Culture

The art of stained glass, a French history

If I tell you Jacques Gruber, Louis Barillet, Jean Gaudin, or the Atelier Champigneulle? These names are probably not very familiar to you, and yet they embody the revival of the art of stained glass in France. Exceptionally, France is the country with the largest surface area of stained glass in the world. This article takes a look at a craft tradition that has been elevated to the rank of art: from the revival of stained glass as a living art towards the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, to contemporary stained glass that associates master glassmakers and contemporary artists/designers…

Art deco stained glass window made by Louis Barillet for the “établissements balnéaires d’Auteuil” built in 1929 by the architect Lucien Pollet in a liner style.

A glass composition made of pieces of glass assembled with lead rods, stained glass appeared in the Middle Ages as a technique to embellish religious buildings. Unfortunately, many medieval stained glass windows were destroyed during the Age of Enlightenment and the Revolutionary period. It was with the great architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and the Romantic movement, in the mid-18th century, that stained glass regained its colour, before becoming very popular again at the turn of the 20th century, under the impetus of Art Nouveau.

Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral, stained glass windows. The great architect and restorer Viollet-le-Duc was responsible for restoring most of the stained glass windows in the chapels of the “Old Lady”.
Stained glass windows in the Gallery of the Prophets, in the south arm of the transept of Notre-Dame Cathedral, created by the Alfred Gérente workshop, 19th century.

Indeed, the Art Nouveau movement gave stained glass back its letters of nobility. And we have come a long way: think, for example, that before the Revolution, there were only 4 glass painters left in Paris! The time is ripe for floral or symbolist-inspired motifs. What is changing? Stained glass was no longer confined to churches and cathedrals of light: it was now used in department stores, banks, restaurants and industrial offices. The term “stained glass” was replaced by “glass roof”.

Stained glass window “Roses In An Art Nouveau / Art Deco Décor”, executed at the beginning of the 20th century. Stained glass made with glass of different colours and textures.
Stained glass window “Roses In An Art Nouveau / Art Deco Decor”, executed at the beginning of the 20th century, detail.
Stained glass window “Roses In An Art Nouveau / Art Deco Decor”, executed at the beginning of the 20th century, detail.

The architects of this revival are Louis Majorelle, Emile Gallé, Eugène Grasset, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Jacques Gruber, Louis Barillet… The first mentioned are well known, representatives of the Nancy School, they embody the excellence of the technical gesture of the great master glassmakers. Let’s not forget that Lorraine is the historical land of glass art in France: Baccarat, Daum, Saint-Louis, …

Art Nouveau glass roof in the hall of the Crédit Lyonnais bank in Nancy, designed by Jacques Gruber (1870-1936). Considered one of the masterpieces of this master glassmaker, cabinetmaker and decorator
Stained glass window “Reading” by designer and porcelain painter Henri Bergé (1870-1937), Musée de l’École de Nancy. Trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Nancy, Henri Bergé took over from Jacques Gruber as chief decorator of the Daum crystal factory.
3 stained glass windows for the Church of Notre Dame des Eaux in Aix les Bains. The windows were designed by Eugène Grasset and created by the Lyon master glass artist Lucien Bégule, 1894.
3 stained glass windows for the Church of Notre Dame des Eaux in Aix les Bains, central window, composition by Eugène Grasset, made by Lucien Bégule, 1894.
3 stained glass windows for the Church of Notre Dame des Eaux in Aix les Bains, right hand window, composition Eugène Grasset, realisation Lucien Bégule, 1894.
Stained glass windows in the church of Saint-Médard de Grandpré (Ardennes).
One of the stained glass windows of the church of Saint-Pierre de Bouvines, designed by Pierre Fritel (1853-1942), and made from 1889 onwards by the master stained glass artist Emmanuel-Marie-Joseph Champigneulle (1860- 1942).
Period photograph of the Champigneulle family. The Champigneulle family is a line of painters and master glassmakers renowned in Lorraine. They settled in Metz, then in Bar-le-Duc, and finally in Paris (Ateliers Champigneulle, the Paris branch of the family glass painting business).

The stained glass technique underwent major changes during the inter-war period. Jules Albertini, a glassmaker in Montigny-lès-Cormeilles (Val-d’Oise), worked on the first glass tiles with the mosaic artist Jean Gaudin. The stained glass became lighter and more monochromatic. In 1933, the French master glass artist and mosaicist Auguste Labouret invented and registered a new process: stained glass in cement partitioned slabs. The floral arabesques of the Art

the floral arabesques of Art Nouveau that illuminated stained glass windows were followed by the geometric and more abstract compositions of Art Deco, of which Louis Barillet was an illustrious representative. In the 1920s, with Jacques Le Chevallier and Théo Hansen, he renewed the aesthetic language of stained glass.

Stained glass window “Scenes from the Life of the Virgin” by Jean Gaudin in the Notre-Dame-Drapière axial chapel of Amiens Cathedral, 1933.
Stained glass window by Jean Gaudin in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, Amiens Cathedral, 1933.
Stained glass window by Louis Barillet, Chapelle du Souvenir, Flers, 1928. Classified as a Historic Monument in 2006 for its facades, decorations, stained glass and frescoes
Double doors in stained glass with geometric decoration in shades of purple, green, grey, white and black. Designed by Louis Barillet, around 1930.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, many bombed-out religious buildings had to be rebuilt: the restoration and renovation of damaged stained glass windows became a priority for the Church, which was anxious to maintain its historical heritage. In addition to this, there was a change in doctrine. Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962. He wanted to change the relationship of believers to religion. As a result, the interior architecture of churches evolved: stained glass windows became an element that contributed to spirituality. With powerful colours and large surfaces, it became a field of experimentation.

