Pablo Muñoz RuizStained glass windows are jewels that enlighten us".

It is easy to be enraptured to enter a cathedral full of stained glass windows coloring the interior. The art with glass has always sought to impress the viewer, because its author in the end what he wants is "to captivate you and tell you things when you see it, that will guide you the course of the look, and when you turn around to leave you wrap and accompany you.

Paloma López Campos-March 18, 2023-Reading time: 7 minutes
Stained glass

The interior of Our Lady of the Assumption Church in California, United States (OSV News photo/courtesy St. Michael's Abbey).

Vetraria Muñoz de Pablos is a family business dedicated to the creation, restoration and conservation of stained glass. It is very normal that we encounter this type of art when we enter a church, however, we usually do not know much of what happens at that point.

Pablo Muñoz Ruiz, a graduate in Fine Arts and member of the Vetraria team, lowers the stained glass windows to our height so that we can get to know them a little better.

What does stained glass restoration consist of?

-Restoration as an idea proposes the recovery of an asset that has been damaged or deteriorated to bring it to its initial state, as far as possible, eliminating the factors that have deteriorated it and improving its conservation for the future. That put into practice is complex because there are many cases and very different. In addition, the restoration of a stained glass covers different areas, not only involves the restoration of an object. The historical stained glass is both enclosure, plastic and iconographic support and light filter. When restoring a stained glass window we take into account all these factors and we consider not only the material restoration of the object, but also the restoration of the iconographic program and the interior light created as a symbolic form.

The stained glass window is an element that makes you notice its presence long before you see it, because it generates a luminous environment that envelops you. In this sense, every moment in history has sought to give it an intentional and specific meaning. The light is not the same in the Gothic period, which is based on the words of Jesus "I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life", as in the Baroque period, in which all available white light is sought, or in a contemporary space that has multiple intentions. 

We have always insisted on the need to restore each of these elements as a whole, as they are part of the identity of the work. Logically there are very different works in very different spaces with very different approaches and circumstances, but our commitment always leads us to value the property as a whole, so that the intervention is as complete and respectful as possible. In the end, the ideal is that the restoration itself goes unnoticed and that the work is put in value in the environment in which it was designed.

What is the current state of stained glass art?

-Stained glass, like many other artistic and craft disciplines, has always depended heavily on architecture. Depending on the use and need for light that has been throughout history the stained glass has been giving solutions to that architecture. It is an artistic discipline that is born and takes place mainly in religious art, but since the late nineteenth century until now there are also very good examples of stained glass outside the religious environment.

 Contemporary architecture has dispensed with many of these disciplines in favor of prefabricated materials and standardized assemblies for industrial use, which makes the current windows occupy very special or more exclusive spaces, with a clear purpose of intervention in the environment they occupy. So there are really two lines in which it develops: The stained glass independent of the architecture that is displayed and exhibited in exhibition halls along with painting and sculpture. And a stained glass in formal and conceptual transformation that is adapting to new materials and new forms within architecture. The concepts of enclosure, plastic support and light filter that I was talking about before are still inevitable factors to take into account and therefore continue to work when creating and conceiving new works.

How has this industry changed with technology?

 -Technology influences everything. And art and technology have always gone hand in hand. In the case of the stained glass even more so because everything that builds it, all the materials used and the processes necessary for its realization have been and are an undoubted technological boast, both in the manufacture of glass and metals that accompany it or the treatment and subsequent processing.

On the other hand, the digital world has been a part of every workshop for more than two decades. For us, digital scaling, multi-tool numerical control centers, laser cutting and engraving or plotters are perfectly integrated into many daily tasks. But all these state-of-the-art tools coexist with medieval processes, 19th century machines and hand tools that we also use on a daily basis. The work is still the same and is still substantially done in the same way as centuries ago, although there are tools that make things easier in some aspects.

Do the original works undergo variations after restoration?

-It depends on the cases and the deterioration they have suffered. We could say that a restoration is the result of poor conservation, so in restoration damage that in a good conservation would not have occurred or would not have become dramatic are contemplated. In the case of stained glass windows that lack protection or physical barriers that defend them, it is easy for breakage and loss of glass to occur, which has traditionally led in many cases to unfortunate emergency interventions that end up producing other types of damage and makes subsequent restorations more complicated.

