The newly-opened Cité du Vitrail puts the spotlight on a heritage with a constantly developing expertise. Presenting medieval masterpieces and contemporary creations, this new institution sheds light on a thousand-year-old art form.
Hermann de Munster, Les Rois mages (The Three Kings), church of Sainte-Ségolène (Metz, detail), c. 1380-1390, glass and lead, grisaille paint and silver stain, Musée Lorrain de Nancy.
Arch. dep. Aube/ Elsa Viollet
In the small world of master glassmakers, the opening of the Cité du Vitrail is an event eagerly awaited for nearly 50 years by the project’s most fervent supporters. "The idea was first evoked in 1977 during a congress held in Troyes,” says Alain Vinum, representative of the fifth generation of master glasspainters and consultant to the Cité du Vitrail. “Various colleagues were presenting their pieces, and I showed some 16th-century stained-glass windows, which had been tucked away in a box in our workshop for decades. We suddenly remembered the words of the medievalist Louis Grodecki (1910-1982), who called Troyes "the holy city of stained glass". Long before him, in the 18th century, Pierre Le Veil (1708-1772), one of the first historians to take up the subject, stated that "there is perhaps no canton in France containing such exquisite painted windows and in such quantity as the city of Troyes in Champagne, and its surroundings." Three centuries later, a few key figures give an idea of this wealth: in the département of Aube, 9,000 m2 of stained-glass windows dating from before the French Revolution have been listed, i.e. over 1,100 windows divided between 220 mainly religious buildings. If we include more recent stained-glass windows, there are 350 buildings containing them, like the cathedral of Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul in Troyes, together with small country churches, private mansions, and so on. Alongside Seine-Maritime, the Aube is the département that possesses the most stained-glass windows.
A Remarkable Heritage
"This abundance can be explained by the Champagne region’s various phases of prosperity over the years," says Anne-Claire Garbe, the young curator of the Cité du Vitrail. There were Champagne’s opulent fairs during the Middle Ages, which stimulated the building of churches (at a time when the Biblical message was transmitted through stained-glass windows), followed by the textile and tannery factories of the Renaissance—Troyes was then the fifth largest city in the kingdom of France—and then the rise of hosiery and knitting in the 19th century. "Add to this the fact that the region was protected from bombing during the two World Wars, and there was a strong tradition embodied by the commitment of the Abbey’s master glassmakers, who got together in 1939 to remove the windows from the churches and safely stash them away in southern France, and you can see why this heritage is so rich and varied today," says Garbe. In 1992, the publication of a list of Aube’s ancient stained-glass windows caused a stir. "Villages became aware of the marvels hidden away in their churches," says Alain Vinum. A few years on, in 2009, an exhibition dedicated to the golden age of stained glass in Troyes—"Le beau XVIe siècle” (“The Beautiful 16th Century")—was so successful that the General Council decided to create a venue dedicated to this art so typical of the Aube region.
Modernizing an Ancient Art
After 33 months of work overseen by Éric Pallot, chief architect of the Monuments Historiques, the imposing stone vessel built on the banks of the Haute-Seine Canal now appears in all its majestic mineral whiteness. The monumental solid oak staircase immediately draws visitors into the heart of the matter: it sports a 15-meter high chandelier made of 24 colored glass “sleeves”, each weighing 6 to 7 kilos. These large cylinders constitute the raw material of stained glass: once split and flattened, they yield the precious glass sheets. "I chose the most speaking colors," says Alain Vanum, the chandelier’s designer: “brown, evoking grisaille; red, symbolizing molten glass, and this amber, referring to the silver stain used to paint on the glass.” With an eye now more familiar with the very spirit of stained glass, visitors explore behind the scenes of creation, the history of the art and its technical developments. Placed at human height, the stained glass windows provide material for meditation. One masterpiece is a small window vibrant with blue and red showing the Martyrdom of St. Vincent, from the ancient abbey of Saint Denis. Next to it, Cistercian panels from Pontigny Abbey depict abstract, almost colorless foliage tracery. “These 12th-century stained glass windows embody the two concepts opposing each other at that time,” says Garbe: Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, condemned luxury and decoration in churches, while Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis glorified God through a profusion of color.
Another marvel is a Transfiguration of Christ, displayed in the treasure room. This small window, which once adorned the Romanesque cathedral of Troyes in the 12th century, was found under a bed in the département of Doubs and then preempted by the French State at an auction in Le Havre. Masterpieces from all periods are found here, right up to the 21st century. The uninitiated will be amazed to see to what extent stained glass is a living art that goes hand in hand with artistic movements and constantly innovates—as witness the almost futuristic Grand Vitrail de la Vitesse (Great Window of Speed), created in the 1920s by Jacques Simon, or, closer to our times, the curious Saint Amelia by the American Kehinde Wiley: a contemporary reinterpretation of the Saint Amélie painted by Ingres through the African-American figure. There is also the hypnotic stained-glass window "Aux cent visages" (A Hundred Faces) created by the artist Véronique Ellena and master glassmaker Pierre-Alain Parot for Strasbourg cathedral from a multitude of photographs, reproduced on the glass using sprayed enamels. Or the stained-glass window, gifted by the artist Fabienne Verdier, adorning the oculus of the chapel: an ascending, expanding Vortex, like a vibrant swoosh of light.