The Life of Christ and The Virgin panels – Birth of the Virgin

Boppard Panel Birth of the Virgin
Boppard Panel Birth of the Virgin

The stories of the Birth of the Virgin and of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, do not appear in the bible and there is no historical evidence for them. They appear first in the apocryphal Gospel of James and in ‘The Golden Legend’, and were popular subjects in Christian art up to the mid-16th century. As mentioned in an earlier blog, the Virgin Mary had a special significance for the Carmelites, and this is reflected in two of the panels in the Burrell Collection from the window at Boppard that show stories from the life of the Virgin; her birth and the annunciation.

The Birth of the Virgin panel shows Saint Anne, Mary’s mother, sitting up in a magnificent curtained bed under a canopy, indicating her high status, holding a remarkably grown-up newly born Mary whom she has been given by, presumably, the midwife. Below, a maid washes clothes, etc., used during the birth. Marie, in her blog ‘Old Lead Repairs’ discussed the damage to this panel and issues related to its restoration. Below is a quick (and not technically accurate) computer generated idea of how part of the panel might look if it was restored:

Birth of the Virgin - An example of how it might look after a digital restoration

Birth of the Virgin – An example of how it might look after a digital restoration

The story of Mary and her parents appears on the Burrell Collection’s Dalmatic from Whalley Abbey, dated to about the 15th century and currently on display. It is made of cloth that includes gold thread – a file thread of silver gilt wrapped around a yellow silk core. An applied band of embroidered orpherys (a form of highly detailed embroidery) run down the centre on both the front and back and depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. Orphrey bands were a tradition that began in the 12th century Roman Catholic Church.

Dalmatic from Whalley Abbey in the Burrell Collection

Dalmatic from Whalley Abbey in the Burrell Collection

According to legend, Joachim was an elderly, wealthy and pious man, who was of the house of David. He regularly gave to the poor and to the temple at Sepphoris. The High Priest rejected Joachim’s sacrifice as his wife, Anne, was without child, which was regarded as a sign of divine displeasure and they were cast out of the temple:

Orphrey from the Whalley Abbey Dalmatic showing Joachim's expulsion from the temple

Joachim went into the desert where he fasted and did penance for 40 days, after which an angel appeared before him while he was tending his sheep promising them a child:

Orphrey from the Whalley Abbey Dalmatic showing the Angel appearing to Joachim
Orphrey from the Whalley Abbey Dalmatic showing the Angel appearing to Joachim

Joachim returned to the city where he greeted Anne at the Golden Gate:

Orphrey from the Whalley Abbey Dalmatic showing Joachim' and his wife Meeting at the Golden Gate
Orphrey from the Whalley Abbey Dalmatic showing Joachim’ and his wife Meeting at the Golden Gate

The Birth of Mary:

Orphrey from the Whalley Abbey Dalmatic showing the Birth of the Virgin
Orphrey from the Whalley Abbey Dalmatic showing the Birth of the Virgin

Mary learning to walk using a frame (Mothercare didn’t invent the baby walker!). Youngsters were encouraged to walk as early as possible as it differentiated humans from the beasts who walk on all fours:

Orphrey from the Whalley Abbey Dalmatic showing the Virgin taking her first steps
Orphrey from the Whalley Abbey Dalmatic showing the Virgin taking her first steps

Mary is presented at the Temple:

Orphrey from the Whalley Abbey Dalmatic showing the Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple
Orphrey from the Whalley Abbey Dalmatic showing the Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple

Facts about Glass – Comparing Crown and Cylinder Glass

Crown glass is thinner than cylinder glass and is thinner from the edge of the disc than from near the centre. Cylinder glass was the only way of making large sheets of glass, so all the glass for the great “Crystal Palace” London International exhibition in 1851 in Hyde Park, London, was made using this method. That was over 1,000,000 square feet of glass!


Crown Glass Edge Section – note the smooth rounded edge which was the edge of the disc. Nearer the centre, the ripples would take on a distinct curve.


Surface of a piece of Cylinder Glass showing the ripples created when the cylinder was flattened in the kiln – one side of the glass would be stretched and the other compressed, causing the ripples.

Which method was used varied over time, with many stained glass windows having glass produced using both methods. The Boppard glass would have been made using these techniques.
The glass tax of 1746, encouraged the use of crown glass as it was thinner and lighter. Crown glass cut from nearer the centre often shows curved ripples and cylinder glass shows parallel ripples. The ripples tend to be on one side only as it is where the outside surface of the original bubble has been slightly compressed while the inside surface has been stretched as the bubble or cylinder opens up into a flat sheet.

The bulls-eye in the centre of the crown glass disc was often returned to the crucible to be melted down again, but was sometimes used as a decorative feature in stained glass windows or small window panes.

Crown Glass Bulls-eye
Crown Glass Bulls-eye. Note the centre where the pontil rod was snapped off from the disc.

