Colorful glass of a relatively neglected art form

Stained glass has a long history of enormous appeal with its play on light, often in dark spaces. Even in this age, coming across interesting examples prompts people to take a quick photo with their cell phones.

Despite Mexico’s colonial heritage and importance the Catholic religion has played in its history, stained glass making is not a large part of the country’s artistic heritage. The country does have a number of notable works in the medium, and finely done pieces are most prevalent in Mexico City. However, you need to know where to look.

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Stained glass in the San Jose del Altillo Church in Coyoacan, Mexico City

Most of the stained glass windows are generally quite small and can be found in museums, theatres, greenhouses, markets, hotels, restaurants, libraries, union halls, airports, subway stations and department stores, as well expectedly, in churches. It can be found as ceilings and skylights as well as windows, but much of what is found in the city is not made in Mexico. The best of Mexico City’s stained glass is scattered thoughout the town.  This article will highlight a few notable pieces, but focus on those designed and usually made in Mexico.

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The seal of the Mexico National Autonomous University in stained glass (credit:Thelmadatter)

Mexico’s stained glass work is derived from its European heritage. In Europe, stained glass was at its height from the 13th to the 16th century, confined to churches as only the Church could afford both the glass and the painstaking work of pieces the cut pieces. The decline of great stained glass projects came with the end of Gothic architecture around the same time as the Americas were discovered.

While glass was manufactured early in New Spain, the making of stained glass for churches here did not really evolved, despite that they were still popular in Spain. Instead, artistic resources went towards paintings, tapestries, murals, statues and altars as these were used for evangelization purposes. In the 16th century, doors and windows were covered in waxed cloths or an amber-color Mexican onyx called tecali. Glass of any type does not become common in churches until the 17th century but most of it was imported. The sumptuous former church, now National Viceroyalty Museum in the Mexico City suburb of Tepotzotlan, has windows  covered in translucent 17th century blown-glass discs.

For most of its history, the making (or even importation) of stained glass windows, especially for churches was quite marginalized. There are few surviving windows from before the 19th century.

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Panes at the Santos Reyes Church on Rio Consulado, Venustiano Carranza, Mexico City (credit:Enrique Lopez-Tamayo Biosca)

Today, many churches, interestingly enough mostly modern churches, have stained glass windows. They are also called “storied windows” at most depict scenes from the Bible. But many the city’s notable stained glass works are secular. The main reason for this is that stained glass (and glass work in general) has been gaining importance at a time when Mexican society has been secularizing. In the first half of the 20th century, the technique was used for purposes similar to Mexico’s murals, but the trend has been stained glass a means of displaying wealth. Both tendencies can be seen in the secular pieces found in the Alcazar in Chapultepec Park, the Ministry of Health, the headquarters of the Palacio de Hierro department store and the Gran Hotel in Mexico City. Very early 20th century homes in what is now Colonia Juarez featured Art Nouveau designs, which was then very fashionable. Small stained glass windows can also be found in homes in (then or now) middle and upper-class homes, especially those constructed before the 1950s. These generally feature animals such as ducks, swans and hummingbirds.

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Glass ceiling/skylight at the Gran Hotel (credit: Octavio Alonso Maya)

The first stained-glass maker on record in Mexico is the Pellandini Studios, started in 1839 by Claudio Tranquiline Pellandini, a contemporary of Louis Confort Tiffany. It was always a glass works and importer but it did not begin to produce stained glass windows until the very late 19th century, mostly with secular themes desitined for the homes of the wealthy. This studio attracted talents such as Spanish artist Victor Marco (who went on to found his own stained-glass workshop) along with Mexicans Daniel Morales and Jesus Balvanera. By the early 20th century, all stained glass windows made in Mexico City came out of Pellandini’s or Marco’s workshop.

The establishment of serious Mexican stained glass production occurred during a 30-year period called the Porfirato, named after Mexico’s president/dictator of that time. It was a time when European art and economics held strong sway over the country’s elite. Stained glass continued to be imported from Europe, with that made in Mexico primarily copying European fashion.  Not all stained glass works would be traditional. For example various glass techniques became popular  at the same time, including pieced glass with images painted on them.

The Mexican Revolution paralyzed luxury glass making for a time. Afterwards, it was influenced by the Mexican Muralism movement, which flourished with funding from the new government seeking a new Mexican identity based on indigenous images, as well as legitimacy for itself. The technique intrigued the artists because, like murals, it has an imposing nature, but is manipulation of light is very different. It also appealed to these artists because it led to collaborations with artisans. Perhaps the one to benefit most from these projects was craftsman Enrique Villaseñor.

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Salve

From the end of the Revolution in 1920 to about the 1950s, just about all stained glass work was secular in nature. One main reason for this was the government hostilty to the Catholic Church and the practice of religion in general. Stained glass works commissioned by the government had nationalist and social thimes, but the oldest of Mexico’s secular work, called “Salve” in the stairwell of the former College of San Ildefonso, was made in Bavaria. The best known of these government-sponsored works is the enormous glass curtain of the Fine Arts Palace and two stained glass windows by Roberto Montenegro at the Museum of the Constitutions.

