Renaissance Churches of Troyes and Their Stained Glass

by Virginia Raguin, appearing in Volume 30

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, buildings carried great narrative themes, on the exterior by sculpture and on the interior by glass and wall painting. Allied to the art of the Gothic construction, the figural window dominated image-making for four centuries, emerging again in the nineteenth century with the revival of the Gothic building. We look back to these ensembles as moments when image, space, color, light, and materials fuse in a visual concord, seeing the power of glass to enable the designer to sculpt interior space through light. The three components of these buildings—architecture, stained glass, and sculpture—were forged into a single unified whole. Within each church, sculpted or painted images enunciated the creed of the makers while designating the hierarchy of space. In the ideal building campaign, windows were planned from the start and produced as each section of the building was nearing completion. Like the sculpture, they were part of the architectural ensemble, not added embellishment to merely decorate the building.1

For both its artistic brilliance and its intense production in almost all European countries, stained glass of the Renaissance constitutes a major epoch in the history of architectural decoration. During this time, cities assumed a larger role in economic and civic life, secular patronage of government officials grew substantially, and art was universally seen as a requirement of status, either as a personal possession or as a public statement of largess. Vying to attract such discriminating patrons, artists developed new modes of expression, most important being systems of perspective that evoke actual three-dimensional space. From the end of the fifteenth century to about 1550, and in the Lowlands well into the seventeenth century, leaded and painted windows dominated construction. Monasteries engaged in extensive programs for their cloisters, cathedrals added chapels and even new glazing, and the laity financed new or expanded parish churches. All strove for windows that spoke an artistic language of heightened drama and three-dimensional realism.

The previous era—that of the Gothic—had similarly developed systems of narrative shared in large-scale windows and small-scale works such as manuscripts. Both manuscript and window employed a medallion format dominated by the contrast of blue and red. Realistic recession in space and background setting were minimal; schematic allusion to a door or a ground line served as spatial contextualization. Artists silhouetted figures against uniform grounds, and gesture, not facial expression, defined narrative action. As Peter Breiger, an English art historian, eloquently phrased it, “If the illuminators used the same patterns and model books, it was not simply because they followed the example of the window designers, but because the geometric order establishing sequences and relations was the natural and logical as well as the aesthetically appropriate one to be used by artists, who were taught to visualize human and divine relations in terms of eternal validity, satisfying reason and faith and independent of time and space.”2

Fig. 1. Châlons-en-Champagne Cathedral, Death of the Virgin, 1509. Photo: Author

As Gothic architecture became more attenuated and open, the medallion window with its interplay of episodes was replaced by a sequential format reading like a book. Playing to a public with access to private imagery in illuminated prayer books, large volumetric figures in three-dimensional settings appeared. Economically and politically, the rise of a merchant class transformed artistic patronage. The age of great cathedrals was passed, and building concentrated on parish churches, many of them achieving impressive size. No longer were church buildings and their decoration dominated by ecclesiastical taste. Influential families added private chapels to already-established buildings to commemorate their own members. The church was the most important communal building of the village, the site of legal, social, and artistic—as well as religious—activities; these shared practices produced common architectural features. Even within cities boasting a cathedral and several churches built by the religious orders, parish churches were distributed through the area to serve the laity. Imagery was removed from symbolic representation and abstracted forms of the earlier years. What was important for the laity was a direct, emotional link to the present. No matter how complex a program might be in its full elaboration, the artists consistently touched the hearts and minds of the unsophisticated viewer with images that elicited empathy. The death of the Virgin (Fig. 1), for example, from the Cathedral of Châlons-en-Champagne (bay 38), is part of a window of the life of the Virgin installed in 1509. Tender details appear, such as the distress of the Apostles; Saint Peter wearing a priestly stole gives her Extreme Unction, another blesses with holy water, while another, aided by eyeglasses, reads comforting scripture. This was the image that the faithful all hoped for themselves when their lives came to a close.

The city of Troyes, the capital of the Province of Champagne, exemplifies this era.3 Its fairs and extensive trade with lands to the east (Germany) and north (Lowlands) made Troyes synonymous with mercantile prosperity. Spared the mortar shelling of the First World War and the bombing raids of the second, Troyes and its neighboring towns emerged with an extraordinary collection of intact buildings retaining their original glazing schema. Notable earlier buildings include the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, whose construction extended over three centuries. Following a devastating fire in 1181 that destroyed the Romanesque building, the choir dates from 1200 to 1250 and the transept between 1215 and 1310; the nave, only completed in 1505, shows a remarkably coherent program of Renaissance windows in upper openings given by prominent citizens.

