Stained Glass - Art at the Glass Surface
Cambridge - Monday 4th and
Tuesday 5th September 2017

Mary Clerkin Higgins
<[email protected]>

article posted 17 May 2017

Mary Clerkin Higgins is a stained glass artist and conservator who began working in stained glass in 1976. She has conserved stained glass from the 12th century through the present for numerous museums and institutions across the United States and lectures frequently on stained-glass conservation. Her artwork has been included in the Corning Museum of Art’s annual New Glass Review.

Bringing Back the Ghosts
Mary Clerkin Higgins

Clerkin Higgins Stained Glass, NYC

Damaging environmental and human interventions of over seven centuries can take a terrible toll on the vitreous paint used in stained glass and, at times, all that may remain of the original image in places is a mere “ghost”. This paper presents a detailed case study of the treatment of two important medieval stained-glass panels, addressing the approach and philosophy of the treatment undertaken and the how and why of the materials used.

In 1862, Viollet le Duc removed the center panels from four tri-lobes depicting angels from the North Rose of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. These were later “restored” and sold to private collectors. The glass was releaded, with new inserts and stopgaps added, and cold paint was robustly applied to touch up missing vitreous paint, muddying and confusing the graphic. Two of the panels, now in a private collection in the United States, were treated in 2016. The ghost images where trace lines had been were crucial in reproducing the strong lost trace lines, so important in 13th century painting.

In any work of art, subtlety of line is critical in understanding an artist’s work and wavering from that line can violate the artist’s intent, rather than restore it. Historically, the medium of stained glass has existed primarily in architectural settings, so the materials used must be able to withstand an often punishing environment. But increasingly, significant works of stained glass art are stored and displayed in much more controlled settings – in museums, private collections, or even still in situ, but protected from the elements. Techniques developed to hold up in architectural settings – such as plates (back or front) – may not be necessary in controlled settings and may actually be problematic for optimum viewing of the work of art. Determining which techniques best serve each work is important for any conservation treatment.