Long before canvas was available for artists, medieval painting took the form of stained glass, prominently displayed in churches, cathedrals, and other great structures. When illuminated by sunlight, these colorful creations became works of beauty and brilliance. But sadly, according to College of Arts and Sciences professor Meredith Lillich, "stained glass is deteriorating at an awesome rate."
As professor of medieval art and architecture in the Department of Fine Arts, Lillich is participating in a massive undertaking to locate and record the world's stained glass. She is a member of Corpus Vitrearum, a council established in 1952 to publish scholarly studies and produce definitive reference works on all stained glass that survives from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. The council consists of representatives from about a dozen countries united in efforts to find and preserve what is left of an art form popular centuries ago and now threatened by pollution. The U.S. branch of the vitrearum was founded in 1982.
Lillich and her colleagues are responsible for producing volumes on pre-1700 stained glass in America. The task will take decades, she says, because much of America's stained glass collection is either privately owned or in museums, so tracking it down is a tedious process.
The two-time Fulbright Scholar played an integral part in developing checklists to organize the effort. These lists inventoried stained glass in all 50 states as a preliminary stage of the vitrearum volumes. Lillich then courted the National Gallery of Art to publish the lists. "It is, after all, our national museum," she says.
One of the most rewarding aspects of being involved with Corpus Vitrearum has been the gradual implementation of the members' research, Lillich says. "The compiling of the physical evidence is beginning to happen, which is exciting."
Lillich, who has shared her knowledge and expertise with students for 31 years, notes that three of her former students serve on the U.S. committee of Corpus Vitrearum: Renee George Burnam G'82, G'88, who is also an author for the Italian Corpus Vitrearum committee; Professor Helen Zakin G'77 of the SUNY College at Oswego; and Professor Alyce Jordan '81, G'87 of Northern Arizona University.
Although encyclopedias of stained glass are expensive to produce, target a limited audience, and take many years to complete, Lillich says Harvey Miller Publications of London will publish the nine volumes. The first volume will be European Stained Glass in the Cloisters and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Her volume, Stained Glass From Before 1700 in New York State, will likely be the next one published. "This is a project that is really just beginning," she says.
Fine arts professor Meredith Lillich is part of an intensive effort to catalog the world's stained glass collection. Part of her research focuses on pre-1700 stained glass in New York State.
Lillich enjoys being part of a project that will help perpetuate interest and encourage progress in stained glass research for years to come. Student interest in the historic links between stained glass and other arts has increased, and her research with Corpus Vitrearum has a direct influence on her classroom approach. "What I teach always reflects what is happening with my research," she says.
Lillich also studies Cistercian monks' art and architecture, and stained glass found throughout parts of France. Each year, her gothic art students travel to France for research.
Lillich's fascination with stained glass developed gradually. She cites the Fulbright awards as the "major shoves" toward her scholarly study of stained glass. "It made an enormous difference to me and my career," says Lillich, one of the first Fulbright recipients.
Now, as a leading expert, her work inspires others to probe the historic and aesthetic worlds of stained glass. She is also confident that today's art students will eventually continue the work of Corpus Vitrearum and gradually bring stained glass into its rightful place in art history. "Stained glass has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years," she says.
KERI POTTS AND TAMMY CONKLIN