Caring for Ottawa's stained glass treasures

Few are aware of the wealth of art that resides in the windows of the city's churches, reports Bob Harvey.

On a scaffold three storeys above downtown Ottawa, stained glass artist Detlef Gotzens is restoring one of the city's hidden treasures.The wooden platform moves under our feet as he pries loose one of the panels of the rose window created by Guido Nincheri, perhaps the most gifted stained glass artist to work in Canada.Over time, the stonework around the window in St.Patrick's Basilica has shifted, and the stained glass needs to be cleaned up and firmly seated once again in its perch high above Kent Street.

Mr. Gotzens spent seven years learning the stained glass trade at the Cologne Cathedral in his native Germany, and in much of the 30 years since he has been restoring Canada's stained glass windows and creating new ones. He bemoans the fact that even regular church attenders pay little attention to the works that surround them.

Christopher Goodman is doing his best to change that. At the Ottawa Lay School of Theology, he is currently teaching a course on stained glass windows and what he calls their "hidden messages."

He operates his own studio in Prescott and learned the trade from his father, Russell Goodman, who is the only Canadian stained glass artist to be awarded the Order of Canada for his work.

The senior Mr. Goodman installed more than 1,000 stained glass windows in churches in Canada, and also crafted the stained glass in the House of Commons. The younger Mr. Goodman helped him on many of those projects and says "many people look at stained glass and don't understand what it means, what it is communicating."

Symbols, like the fish that stands for Christ and the dove for the Holy Spirit, may no longer hold meaning for many Canadians, he says. The colours used in stained glass are also symbolic.

"Red is symbolic of sacrifice, the blood of Christ. Blue symbolizes heaven, spiritual love, constancy and fidelity. That's why the marriage colour is blue," the younger Mr. Goodman said.

"Yellow and gold can mean the divine presence, or, in a different context, it can mean cowardice. If you are looking at the Last Supper, the gentleman with yellow robes is Judas."

Originally, stained glass was used as a tool for teaching the Bible to people who couldn't read or write, but now that churchgoers are literate, Mr. Goodman says, "stained glass is used more for communicating the Holy Spirit in terms of emotion. That leaves room for abstract art, symbolic art.

"We have all this education we didn't have before, so that within an abstract concept, we can still communicate a story or a meaning."

One example of that is a window Mr. Goodman designed for Christ Church United in Mississauga, in which a candle symbolizes Christ as the "light of the world." But when you look long enough at the candle's abstract form, it begins to look like a person.

"The one thing my dad drilled into me is that you have to tell a story, no matter how abstract or non-realistic it is," said Mr. Goodman. "Otherwise, you have nothing but decoration."

Mr. Gotzens says "people are not aware of the kind of beauty and volume of high-quality art they have in their churches. In the last 25 years, stained glass has been accepted as fine art. Yet people don't look at the windows."

Few are aware of the value of these windows, either. Mr. Gotzens restored the Nincheri windows at Notre Dame Cathedral on Sussex Drive as part of the $12.5-million renovation of the cathedral in 1999, and estimates that today it would cost $2.5 million just to replace the windows, not counting their artistic or historic value.

Similar windows have been created for Christian churches for at least 1,000 years, but Mr. Gotzens says windows such as Mr. Nincheri's would now cost $1,000 a square foot to design, manufacture, paint and fire repeatedly in a kiln.

Mr. Gotzens points to more treasures -- the stained glass windows in the nave of St. Patrick's, and says "Look at these windows by Joseph Mayer. His studio (in Munich) was the most renowned in the 19th century, and so popular that he had to open offices in London and New York. He developed a whole new movement of stained glass painting, which influenced all of Europe."

Like Mr. Nincheri's work, the Mayer windows are painted in the romantic pre-Raphaelite style, with its softness and finely detailed portrayal of the folds and textures of the robes and other clothing. But Mr. Nincheri's windows use a broader palette of powerful and bold colours, while the saints in Mr. Mayer's windows are more idealized and Germanic.

Mr. Nincheri immigrated to Montreal in 1914, after graduating from the Florence Academy of Fine Arts, and his work can be seen in more than 100 churches throughout North America. That includes four in Ottawa: St. Patrick's, Notre Dame on Sussex, St. Anthony's on Booth Street and St. Theresa's on Somerset Street West.

Notre Dame boasts not only 17 Nincheri stained glass scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary, but also treasures of other kinds. Msgr. Pat Powers, vicar-general of the Ottawa archdiocese, points out the carved floral motifs that ornament Philippe Pariseau's elegant wooden stalls in the sanctuary, and the collection of 60 wooden sculptures of biblical figures that established Philippe Hebert's reputation and set him on the road to becoming a renowned sculptor of bronze monuments.

To truly appreciate the beauty of these works, you have to focus on the details, says Msgr. Powers.

The cathedral is one of the major tourist attractions mentioned in guides to Ottawa, and tour buses regularly pull up at Notre Dame in the tourist season. Yet relatively few Ottawa residents have visited the cathedral just to view its treasures, including the 13,000 gold stars that are hand-painted on its heaven-blue ceiling.

The Ottawa region is rich in stained glass. Among the many other churches worth a look are:

- St. Theresa's: The cupola above the altar is adorned by a Nincheri fresco, in which angels with the haircuts of 1920s flappers appear against a backdrop of subdued pinks and oranges.

- St. Anthony's: On Booth Street, the contrast between Mr. Nincheri's bold windows and his more subdued frescoes becomes even more marked. Another delicate fresco of slim female angels looks down on glowing windows that include a striking war memorial, depicting a muscular angel in Roman soldier's garb, cradling in his arms a dying and khaki-clad soldier of the First World War.

- St. Bartholomew's Anglican: On MacKay Street across the road from Rideau Hall, its war memorial window by an Irish artist, Wilhelmina Geddes, was commissioned in 1916 by the Duke of Connaught, the third son of Queen Victoria and then governor general. The window centres around a slain warrior and his welcome into heaven by soldier-saints such as Joan of Arc and King Louis IX of France.

- Christ Church Anglican Cathedral: On Sparks Street, it includes a memorial window in its gallery that commemorates the cathedral's 100th anniversary in 1932 with a virtual pictorial history of Ottawa. Among the many figures among its details are Colonel John By, for whom Ottawa was first named Bytown, and Mother Elisabeth Bruyere, founder of the Sisters of Charity as well as Ottawa's first bilingual school, first general hospital and first orphanage.

Many new windows are also being created, and most are donated to churches by families in memory of deceased relatives. Brian Eagle and his staff at Northern Art Glass, on Gladstone Avenue, have created hundreds of such memorial windows, particularly for rural churches, and he says he is often surprised by existing windows in many of these churches.

"I have seen many stunning depictions. There are numbers of churches like that," he said.

However, some of these stained glass windows are being evicted. As congregations dwindle, particularly in rural areas, some churches are being torn down.

Glenn Lockwood, the archivist of the Anglican diocese of Ottawa, is doing his best to rescue the stained glass. When he hears of a church in the diocese shutting down, he makes arrangements to pack up the windows and store them in the archives until other Anglican churches find a place for them.

Why does he do it?

"Art is a ministry," he says. "It's pretty hard to quantify art. What does a Bach fugue do? It can save your soul or make you think about something. And a great work of art paints a sermon."

600450 Caring for Ottawa's stained glass treasures

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