Restoration is always dramatic for a work of art of any kind because it involves the treatment of the damage that has violated the work, so it is important that it is carried out by qualified professionals to restore its entity and ensure its conservation and stability over time.

What process should be followed for the conservation of stained glass windows? 

-To conserve a stained glass, like any other good, you must first assess what may be the causes of deterioration, both physical and environmental, and to establish appropriate protective measures to prevent these damages occur. Once these causes have been established and the appropriate protection has been carried out, it is when the restoration and conservation guidelines should be established, which are easy to carry out when the damage has been minimized as much as possible. It is much more expensive to restore than to conserve. What happens is that conservation involves surveillance and guardianship that must be organized by people trained to know what to do at all times within an orderly framework, and that part is complicated to coordinate.

Is the process different in churches, because they are holy places? 

-We always work thinking that the window has a function within the temple and is not a decontextualized object in a museum, and that function should continue to play as long as the temple remains active. That is its justification and raison d'être and is an important factor to consider when intervening.

Sometimes you restore a work that is not in its proper place, or that is missing elements that have been lost and are necessary to understand it, or that was part of a whole that has been altered or diminished. In these cases, the recovery of the initial idea that returns the work to its religious function is more than necessary, because it is part of its identity, it is what it was designed for and it is what justifies it. It is not always possible because it logically implies the use of resources that are not always available, but it is important to go as far as possible to make it happen.

¿How is the creative process in the creation of stained glass windows?

-As we have been talking about, the window needs and uses a number of materials, techniques and procedures quite large and varied. Each with its particularities and requires specific knowledge. That translates into the sum of several trades that in earlier stages of history were developed in a specialized way by different workers. Nowadays, these large workshops of specialized workers are not possible and one assumes all the tasks to be performed. Drawing, cartoning, cutting, painting, furnaces and melting, leaded, blacksmithing, masonry, the office and the commercial part as well.

It is quite complex. But for us the most important thing is the dialogue or the conversation that is generated with the place where it is destined. It's not about making a piece that can be placed in a space or a window, it's about the work making sense in its place. That it captivates you and tells you things when you see it, that it guides your gaze, and that when you turn around to leave it envelops you and accompanies you. That is our job.

Are there any interesting facts about stained glass that people don't usually know?

-Well, honestly, I would say that almost everything. The windows are usually at a height that makes them inaccessible to almost anyone, and when you can see them up close it is difficult to understand them if someone has not previously explained what you are seeing beyond an image. We try to do as much dissemination as we can, among heritage professionals, art enthusiasts and other groups. The phrase "I could not imagine that this could be so" is quite frequent.

There are many different techniques applicable to glass that allow us to create a stained glass. It can be painted as a painting with water or oil techniques, melt in pieces or layers in a furnace, assembled with metals such as lead, bronze or iron, or cast with materials such as concrete or resin. Not to mention the variety of different procedures that allow us to alter the nature of the glass to change color or shape. Stained glass is an art unknown to most people and yet it is extraordinarily seductive and exciting for those who approach and begin to discover it.

What glass works do you recommend us to see?

-We could begin to cite many European works such as the Sainte Chapelle which is an inevitable reference and exciting to see. But I prefer to focus on Spain because we have very good stained glass and very good sets. In religious art could begin by citing many cathedrals. In Segovia we have been working for several years on an ambitious project that finances with great effort the cathedral chapter and will be completed in a few years. It has a magnificent set of Mannerist stained glass windows, others of the seventeenth and nineteenth extraordinary. The cathedral of Avila also, in the area of the presbytery and the transept. Seville is fantastic. Granada. The cathedral of Leon of course. There are some unknown jewels such as the stained glass windows of the Chapel of the Hospital Niño Jesús in Madrid from 1881. The church of the Jerónimos, next to the Prado museum.

And outside the religious environment are magnificent stained glass windows of the Bank of Spain in Madrid. It has a collection of late nineteenth and early twentieth century that are reference in any art book. It also has contemporary stained glass of the 80s very interesting. At the Complutense University in the faculty of philosophy, or in the auditorium of the school of architecture. It is not difficult to find stained glass in our environment, what is difficult is that people appreciate them for what they are: the jewels that enlighten and enrich us.

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