians attached to stained glass through the medieval period. She drew attention to the repeated influences of glaziers from elsewhere in Europe, who brought both new styles and techniques. This was a theme echoed by Anette Wahlgren, another graduate of the York MA programme, who recently helped to establish and equip the Uppsala Cathedral Stained Glass Conservation Studio, playing an active role in the development of the conservation policy and documentation. Wahlgren provided a thought-provoking overview of the history of stained glass in Sweden, stressing the influences of northern European glaziers across the centuries and drawing attention to the comparable issues of paint loss suffered by nineteenth-century glass as a result.
Two speakers addressed specific technical aspects of stained-glass conservation. I provided a basic overview of the processes involved in the deterioration of stained glass, stressing the role of water as the primary cause of deterioration of glass, paint and lead, as well as the danger of environmental fluctuations. Keith Barley, managing director and head conservator of Barley Studio, provided an overview of the development of protective-glazing systems as preventive conservation solutions. His discussions of several key case studies, and the various technical and aesthetic options available, demonstrated the careful and considered approach required in the selection and application of protective-glazing systems.
The conference provided the opportunity for fruitful interdisciplinary discussions between the delegates and speakers, demonstrating the benefits of international collaboration and communication, as well as the public’s interest in stained glass. On Saturday 18, Anna Santolaria held a practical workshop in stained-glass painting, assisted by French stained-glass student Anne-Catherine Perreau, providing several delegates and speakers with the opportunity to learn the art of painting on glass and develop a deeper understanding of the medium.
Congratulations are due to Anna Santolaria for organizing such a stimulating and productive conference, as well as to the speakers for their thought-provoking topics. Thanks also go to the translators, for their excellent translations, and to the numerous supporters, for making the event possible. The success of the conference is a sign of the strength of the development of the field of stained-glass conservation, not only in Catalonia, but across Europe.
The conference was supported by:
Universitat de Girona
Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi Catalunya
Taller de conservació de vitralls Can Pinyonaire
The University of York