Foreign influence continued with Mexican glass production.  In 1931, two Americans Mac Daniel and David Wineburgh opened an “art glass” studio in Mexico City. They hired local artist Juan Navarrete to paint on glass, and he became a master glazier. A second hire Francisco Lugo, went on to work for yet another studio owned by David Block. This did other glass work as well and was affiliated with Pellandini.

In the 1950s, German artist Mathias Goeritz began working on stained-glass window projects for churches in Mexico City. The government had eased its position on religious expression and the boom in the city’s population led to church building for the new neighborhoods. Profoundly religious himself, Goeritz is responsible for most of the best religious works of this type in Mexico City, but his work caused controversy. His work was very contemporary, with some non-traditional techniques and imagery, which caused problems especially in projects in Mexico’s colonial-era churches.

Only a few other artists in Mexico (be they Mexican or foreigners) have worked in the medium. They include Gunther Gerzso and Rufino Tamayo who did one apiece. Gerzso created a 16×4 meter window for the Aristos Hotel in Mexico City and Tamayo created an artistic piece called “The Universe” with 30 panels for the Alfa Planetarium in Monterrey. Another artistic work called the “Cosmovitral” (Cosmos + glass) was created in Toluca by artist Leopoldo Flores.

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Sun Man inside the Cosmovitral in Toluca (credit:Marrovi)

Stained glass work continues to be shaped by foreign influences and other glass working techniques. Since the 1980s, it has been influenced by the New Glass movement of the United States. Glass work in general in the country has seen a boom since that time and has led to conferences and artistic exhibitions in Mexico’s cultural institutions. But stained glass competes with and is often mixed with other glass types such as etched and beveled. The vast majority of stained glass is produced by small workshops for individual customers, with few large scale works since the mid 20th century.

Examples of stained glass works in Mexico City

Stained glass made in Europe

There are several fairly well-known and impressive stained glass ceilings/skylights covering central patios or similar constructions in downtown Mexico City, namely the piece at the headquarters of the Palacio de Hierro department store, the piece inside the Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de Mexico and one at the Palace of Fine Arts. All of these have their origin with French immigrants, mostly from the city of Barcelonette, who controlled the country’s textile production at the turn of the 20th century.

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Ceiling/skylight at the Palacio de Hierro (credit:Octavio Alonso Maya)

Most of the stained glass windows that are on the city’s colonial (current and former) churches are from Europe. These include those on the Santa Teresa la Antigua Church (10 from Germany) and the Our Lady of Loreto Church (early 20th century from Germany). Unfortunately, most in the Loreto Church are in very poor condition, like the rest of the church.  The Hellentic Cultural Institute Chapel in San Angel has a rare collection of European stained glass windows, mostly French, dating from the 13th to 16th centuries, all with Biblical scenes. The Casa del Risco Museum in same area has six antique stained-glass windows from the 16th century Germany.

Stained glass made in Mexico

One early example is the glass on the heavy double door of the Casino Español, built by architect Gonzalez del Campo between 1901 and 1905. It has a leaded window of a figure with Spain’s coat of arms, painted by Victor Marco for Pellandini. The building is located Isabel la Catolica Street in the historic center.

One of Mexico’s most important churches is the old Basilica of Guadalupe, which marks the place where the Virgin Mary made her appearance to Juan Diego. This church did not have stained glass windows until 1931, when several were comissioned to Victor Marco for the 400th anniversary of the appearance of Mexico’s patron saint. He died during the project, but his sons completed it in 1933. The panels in the upper section of the nave are in need of repair and were likely made by the father as they are in a traditional style. Those completed later by his sons are more contemporary. The adjoining Museum of the Old Basilica houses a stained glass window in the former sacrity. Dominating the landing of the staircase, it is a rare example of a window with medallions made in Mexico.

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Stained glass window in the Basilica Museum (credit:Daniel Caso)

The glass “curtain” (really a folding panel) at the Palace of Fine Arts has been extensively written about as it is the only one of its type in any opera house in the world. Weighing 24 tons, it was created by Tiffany’s in New York (as evidence by the use of copper rather than lead soldering), with almost a million pieces of iridescent colored glass. The design centers on images of the Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatle volcanos, surrounded by Mexican landscape and pre Hispanic sculptures from Yautepec and Oaxaca. The design was done by Mexican muralist and landscape painter Dr. Atl, a fact that was interestingly underplayed by the Mexican government at the time. Even today, most believe the design is from Tiffany’s as well.

Muralist Roberto Montenegro paired with master craftsman Enrique Villaseñor to create two stained glass windows with secular themes to be placed in a former church. The two are called the Mexican Hat Dance (El jarabe tapatío) and The Parrot Vendor. The Mexican Hat dance piece is mostly of plain glass, with only those depicting the faces, hands, feet and some other detailed painted. Unlike traditional projects, the image takes the entire space, with no framing. The Parrot Vendor is more static in design but uses much more color. The same building also has windows depicting Saints Peter and Paul done by Victor Marco, Sr. reminding visitors that it was a church. Montenegro was not happy with the executions the two panels. The colors did not match those of his sketches and the cames holding the glass together divided the images too much to his eyes.