Perhaps even more significant is the collegial church of Saint-Urbain, which marked a watershed in France’s transition from the High Gothic to the Rayonnant style. Jacques Pantaleon of Troyes became pope in 1262, taking the name of Urban IV. One of his first acts was to endow a church on the site of his birthplace (his father’s cobbler’s shop). The plan rejected the High Gothic three-part elevation of arcade, triforium, and clerestory to focus on linking exterior and interior decorative and structural elements through lacy elaborations in glass and stone. An unprecedented amount of light illuminates the interior, facilitated by windows where uncolored, patterned glass frames bands of colorful narrative images.4 Extensive restorations were made in the mid-nineteenth century, but they respected the integrity of the building and original format of the windows. The glass painters Louis-Germain Vincent-Larcher and especially Edouard Didron based many of the new creations on extant glazing models and medieval manuscript illustrations.

Fig. 2. Sainte-Madeleine jubé and pulpit. Photo: Michel M. Raguin

The parish church of the Madeleine, begun about 1490, may stand as a model for the Troyes Renaissance aesthetic. Its magnificent choir screen (Fig. 2), constructed 1508–1517 and set in the interstices between the space for the laity and the clergy, provided a stage for readings, singing, and devotional focus. The architect-sculptor Jean Gailde left orders that he be buried under the screen with the inscription Ci gist Jehan Gualde, maître maçon, qui attend ici la resurrection sans crainte d’être écrasé (Here lies Jean Gailde, master mason, who awaits the resurrection without fear of being crushed).5 Burial within churches was a privilege reserved for the few; Gailde’s achievements had evidently earned sufficient respect that he not only had his place, but could leave a witty comment of the solidity of his screen—it would not fall, or “crush” him, before the Last Judgment when Christ would call him from the dead. A tour-de-force of engineering as well as beauty, its three arcades abut massive pillars to the north and south. In the center, the arcades terminate on two unsupported corbels. The suspension of these four points beneath the tribune is mirrored by the three pendant vaults of the interior. A precedent, arguably unknown to the architect, is the 1478–1488 fan vaulting of the Divinity School Library at Oxford.6 In Troyes the pendant vaults are steeply angled with trefoil molding defining the four major ribs of the vault. On the tribune Christ is suspended on the Cross, flanked by life-size statues of His mother and John the Evangelist. Reliefs above the three arches show Christ in the central quatrefoil, gesturing to two women on His right (the viewer’s left). Two men are placed in the quatrefoil on His left. The iconography may relate to Christ speaking to Mary and Martha, who receive Him in their home (Luke 10:38-42), a theme that would resonate with the dedication of the church to Mary Magdalene. Many of these choir screens (or jubés in French) were destroyed in later times, so the Madeleine’s is a most welcome vestige.

Fig. 3. Sainte-Madeleine, Creation. Photo: Michel M. Raguin

Through the opening in the screen, a visitor can perceive the deeply colored windows of the choir’s apse. Gold as well as red and blue appears to dominate the palette, resulting in compositions of great warmth. The windows exhibit a very modern system of continuous narration (the origin of the bandes dessinées that triumphed centuries later with the stories of Tintin and Asterix): Saint-Eloi, a gift of the goldsmiths of the city (bay 0), Genesis, Original Sin and Redemption (bay 1), Tree of Jesse (bay 2), Life of Saint Louis (bay 3), and Passion of Christ (bay 4). These compositions, especially those of the Creation, Tree of Jesse, and Passion, became models for a large number of other sites. The high demand for windows developed creative responses by the studios, among them not exactly a cartoon, but a model of the same scale. With such a model, the glazing studios could vary the placement of leadline and expand or contract compositions depending on the size of the window opening. Most celebrated may be the images of Genesis (Fig. 3). Starting from the bottom, God creates the sky, the waters, and the earth, separates the dry land from the waters, and then creates the stars. The second level shows the creation of the birds and fishes, followed by the animals, with careful detail to identify horse, lion, elephant, camel, pig, and snail. God then creates Adam from the earth and Eve from Adam’s rib.7 The flamboyant tracery in the upper quarter of the window (not shown) displays the birth and death of Christ, proclaiming His redemption of the world that God the Father created. The models enjoyed a long life, including Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens (bay 9) at Les Riceys, of 1525. In Les Riceys, images of God creating the earth, the stars, and the animals, (including horse, lion, elephant, cow, camel, pig, lizard, and snail) repeat the Madeleine’s format. The Creation (bay 40) in the cathedral of Châlons-en-Champagne, installed between 1506 and 1516, shows more variation, including the intimate detail of a solicitous God the Father. After the representation of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge, God then admonishes the guilty first couple; in a following scene He gives them a visibly furry cloak to keep them warm before the final image of a fiery angel expelling them from Paradise.

