Painting on Light - Drawings and Stained Glass in the Age of Darer and Holbein

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During the late Gothic and early Renaissance periods--when oil painting was just establishing itself as an important medium--stained glass was everywhere, adorning churches, city halls, castles, hospitals, universities, private homes and chapels, and even public bathhouses. In Germany and Switzerland, stained glass reached new heights of sophistication when the greatest artists of the era, incorporating recent developments in art, made innovative designs for the medium. Now an exhibition of more than sixty glass panels and about eighty preparatory drawings from collections in the United States, Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere has come to North America. Painting on Light: Drawings and Stained Glass in the Age of Durer and Holbein opened last summer at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and is currently at the Saint Louis Art Museum through January 7.

Lee Hendrix, curator of drawings at the Getty Museum and cocurator of the exhibition with Barbara Butts (guest curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum), calls the exhibition "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view in one place a large quantity of radiant paintings on glass juxtaposed with related drawings." The show focuses on works designed by Albrecht Durer (1471--1528) and Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98--1543) and on works revealing their immediate influence, as these two artists played a pivotal role in shaping a new aesthetic for the medium.

In the medieval period, the design and production of stained glass took place in one and the same studio. With the Renaissance, however, a number of artists--including Durer and Holbein the Younger--rose to such independence and stature that they not only made paintings and engravings by their own hand but designed works to be executed by others in an array of media, such as woodcuts, relief sculpture, furniture, jewelry, medals, and stained glass. Glass painters working in stained glass studios relied on artists trained as panel painters and/or print designers for about half their designs, and sometimes worked in close collaboration with them. Yet glass painters were talented artists in their own right, showing ingenuity in translating the drawings they had been given into the very different medium of stained glass.

At the time, the art of drawing itself was undergoing a revolution, being transformed from a means to record established motifs used in medieval workshops to a distinct art form that reflected the original ideas, concrete observations, and emotional insights of individual artists. The art of drawing particularly flourished in Germany and Switzerland in the late fifteenth to seventeenth centuries.

"Drawings are often the only remaining evidence we have of the vast amount of stained glass lost over time," notes Hendrix. "They not only help identify artists responsible for designing a panel or window, but they also demonstrate how glass painters used their judgment, formal intuition, and specialized skills to interpret drawings in terms of the glass medium."

With the exception of Matthias Grunewald, the South German and Swiss artists of the period who today are held in highest esteem devoted a significant portion of their time to the design of stained glass. An artist would initially make an sketch of the overall composition for a panel or window. This was followed by the working design, which was in proportional relationship to the final panel or window. Working designs would be made by the artist or a member of his studio. In the case of small-scale windows, the working design matched the size of the finished work and could be placed underneath the glass to guide the glass painter, or would be placed in front of the painter as he worked. In the case of monumental windows, working designs were the basis for cartoons (from the Italian cartone, big paper). Pieced together, cartoons matched the full dimension of the finished window. They would be made by the designer, a member of his studio, or the glass painter. …