Interior of the Chapel of Ronchamp in Haute-Saône, architecture and interior design: Le Corbusier. Inaugurated in 1955, the Ronchamp Chapel is a typical example of the architectural modernisation of churches. The stained glass window became an important element.
Detail of a stained glass window in the Ronchamp Chapel painted by Le Corbusier.
Detail of a stained glass window in the Church of Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce (Haute-Savoie). For the first time, the church commissions stained glass windows from non-Christian artists. The building is classified as a Historic Monument.
Stained glass window painted by the artist Jean Bazaine, “Saint Grégoire et le chant grégorien”, Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce Church. Symbolising the church’s entry into architectural modernity, the greatest artists of the time came to sign stained glass windows, paintings, sculptures, tapestries, etc.
Stained glass window painted by the artist Jean Bazaine, “David, the musician king”, Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce Church.
Stained glass window painted by the artist Jean Bazaine, “Sainte Cécile, patron saint of musicians”.

The Catholic Church thus opened its churches to modernity and no longer hesitated to commission stained glass windows from non-Christian artists. The public authorities of the time also got involved. And so it was that Robert-Charles Renard, Chief Architect of Historic Monuments (1946-1974), proposed that the painters Georges Braque and Fernand Léger design new stained glass windows for the Cathedral of Saint-Etienne in Metz, nicknamed “God’s lantern” (6,500 m2 of glass surface). The two refused, but Renard convinced the painters Jacques Villon (Marcel Duchamp’s brother), Marc Chagall and Roger Bissière to design and create the windows. Some consider these interventions to be a first in the history of stained glass, as it was the first commission for avant-garde stained glass windows for a historical monument.

3 of the 5 stained glass windows for which Jacques Villon made the cartonnage towards the end of the 1950s, for the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in the Cathedral of Saint-Etienne in Metz.
Detail of the stained glass window “The Last Supper” for which the cartonnage was made by Jacques Villon (1875-1963, real name Gaston Émile Duchamp), for the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of Saint-Etienne’s Cathedral in Metz.
Series of stained glass windows by Marc Chagall for the Cathedral of Saint-Etienne in Metz, “Lancette de la baie n°11”, 1962. Chagall deploys incredible bright colours, his biblical figures approach the abstract, which is unusual for Romanesque or Gothic churches.
Detail of a stained glass window designed by Marc Chagall for the Cathedral of Saint-Etienne in Metz. The artist worked for almost a decade (1958-1968) for the cathedral.
South tympanum glass roof, Saint-Etienne’s Cathedral, Metz, designed by René Bissière, 1960. René Bissière, a painter of the New School of Paris, created the two majestic glass windows of the north and south tympanums of the cathedral. Bissière is clearly a non-figurative artist. Some experts believe that this is the first non-figurative work installed in a cathedral in France.

Following the example of Metz Cathedral, which brought contemporary art into a sacred place, the State commissioned the restoration of the stained glass windows of Saint-Cyr-et-Sainte-Julitte Cathedral in Nevers, which had been damaged by bombing during the Second World War. Contemporary artists were chosen, usually working in tandem with a glass painter. Among the artists chosen: Raoul Ubac, Jean-Michel Alberola, Claude Viallat, François Rouan, Gottfried Honneger, etc. These choices definitely turn their backs on the past: abstraction replaces the figurative…

Stained glass windows in the Romanesque choir, Saint-Cyr-et-Sainte-Julitte de Nevers cathedral, created by the photographer, painter, engraver and sculptor Raoul Ubac, with the master glassmakers Charles Marq and Atelier Simon, from 1978 to 1983.
Low windows of the nave, Saint-Cyr-et-Sainte-Julitte de Nevers cathedral, François Rouan with the glass masters Benoît Marc and Atelier Simon.

Far from being perceived as an obsolete artistic practice, the art of stained glass continues to fascinate contemporary artists who work in conjunction with specialised workshops, as is the case with designers who sign models for major crystal works. Examples include the artistic collaborations between the Verrerie de Saint-Just (Loire) and the designers Peter Marino and Philippe Starck, or those between the Ateliers Duchemin and the contemporary artists Anne & Patrick Poirier, Carole Benzaken, Robert Morris or Sarkis…

The magnificent tulips of the artist Carole Benzaken for the Saint Sulpice church in Varennes-Jarcy (Essonne).
The magnificent tulips of the artist Carole Benzaken for the church of Saint Sulpice in Varennes-Jarcy (Essonne).
For the Priory of Saint-Jean-du-Grais in Azay-sur-Cher, the artist Sarkis created 39 monochrome stained glass windows with exceptional colours to filter the light!
Priory of Saint-Jean-du-Grais in Azay-sur-Cher, monochrome stained glass windows by Sarkis
Priory of Saint-Jean-du-Grais in Azay-sur-Cher, monochrome stained glass windows by Sarkis

François Boutard