Fig. 4. Saint-Pantaléon, Troyes. Photo: Michel M. Raguin

Fig. 5. John, Mary, and Mary Magdalene, Saint-Pantaléon. Photo: Michel M. Raguin

Troyes built numerous parish churches dating from the early sixteenth century, including Saint-Jean-aux-Marché, Saint-Nizier, and Saint-Pantaléon. Saint-Pantaléon (Figs. 4 and 5) exemplifies the unified interior with its intersection of sculpture, architecture, and stained glass; most of it is painted in a neutral scale to let in greater amounts of light. Grisaille, neutral-colored paint on uncolored glass, accented by silver stain, was the preferred medium for the church’s windows. Glass painters developed highly sophisticated painting techniques to render the three-dimensionality that had become popular in panel painting. Techniques varied, but often stipple washes were applied in layers to give smooth transitions from light to dark. Dark line was used sparingly, often simply as an accent to strengthen the outline of the nose or ear. Sanguine, a russet color, was introduced to produce a reddish tone to lips or a cheek. Often, near life-size figures in volumetric rendering appeared as if a sculptural presence in the lancets of a window. Unlike figures in the small-scale medallions of the thirteenth century, these Renaissance actors utilize facial expression and three-dimensional presence. Saint-Pantaléon’s windows of the south aisle, Infancy and Early Miracles of Christ (bay 4), Passion (bay 6), and the Story of Daniel (bay 8) were executed between 1531 and 1546; all show dramatic narrative executed in warm browns highlighted by variegated yellow tints of the silver stain.

Emotional expressiveness was one of the criteria driving the increased importance of windows in grisaille, where the viewer’s attention would be drawn to line and not color. A striking window (bay 14) dated about 1530 appears midway in the south nave in Saint-Nizier, set above a door.8 A single subject is presented: the meeting of Joachim and Anna (parents of the Virgin Mary) at Jerusalem’s Golden Gate. The inscription records the image as a donation by husband and wife, Etienne and Jeanne Richier. The composition sets Joachim on the left and Anna on the right, divided by the stone mullion of the window. Behind Joachim we see the angelic annunciation to the exiled Joachim as he herds sheep.

Fig. 6. Saint-Nizier, Troyes, Entombment. Photo: Michel M. Raguin

Fig. 7. Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Chaource, Entombment Detail. Photo: Michel M. Raguin

The emotional impact is linked to the traditional sculpture in the region (Fig. 5). Renaissance Champagne is prized as a time of great ingenuity in the medium.9 Saint-Pantaléon has become a repository for more than sixty sixteenth-century statues gathered from now-closed religious edifices. Calvary groupings, Depositions, and Entombments of Christ were among the most popular subjects. The same elaborate multifigure groupings were standard representations in window narratives such as the Burial and Resurrection (bay 102) of 1522 in Saint-Nizier. See the detail of the Entombment (Fig. 6) with Nicodemus, the Virgin, Saint John, and Mary Magdalene with an unguent jar. The composition parallels that of the well-known eight-figure sculptural group of the Entombment (Fig. 7) in the church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Chaource, dated about 1515 and associated with a prolific artist responsible for many other works in the area, including a statue of Martha for Troyes’ church of the Madeleine.10 From a more dramatic (and presumably later) hand is a fragment in Saint-Pantaléon of a grouping possibly from an Entombment or Deposition, showing John the Evangelist, the Virgin Mary, and most probably Mary Magdalene (Fig. 5). The feeling of shared suffering is palpable. The sculpture and the stained-glass image of Joachim display the same oval facial type, with furrowed brows surrounded by undulating locks of hair. Such emotional directness has made Troyes Renaissance sculpture a prize acquisition for museums. Troyes is represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art via a sculpture of Mary Magdalene (accession number 16.32.160) and an almost life-size statue of Saint Savina of Troyes (or Saint Syra) (accession number 17.190.750).

Even a casual visit to the region is aesthetically, historically, and spiritually rewarding. In this world of internet and digital images, the websites managed by the French Patrimonie provide a visual and textual introduction to this and other regions (