Facts about Glass – Making Cylinder Glass

Making Cylinder Glass

Blowing the bubble. The bubble is blown and encouraged into a sausage shape.  Cylinder-Blowing
Creating the sausage of glass. The hot bubble is swung into a pit or by standing on a raised platform. A sausage of up to 8 feet long by 18 inches  can be created.  Cylinder-Swinging
The blowpipe is cut off leaving a hole and the other end is also opened up to create a cylinder shape.  Cylinder-Cutting-end
The hardened cylinder is scored and cracked or is cut with shears down its length.  Cylinder-CuttingCylinder
The cylinder of glass can now be opened up and pushed into a flat sheet in a hot kiln. The finished sheet of glass is then annealed to relieve stresses before it is used.  Cylinder-Flattening

Facts about Glass – Making Crown Glass

Making Crown Glass

Blowing Crown glass bubble. The bubble would be transferred to a pontil (or punty) rod – the pontil rod would have a blob of soft glass on the end which would be attached to the bubble. The blowpipe would then be cut off leaving a hole which would be opened up with a wooden stick ready to be spun.  Crown-Blowing
Spinning the front of the furnace. The bubble is spun in front of the furnace to keep the glass soft. It’s a bit like spinning a pizza base to make it thinner.  Crown-Spinning
The full disc. The disc is spun until it is thin at which point the glass can be allowed to harden. The pontil rod is then snapped off to leave the finished disc.  Crown-FullDisc
Annealing the disc to relieve stress in the glass. The finished disc is annealed to allow it to cool slowly, relieving the stresses in the glass so it can be cut easily. The bulls eye at the centre where it was attached to the pontil rod is either returned to the crucible or used for ornamental purposes in plain windows or in geometrically patterned leaded glass  Crown-Annealing


Facts about Glass – Early Manufacture

There are many different types of glasses, both natural and man-made. Man-made glass is created through the fusion of three main ingredients at high temperatures. The most common basic ingredient is silica. Silica has a very high melting point, about 1720 Degrees. Early glassmakers would have been unable to achieve such high temperatures therefore alkalis such as plant ash or soda were added to lower the melting point. Unfortunately the addition of too much alkali can affect the durability of the glass, increasing its solubility in water and therefore increasing the risk of corrosion.  To counteract this, ingredients are added to stabilise the glass composition, usually lime or calcium oxide.

Glass is an amorphous material, this means that as the mixture cools the glass solidifies without forming a crystalline structure. This is why it breaks into unpredictable shapes when shattered unless one uses a glass cutter to predetermine where the break is to occur.  Glass can only be shaped and blown at high temperatures and when cooled it is hard and brittle.

The precise date and origin of man-made glass is unknown, but the very earliest glass in the form of decorative beads and inlay for metal and wooden objects date to between 3000 and 2500 BC in western Asia . The earliest written information on glassmaking was found on a Mesopotamian tablet of the 17th century BC in a recipe for glaze.

It is thought that the earliest use of glass in windows was in Roman Egypt using cast blocks of glass which might have been cemented into place in a similar way to “Dalle de Verre” (or slab glass) windows designed today.

In the first century BC the Romans discovered the revolutionary technique of blown glass and used small panes in windows. The discovery was made probably in Syrian workshops or in Jerusalem and likely began with the inflation of long thin glass tubes which evolved into the iron blow pipes used for the next 2000 years.

As manufactured flat glass sheet only became available in the early 1900s, how did they make flat glass from a blown bubble? There were two basic methods; crown glass and cylinder (or muff) glass.

Old Lead Repairs

Birth of the Virgin
Birth of the Virgin

The two stained glass panels that make up this image depict the birth of the Virgin. It is an intimate scene, showing the infant Mary at the centre standing on her mother’s bed – she is clearly a well developed child so soon after her birth! Saint Anne (also Anna or Hannah), her mother, is sitting up in the splendid curtained bed which is covered by a vibrant red blanket. An elderly woman reaches out to take the child; this may be a servant or perhaps the grandmother. In the foreground is another woman washing white cloths. She is referred to in the catalogue as a midwife¹.

Every time I look at this window I am distracted by the many repair leads; there are about 83 of them and they have been added over the years to secure and disguise glass that was broken. The area worst affected is in the beautiful red blanket and the face of the midwife, where the repair leads are so dense that they disguise the details of the paintwork and the intricacy of the design.

Birth of the Virgin - Detail
Birth of the Virgin – Detail

The damage in this area of the window was most likely caused by the impact of a thrown stone (or a similar object) as the breaks in the glass radiate from a central point. The only way that restorers in the past were able to repair such damage was to insert lead cames to bring the broken glass pieces back together. They used H-section leads with 1-2 mm cores and to accommodate the lead without making the whole area bigger the restorer had to take a little bit away from each glass piece (the equivalent of the added core).

