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Religious Stained Glass Is an Art Form in Crisis
By: Patricia Rogers

Churches throughout America are in possession of many art treasures, but the one treasure that seems to be consistently underappreciated and neglected is the wealth of stained glass in these buildings. America's religious stained glass is some of the finest in the world and it is vanishing rapidly.

While many people recognize the names of Tiffany and La Farge, and their stained glass art is usually acknowledged and preserved, there are thousands of churches with windows of great beauty, rarity, and artistic merit that are not so well known. Sadly, the vast majority of these windows are either destroyed when a parish is closed or are in deteriorated condition due to lack of maintenance. These windows constitute an American art form as valuable and meaningful as the fine arts of painting and sculpture. They are creations that should be retained and honored. They are a part of our history and our culture, and, once they are gone, we will not see their inspirational message and beauty again.

It is the duty of any church or religious institution to be a good steward of its possessions. This includes the fabric of its buildings and, of course, its windows. Restoration of stained glass windows should be as important as replacing a furnace or roof. Properly cared for windows not only greatly improve the aesthetics of the church, but will also increase the efficiency of the heating and air conditioning by supplying proper seals around each pane and panel. This will also impact your seasonal utilities bills. The windows are a part of the artistic culture of the building, and, as such, they should be maintained and restored.

What constitutes a restoration? Preservation? Repair? And when is it needed? A professional studio will discuss all these options. A complete restoration of stained glass windows involves removing the windows from their openings; taking them apart to clean and repair each piece of glass; and rebuilding them with new lead or zinc that is similar in size and character to the original. It can also include removing old protective covering that may be yellowed and cracked, and replacing it with new frames and glazing that is properly vented. It is also the time to make repairs to the sashes by cleaning, scraping, painting, and otherwise refinishing the framework in which the windows sit. None of these processes are either quick or easy. This is also not an inexpensive undertaking. But it is what is owed to preserve artwork that is irreplaceable.

Stained glass in need of attention shows this in many ways. The panels may bulge or look wavy. Glass may actually be coming loose from its lead or zinc channels. Painted details may have been cleaned so zealously that the paint is missing. Lead channels may be brittle, covered in a white oxidation called lead carbonate, and in other ways showing that they have reached their end of useful life. Lead does have a limited life span, and when it begins to crystallize and corrode, it is no longer able to hold the pieces of glass in place.

All of these are signs that your stained glass treasures are in need of professional attention.

Churches and institutions wishing to care for their stained glass can find studios all over the country that offer restoration. They can contact the Stained Glass Association of America at www.stainedglass.org for a list of accredited studios. As in any major expense, the church should solicit multiple bids, making sure that the bids delineate the work to be done, the timeline and the cost. They should ask for references. They should be aware that an inexpensive cleaning is not a restoration; it is a short-term cosmetic job that adds no structural srength to the windows.

Those responsible for making decisions about stained glass restoration will find an excellent resource in the National Park Service Preservation Brief 33: The Preservation and Repair of Historic Stained and Leaded Glass or the Stained Glass Association's Standards and Guideline for the Preservation of Historic Stained Glass. These are both available online and can be downloaded, and will be a wealth of information for any committee seeking to care for the glass art in their building. Another excellent free resource, Preserving God's Light, is available from www.glassheritage.com.

Restoration studios should be willing to answer all questions; present a scope of work that meets the needs of the stained glass; explain the processes; be open to work with committees concerning scheduling, finances, and worksite activity; be fully insured and able to provide a Certificate of Insurance to the institution; and supply a warrantee for the quality of their craftsmanship. Be sure the price is for the entire project, and that you discuss any possible extra charges that may occur. Most importantly, the studio must make the institution a full partner in all that is done and never be willing to do what is expedient and cheap at the expense of the long-term safety and protection of the stained glass art.

The preservation of this American art form is vital. It is a part of our history. Stained glass inspires us, educates us and creates an environment in which to meditate and pray. It is a meaningful form of artistic presentation to all who have the privilege to view it. It is our duty to preserve it in order that future generations may also meditate and pray in "God's light."

Patricia Rogers is one of the owners of Glass Heritage LLC, a full-service stained glass studio in Davenport, Iowa, www.glassheritage.com.

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