Stained glass conservation at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Putting the pieces together

Valentine Talland and Barbara Mangum

Abstract

The Gardner Museum is currently conserving nine medieval and Renaissance European stained glass windows in its permanent collection with support form the Getty Grant Program, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Commission, and funds raised through a museum special event. Among these windows is the Lives of Sts. Nicasius and Eutropia window from the 13th century Soissons Cathedral in the Reims region of France, and six 15th and 16th century panels from the Milan Cathedral. The project is supervised and managed by the staff objects conservators, Valentine Talland and Barbara Mangum. the project has been contracted to the Cummings Studios, a well known private stained glass restoration establishment located only 100 miles from the Gardner Museum. The conservation work is being done by a sub-contracted agent at Cummings, whom the museum selected for her special expertise: the conservator is Marie-Pascale Foucault, a specialist in the conservation of European stained glass of these periods.

In addition to the above conservation professionals involved in this project, the museum is also working closely with art historians from the Corpus Vitrearum, the scholarly publication of all European stained glass in Europe, North America, and elsewhere. Scholars involved in this project are Dr. Madeline Caviness, former president and current secretary of the Corpus Vitrearum and professor of art history at Tufts university, and Marilyn Beaven, who first published the Lives of Sts. Nicasius and Eutropia window. In addition to Dr. Caviness and Ms. Beaven who are fortuitously in the Boston area, the museum is also working with Enesto Brivio, director of the Duomo Museum in Milan, and Dr. Caterina Pirina, also of Milan who published the Milanese windows in the Gardner Collection. Finally, of course, the museum’s chief curator plays a key role in decisions made regarding iconography and aesthetics in the conservation of these windows.

Having so many collaborative professionals can present some project management challenges, but it has also enriched this project enormously and enabled the museum to make informed decisions. One example of the level of complexity that this collaboration has addressed involved the inclusion of one single piece of 15th century restoration glass in the Milanese window Ruth and Boaz. This one piece of glass confused both the iconography of the whole window and the gender of one figure in particular. Scholars from the Corpus Vitrearum preferred it to be left in place despite the confusion it elicited because their experience of restored windows in church collections indicated that when contemporaneous restoration glass is separated from the window it is often lost forever and with it valuable art historical information. The museum’s curator, on the other hand, had the mission of the museum” … the education the public … ” as his responsibility. Given that this one piece of glass could not be proved to have been of this window (or even possibly of the same painter), his concern was taking the opportunity to clarify the iconography. The Italian scholars were called upon to discuss the possible iconographies of this window because they have the perspective of studying all the windows by this particular painter as well as all the other relevant narrative windows.

This is only one question among many involved in the treatment of nine windows that our collaborative team has resolved. The experience has been exciting and valuable to everyone involved. The stained glass conservation professionals have enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with objects conservators and the greater professional conservation community, from whom they are largely separate. (Stained glass restoration is an enormous profession many of whose practitioners are surprisingly isolated from the national and international professional conservation organizations and their publications.) In tum, we have had an exceptional opportunity to learn about the study and care of stained glass from some of the worlds experts in the field.

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