Today we have sophisticated adhesives that can be used to bond broken glass pieces. There are many different types and some are formulated to match the properties of glass very closely. They can be tinted with pigments to match the colour of the glass and a skilled conservator can achieve an almost invisible repair. So in order to restore the area above, a conservator will carefully remove all the repair leads (which will be kept as samples and for analysis). A tinted resin is then injected into the spaces left by the lead. Once it is cured, the glass piece appears intact again.

It is a very time consuming process and it can be complicated – especially when dealing with such a complex break as in this window – but the outcome can be very successful and it can help to restore the image.

Before embarking on the mission to improve the visual impact of the panel and to make it easier to read, there are some issues that should be considered.

  • What are we aiming to preserve? Are we mainly concerned about the image and the painted details or are we also interested in using the object to tell stories about our history? For instance, the complex lead repair is possibly the result of an attack on religious imagery during the reformation and witness to why so much of our stained glass heritage was destroyed and lost during that period. Is it worth preserving that aspect to better illustrate our history?
  • As an object and piece of our heritage this window is as authentic as it will ever be and all marks on it including the repair leads and even the dirt are witness of its history. No amount of restoration will ever bring it closer to that state of authenticity. In this context it should also be noted that the window has been restored many times in the past and we cannot hope to ever return it fully to its “former glory”.

There are also some questions about practicalities and resources that need to be considered before we decide on the most appropriate conservation treatment:

  • The lead repairs that are currently holding the glass together have probably been there for  142 years and they will last for at least that much time again provided the stained glass window is well cared for, kept in a stable environment and handled and moved as little as possible.
  • A repair using an epoxy resin is said to last for as much as 80+ years but as this kind of product has only been in use since the 1970’s no one can actually confirm that. We have examples of epoxy repairs that were carried out 35 years ago and some of them are definitively failing. So we will also have to consider the cost implications of having to renew all these repairs in the future.



¹ Stained and Painted Glass Burrell Collection, 1965

The Corporation of the City of Glasgow written by William Wells

The Life of Christ and the Virgin panels

Jane Hayward, Associate Curator at The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1967 – 1994),undertook the first thorough study of the Boppard windows in her “Stained-Glass Windows from the Carmelite Church at Boppard-am-Rhein; A Reconstruction of the Glazing Program of the North Nave”. In it, she places the Burrell Collection’s “Life of Christ and the Virgin” panels as part of a Tree of Jesse in the western window of the north wall.

The most common form of the Tree of Jesse is a family tree for Jesus, originating with Jesse, the father of David, and showing the trunk of the tree growing from the torso of a recumbent Jesse, with branches leading to other members of the family. The gospel of Luke suggests up to 43 generations between Jesse and Jesus, so most Tree of Jesse representations contain a selected number of family members, typically including Solomon and David, with Jesus at the top and the Virgin Mary directly beneath him.

The Burrell Collection has a part of one of these Tree of Jesse representations, sadly with the figures of Jesse, Jesus, Mary and others now missing. This window was bought by Sir William Burrell from the Costessey Hall collection of Sir George Jerningham. Only the figure of King David playing a harp in the bottom left can be identified with certainty. This window came from a church in Rouen, France, and dates to the early 16 century.

Tree of Jesse in the Burrell Collection

The Tree of Jesse at Boppard is very different. The Carmelites, or Order of the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, are considered by the Church to be under the special protection of and therefore give special veneration to the Blessed Virgin. In addition, the Carmelites, just a few years before the creation of the windows at Boppard, had successfully defended the idea of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary at the Council of Basel. The Virgin Mary, therefore, has a very special place in their worship.

In the Tree of Jesse window at Boppard, the ancestors of Jesus placed on each branch are replaced with scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Jane Hayward suggested the following design of the window:

Upper section of the Boppard window drawn from photographs by John Rattenbury
Tree-of-jesse-window-inc blanks--bott
Lower section of the Boppard window drawn from photographs by John Rattenbury

At the bottom row there are two missing panels with the Burrell Collection donor panel showing Siegfried von Gelnhausen and his wife. Above that is the figure of Jesse followed by the Burrell panels showing three scenes; Agony in the Garden (or The Mount of Olives), Birth of the Virgin and Christ Appearing to Peter. Above that, three more Burrell panels; Christ before Pilate, The Annunciation and The Resurrection.

The upper section consists of panels that either exists in other collections, or are now in an unknown location. The first row shows; The Crowning with Thorns, The Visitation (Metropolitan Museum, New York) and The Entombment. The next row shows; Carrying of the Cross, The Nativity and Descent from the Cross (all in the Metropolitan Museum, New York). The topmost panel shows; The Three Mourning Women (Institute of Art, Detroit) and two lost panels that Hayward suggests could have been Christ on the Cross and St John the Evangelist and St Nicodemus.

Here are links to Jane Hayward’s full article and panels in the Metropolitan Museum and the Detroit Institute of Art:

Metropolitan Museum – Jane Hayward’s article:

Metropolitan Museum – Visitation:

Detroit Institute of Art –Three Mourning Women (The Three Marys):