What breaks easily? What would be the most fragile medium in which to make works of Art? If you wanted your work of art to last for five hundred years would you choose glass? Probably not. But amazingly stained glass from the early renaissance survives. Actually it not only survives but it often looks fresher and even more modern than traditional painting and printmaking from the same period. Like the work current artists such as Michael Craig Martin or Julian Opie - even the oldest of stained glass is parcelled up with strong leaded outlines giving it a cartoon like appearance.
The title of the National Gallery’s exhibition is “The Art of Light.” Its subtitle is “German Renaissance Stained Glass.” So already we see that this is an exhibition limited to a very restricted area of this art form. The exhibition contains beautiful pieces and displays them extremely well despite the restrictions of the space (but more of this later.)
A major question however is why the curators have limited themselves to such a small geographical and historical source. Surely great glass also comes from France, Italy or Spain and while it is true that much of Britain’s stained glass was destroyed during the Reformation, some important examples remain. There are still, for example, 12th century windows at Canterbury Cathedral and York Minster.
From the acknowledgments provided there are only two sources for the exhibits – the Victoria and Albert Museum and Ely cathedral. Surprisingly, despite the show’s subtitle, nothing actually was sourced from Germany.
The works comprise panels of stained glass set beside art works made at a similar time. Some pieces provide a direct comparison or counterpoint- some are more perplexing. The placing of three woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer beside glassworks copied directly makes good sense.
On the other hand to place an anonymous Austrian painted panel in “Egg on silver fir” from 1410 beside an anonymous Austrian stained glass panel from c.1350 was surprising. The notes claim a similarity of appearance but the glass was made in strong bright colours with a bold and simple style while the panel had been painted in a soft wispy manner. The glass image is more angular and the panel more rounded. Both panels showed an angel with wings no other point of direct comparison was easily discernable.
Furthermore, it seems odd that the curators found it necessary to include so many oil paintings and prints for contextualisation and comparison. The neighbouring exhibition on “The Landscape Oil Sketch” contents itself with the display of just oil sketches. Nonetheless the Sunley Room displays some beautiful works including a stunning example of “Tobias & Sarah on their Wedding Night” c.1520 from the V&A. Clearly this is the jewel in the crown of the exhibition as it is shown in isolation in the central area. Here no comparison is made to painting of the same period.
The position of this piece brings me back to the layout of the show. The Sunley Room itself is actually a suite of three rooms and is often used by the National Gallery for smaller shows. These are a main gallery and a small cinema linked by a narrow room or wide corridor.
This layout is important because while the suite is in a prominent and central position within the National Gallery, the main view from the entrance is not of the exhibition itself but rather the exit towards Orange Street. This is not of course the fault of this particular exhibition but the pre-existing layout of the National Gallery itself. This problem has proved difficult for previous shows in this space.
Within the corridor are displays illustrating the “Making of Stained Glass” and the “Creating of a Stained Glass Panel.” These panels give a brief clue to the materials and techniques used for hundreds of years in the production of stained glass.
To conclude; The works are beautifully displayed and despite the fact that these pieces were clearly meant to be seen against natural light, they are lit in such a manner that one hardly notices the lighting. The exhibition does what it sets out to do; it limits itself to a very small and particular area of study in this form of art and shows some fine examples.