All the cathedral’s stained-glass windows were painstakingly restored, including this window depicting the Crowning of Mary. Photo by Michael Swan

Creating stunning works of art runs in family for glassmaker

By  Charles Lewis, Catholic Register Special
  • September 23, 2016

Restoring the roughly 40 giant stained glass windows of St. Michael’s Cathedral to their original glory takes patience — or at least one would assume so given the extraordinary amount of detailed work that goes into even just one window.

Each stained glass window is a composite of small panels, with each panel containing hundreds of glass pieces held together by lead frames and solder. Pieces must be cleaned, repaired and, in some cases, repainted and replaced.

Even flipping over a panel of stained glass, which can be two-metres high, is as delicate as lifting an ailing patient from a gurney to a bed. If the two people are even a touch out of sync the piece will twist and snap, shattering more than 120 years of history,

“That’s the exciting part,” said John Wilcox, whose company, Toronto-based Vitreous Glassworks, was tasked with renovating and adding new stained glass at St. Michael’s.

“The thing is I’m not really that patient,” said Wilcox, while showing a visitor the floor of the cathedral.

Wilcox has church work in his blood. His great-great-grandfather built a Catholic church for the Hungarian community in Esterhazy, Sask. When it burned down, his great-grandfather rebuilt it in stone.

Now Wilcox has created his own legacy. Vitreous Glassworks will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2017, and at 50 years old, Wilcox is now marking 30 years in the business during which he has worked on hundreds of churches. He calls the St. Michael’s commission the crowning glory of his career.

“This is the biggest job, for sure. This is twice as big as anything else we’ve worked on. It represents probably one of the biggest single campaigns of stained glass restoration in the country.”

Regular parishioners of St. Michael’s will at first notice how bright their stained glass has become. What looked at times dull and dingy now emits light befitting holy scenes and space.

To get there is not just a case of washing everything down, Wilcox explained.

The windows are crated and then delivered to his Toronto studio. Each window is documented by photographs and by laying carbon paper to make a rubbing to make an exact pattern of every piece of glass — akin to a street map.

Creating new pieces is an elaborate process. Stained glass is blown glass and for that Wilcox relied on a German studio, one of the few remaining studios in the world that practises that ancient art.

Each window takes about six weeks, not surprising given the delicacy of the work: not only does the glass have to be restored or replaced but new lead, solder and putty must be applied.

For this commission Wilcox also created two new stunning windows in the transepts, the niches that face each other across the nave. The one on the south side, to the right as worshippers enter from the main door, represents the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and on the north side the new glass is in honour of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Each piece employs dazzling colour, mind-bending complexity and shape, and even a touch of natural mathematics — as is found in a spiralling nautilus seashell. Both contain 13th-century, medieval attributes like those in rose windows of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral.

The sacred heart, a passion window, is red. Its centre has four leaves, known as a quatrefoil in Gothic architecture.

“Radiating from there into each of the leaves of the rose is a green vine. That was something (cathedral rector) Fr. Michael Busch wanted. The vines radiate from the centre and represent growth and the life of the Sacred Heart.”

The details may not be immediately apparent but they will emerge the more the window is seen over and over again. Represented are the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. There are images of the hand of God and the Lamb, and images highlighting the six days of creation, John the Baptist, the 12 Apostles, the Alpha and Omega and the crown of thorns.

Where the Sacred Heart uses flaming red and a bit of blue, the Immaculate Heart of Mary will be a dominant blue with a touch of red to connect the two windows.

Mother and Son will look across from each other and the light flowing through each intersects the glorious space of the renovated St. Michael’s.

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