Updated: Jun 20, 2019
To graduate as a master, you have to show off your skills by copying a quality piece of antique glass art: a stained glass portrait from a church. I always desire not to make things too hard for myself, but I always end up giving myself the toughest of challenges. I decided to pick Judith by Dirck Crabeth from the Unesco World Heritage windows of the Church of st John (sint Janskerk) in Gouda. Why…? Why…?
I will show you the whole story, as it unfolds, in my blog.
Choosing the stained glass portrait to copy, or reproduce (that sounds fancier)
Preferably the portrait should not be older than from the late gothic early renaissance period. This has to do with a dip in the art of stained glass roughly between the late 17th untill the early 19th century. You can choose a portrait from a country or church you desire, preferably Germany, France, England and the Netherlands. I know people who choose a picture from a book from a church far away, and then only have that small picture as a reference. Or they travel to their chosen portrait on their holidays in France, so they can study and photograph it up close. I thought I would make it easy on myself and pick one of the portraits in the church of st John in Gouda, only a half hour travel from my home in Rotterdam.
But that was not the only reason: I grew up in Gouda (yes the town of Cheese and delicious Stroopwafels!), and in spite of not being raised religious, the church played a part in my life in Gouda. As a young teenager I was involved in a local documentary, that filmed in part in the church and described the stories of the stained glass windows. And I always was fascinated by them. As an older teenager, I used to hang out with my friends in de park behind the church and I loved the gothic view of it at night. The windows were one of the reasons I started in the glass business in the first place. So I just had to pick one of those portraits.
The story behind the portrait
My eye fell on the face of Judith in window 6. I liked her, because she was an adventurous woman from the old testament and not too ‘sainty’. She is depicted with a sword in her hand, inspecting the freshly chopped off head of Holophernes, her enemy. Her cunning action saved her city from a siege that had been going on too long, men not being able to solve the problem. The portrait is part of a large window, showing the siege of Bethulia. It has a lot of detail: you can see the tents of the enemies, the city in the background and the lances and spears of the fighting soldiers. As is typical for these windows, in the bottom are the sponsors of the window depicted: Jan van Ligne and Margaretha van der Mark, painted kneeling devoutly with saint Catharine and John the Baptist in the background. The window is from 1571, in renaissance style by Dirck Crabeth, who, together with his brother Wouter, is responsible for most of the church windows. There is quite a lot of documentation on these windows, which is unique, but I will write about that in a later post.
Start with a drawing
The traditional way of making a stained glass window, is to start with a drawing. The window already existed, I just wanted to copy it, but I still made a drawing. Of course I also photographed it. I took a rediculous amount of pictures, also of the surroundig glass, with my huge Nikon camera in RAW. This seems a bit like overkill, but I took pictures in different settings where I could see the lead really well, as well as pictures of the glass. The RAW photo’s enabled me to zoom in on my computer and see the details up close. Because the windows are quite high, there is a lot of perspective on my photo’s and using photoshop I had to adjust the picture to make a well proportioned cut out. This cut out I printed full scale (about 70×70 cm) and I used this to make the pencil drawing.
Get to know your subject, intimately
I must admit, I put the print out on my light-table and traced some of the lines of my sketch, so that roughly the pieces were in the right place. I could only see the darkest of lines through the paper, so I didn’t cheat too much! After that I started to draw each piece of glass with an HB pencil, while looking at the print out and the photo’s on my computer. At one point I also had a copy of the original sketch by Crabeth. This took me many many many, yes many nights at the dining room table. I tried to copy the smallest of shades as well as I could.
Make decisions on your lead lines
Fortunately, while drawing, I discovered that those geniusses of the 16th century also made mistakes: there was a silver nitrate stain on the sword, that probably got there in the oven. Also some lines weren’t as straight as they ought to be. This felt reassuring. But I had to make a decision on copying those errors. The window is also really old, and it has gone through some hardship over the years. Some glas has been broken and was mended by adding lead lines, some of it has been completely replaced. There is also a iron rod going straight over Judiths chin. I have not seen this rod in any of the surrounding windows, so I assume it has been added later.
I got to the question: Do I make the reproduction of the window as is, or as it originally was meant to be. (If I manage to find out what that was exactly) So far I have decided to take out some of the obvious repairs, or ones that disturb the aestetics of the window. I am still discussing with my teacher about some of the traces of the ageing of the glass. I will probably make the window look old, because making it look all shiny and new, will make it look more kitsch and too clinical.
Because I couldn’t see the chin really well, I had to improvise a little, following the lines and the shades I knew where there. The chin became quite large and I was not quite pleased with it, but it seemed to all come together like this.
And when you think you’re done…
After I was done drawing, I felt really happy and proud that I finished it. I thought the drawing looked great and I had never made such a large detailed pencil drawing in my life. And then my teacher told me there wasn’t enough contrast in the shading and that I had to add a whole layer of shades over it again. Sigh…Fortunately that didn’t take too long and I used a 3b pencil this time, for some extra darkness. When I showed the drawing again everybody was happy. I had the drawing copied twice, and framed it. Job well done, but then I got some comments that the chin was still too manly…