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The conservator's eye: a stained glass Adoration of the Magi

The video explores the intricate art of Renaissance stained glass, focusing on a panel depicting the Adoration of the Magi. It highlights the complex techniques used, from pot glass to silver stain, and the role of lead in holding the glass pieces together. The video also discusses the preservation and repair of such delicate artwork. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Steve] We're in the cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, looking at this gorgeous stained glass panel. Usually when people think about stained glass, they think about medieval churches, but this was actually produced during the Renaissance, and I'm really fortunate to be in the museum with Sarah Barack, a conservator who specializes in glass. - [Sarah] When we look at a window, we kind of take for granted its beautiful rich tones, its detailed painting, not only was there a lot of thought and process involved, but a lot of skills and workmanship. - [Steve] In the early 16th century this would have been considered a very precious object, not so much because of the materials themselves are costly, it's not made out of real gold, but it did require a lot of expertise and a lot of fuel to heat the kiln in which it would have been made. - [Sarah] It's not valuable gold, quite the opposite, it's held together by a very base metal, lead. Lead creates the came, the bars that hold each piece of glass together. - [Steve] And what's being depicted, is in fact gold, this is the Adoration of the Magi, the three kings that here are honoring the new born, the Christ child, with gold, with frankincense, and myrrh. - [Sarah] Not only did they bring their precious gifts, they also adorned themselves in beautiful costuming, from their velvety brocade robes, to the incredibly ornate and detailed armor. So when we think of stained glass, generally the color of the glass isn't really abstained. - [Steve] This is called pot glass, and that would be glass that is entirely one color, and that would be the kind of color that you would find for instance in a church like Chartres. - [Sarah] So if there was a tragedy and you broke a piece of glass apart for instance, the virgin blue robe that you see here, that color blue would go all the way through, it's not notification on the surface. That's different from the details that we see. - [Steve] This brilliant yellow is actually made out of silver. - [Sarah] It's called silver stain. In the application of silver salts to the surface of a glass geared to a high temperature, which allowed the silver to actually migrate in to the glass. When we hear about nanotechnology today, well this is an early example of nanotechnology, a little, tiny nano particles of silver, creating a yellow hue of varying intensities. - [Steve] So in addition to the pot glass, which we see as red or green, or blue, and in addition to the silver stain, which we see as this brilliant yellow, there is also much finer work. - [Sarah] There are details in the robe, the hair of the virgin, the face, the landscape, that's all created by paint, but it's not paint like you see in a painting on canvas, it's actually paint that needed heat, to allow it to set or fuse to the surface of the glass. - [Steve] I think now in the 21st century, we take for granted flat glass, but this wasn't poured into a flat mold, this actually was hand blown. - [Sarah] It's probably done with cylinder glass. - [Steve] They would heat up some glass, they would catch it as a ball at the end of a hollow tube, and they would blow into it very much like we do with a soap bubble. - [Sarah] And then you would use gravity to allow that globe shape turn into a one like a cylinder. And that would be eventually transferred to another rod or punty and allowed to be slit open, and create a flat sheet, so imagine a piece of paper, fold it around to create a cylinder, and then you open it up and let it sit down into the flat sheet, and it's a good point that it wasn't a painter, they probably bought their glass from merchants. - [Steve] But clearly the artist would have had to understand the impact of different chemicals. So let's look at one section of this panel, and really try to understand how it was produced. I'm especially taken by the hat on the ground, just below the kneeling king and the Christ child. - [Sarah] What you see are both the red of the glass itself, the yellow, caused by the silver stain we talked about, and that colorless section showing up as white right now, but it's really just an area where the red has been removed. So in one piece of glass alone, you've achieved multiple details. - [Steve] They are within the same piece of glass. - [Sarah] The artisan has avoided creating a thick, black line, the led, in between. And they way this was done, was really a virtuoso technique. Removing red from a colorless glass. - [Steve] So this is called flash glass. What's happened is the glass blower is taking perfectly clear glass and blowing it into, let's say a globe, and then that globe is dipped into another pot of molten glass, which in this case would have been red, so there would have been a thin layer of red glass on top of the original globe of clear glass. - [Sarah] It would allow him a lot of flexibility in terms of creating many colors. - [Steve] Because what the artist is then able to do was to scrape away, either with acid, or with some sort of abrasion that outer layer of red where he wanted to expose the clear glass, for instance in that fur of the underlining. And the yellow also, would have been cut back to the clear glass, and then those silver salts would have been added, and when it was fired, that silver would have migrated into the surface of the glass. There's also this lovely grisaille or grey, which is helping to define the details. - [Sarah] And that's that fire paint we talked about. And within the details there's both dark areas of wash, and then also beautiful bright highlights where the paint itself has been removed, or stippled, to allow the light to come through. - [Steve] So the technical facility that was required to produce this hat is astonishing, and it would have began with the glass blower himself. But then handed off to the artist who was responsible for the depiction. - [Sarah] And it speaks to the talent and the skills of the collaborative workshop who created the panel, likely associated Peter Hemmel, who was a well known glass painter. - [Steve] And it's remarkable to me how vivid the colors are, how little they've changed. This looks, I'm imagining, very much like it did in the early 16th century. - [Sarah] That's what's really special about glass, in particular, is that those colors remain true and vibrant, they don't shift to fade the way you might see in a painting, but this is very, very good condition. - [Steve] But of course, glass is fragile, and so the glass itself can break and there can be losses. - [Sarah] And We can see repairs in this panel also. If we follow our gaze down from the top of the virgins head, to her lovely lock of flowing blond waves, we might see a little line, and that's where the glass was broken, and glued back together. - [Steve] And just to the left of Virgin Mary, in the frame of the panel, I can see that there's a little break that forms an X. - [Sarah] That's another area where the glass has broken, and been repaired, in that same section of the framing element, we see a sort of wedged shape, which includes a section of paint that looks warmer and browner in color, and that looks to me like a repair as well. - [Steve] And there's an interesting issue there. The conservator who is responsible for this repair, wants us to be aware that the this is not original, but also not distract us from enjoying the overall composition. - [Sarah] and that's a are really big questions that conservators actually grapple with when you are in painting or painting an area where something original is lost is, how much to make it recede in space, how much to make it look a lot like these surroundings paint, and how much to subtly inform the viewer that something has been added or restored here. - [Steve] All of this is a reminder that the closer we look at a work of art, the more there is to see, the more there is to understand, and the more there is to enjoy. (soft piano music)