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Mexican Hat Dance (credit:Thelmadatter)
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The Parrot Seller (credit:Thelmadatter)

Villaseñor also made the windows for the Ministry of Health based on designs by Diego Rivera. It has four panels representing earth, air, fire and water. The Earth panel has images of plowed fields, which depicts the weight of the soil. To add depth to the shadows, up to four pieces of glass were layered in a frame. The Water panel depicts the element as liquid, snow and the domestic use of water. The Air panel is dominated by an image of a sailing ship. Fire is represented with the use of coal, a vital element in early 20th century industrialization. Unfortunately, the building is mostly closed to the public.

As stated earlier, most of the best church stained-glass windows were done by Goeritz and can be found in the west and south of the city, than as now, home of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods.  Goeritz’s first project was for the chapel of the convent of Sacred Heart of Mary in Tlalpan. The stained glass piece extends from floor to ceiling with hues from light yellow to orange, resulting in an overall golden hue. The piece channels light towards the altar.

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In the San Lorenzo Church (credit:Mexch)

The San Lorenzo Church in the historic center has stained-glass windows designed by Mathias Goertz in 1954 when the church was renovated. They are of a contemporary design despite the antique architecture of the church. The windows are in the octogonal cupola with each section having a symbol related to the life of Saint Lawrence. Goeritz designed a cement relief behind the altar with a golden hand of Christ as a symbol of salvation. The choir window has pieces of amber colored glass from the Carretones Glass Factory in an abstract design.

The work done on the San Lorenzo Church was controversial as was that done to the even more iconic Santiago Tlaltelolco Church at the Plaza of the Three Cultures. His work here consists of four stained glass windows of intense red and in the lateral naves, eleven in blue. While these were simplistic to represent the ascetic ideas of the Franciscans, critics still felt the effect was too theatrical for the early colonial church.

L: Blue interior hue created by the unseen windows and R: the red windows at the main altar in Santiago Tlatelolco

The use of amber pieces in San Lorenzo was repeated for the Mexico City Cathedral.  In 1960, Mathias Goeritz was commissioned to design new stained-glass windows for the main nave’s lateral walls and cupoal of the Mexico City Cathedral. The windows were made from irregular glass pieces obtained by a local glass factory, which he arranged based on their natural shape and size. Almost all the pieces were amber colored with a few other colors, with the purpose of emphasizing the gold of the altar. Unfortunately most of this work was destroyed when the Altar of Forgiveness burned. All that remains is a small window over the west side door.

A contemporary of Goeritz, Jose Reyes Meza did several church projects as well. These include the windows for the Saint Mary of the Apostles Church in Tlalpan in the 1960s, and the St. Anthony of Padua Church in Coyoacan.

The Our Lady of Solitude Chapel in Coyoacan was built in 1958 with contemporary architecture, with the stained glass windows designed with the church and made by Kitzia Hoffman at the Marcos workshop. The panel behind the main altar is an unusual combination of glass and concrete, representing the Holy Spirit in the sumbol of the dove.

The Immaculate Conception Chapel in Colonia Roma has stained glass windows done by Victor Marco Jr, who died in 1991. The large panel above the entrance portrays the life of Mary in three scenes, Annunciation, Assumption and Coronation, with panels with other scenes on the side of the building. It is an academic style with a backdrop of flowers and leaves.

Most of the large stained glass projects to be undertaken recently are the large ceiling/skylights that cover ceiling openings found in many Mexico City buildings. These all have contemporary designs. One of these is found in the Siglo XX National Medical Center in Colonia Doctores. The skylight, named Stellar Butterflies, was designed by architect Jesus Ruiz Mejia and made by Magdalena Vasquez. It depicts butterflies in flight against a multicolored background. This shows pre Hispanic influence as the butterfly symbolized the fleetingness of life and the human spirit. The piece also has elements related to pre Hispanic numerology and astronomy, with 28 butterflies representing the lunar cycle.

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Stellar Butterfiles at the XXI Century Hospital (credit:I lemus ra)

At another hospital, the Gabriel Mancera, there is a ceiling called the Fifth Sun, designed by Mexican architect Salvador Pinoncelly in 1995 and found in the hospital’s foyer. It is inspired by the Aztec Calendar, simplified to show only the outline of the sun and five circles representing the five epochs of Aztec time.

The glass ceiling of the Papalote Children’s Museum is called The Universe. It is a naïf style made in 1993 by 61 schoolchildren between 8 and 12 under the direction of painter Jorge Rello. It depicts the constellations of the northern hemisphere.

The skylight of the Jose Antonio Mafud Trust in the historic center was designed by Rage in 2006. It faces the old Aztec Temple (Templo Mayor). It consists of stained-glass panels mounted on a three-dimensional structure with several layers of transparency. The lights forms kinetic reflections inside the building.

All photographs are from the Wikimedia Commons repository for freely-licensed images. 

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