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Friday, June 10, 2016
Research Sheds New Light on WAM’s Stained Glass Collection
Recently, a group of specialists revealed compelling new information about the Worcester Art Museum’s stained glass. This April, I had the good fortune to watch as several members of the survey, Corpus Vitrearum, inspected the WAM’s collection of stained glass. Since the 1940s, the international publication has undertaken to catalogue and study all extant stained glass from the Middle Ages. And as the Museum’s glass is currently de-installed while the medieval galleries undergo a major renovation, three members of the American committee took the opportunity to examine the panels more closely than they have been studied in decades.
After inspecting the pitted, undulating surfaces of several works of medieval glass, we came to a panel that looked slightly different from the others. The window of The Story of Potiphar’s Wife shows the Biblical story of the Egyptian official Potiphar and his adulterous wife. In this image, Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph, a slave, of making advances on her by presenting his purple robe to her husband.
Lightly touching the glass surfaces, the group observed that, although the border of leaves and flowers added to the panel in 1934 was consistently worn and pitted, the central pieces were thinner and flatter than the typical surface of blown medieval glass. Prompted to look more closely at the composition, the group observed that the painted faces of Potiphar and his wife were more nineteenth-century than medieval in style. Drawing from these clues, the group concluded that the work was likely a forgery created to be sold as a work of medieval art.
The market for forgeries has existed for centuries and, unfortunately, quite a few have made their way into even the most esteemed museum collections. The Story of Potiphar’s Wife was given to the Museum in 1971 by Aldus Higgins. In addition to this piece, Higgins gave many works including George Braque’s Olive Trees, Kandinsky’s Untitled, No. 629, and works of Pre-Columbian sculpture, Renaissance tapestry, and other medieval stained glass, none of which are suspected to be forgeries. While Higgins surely did not know Potiphar’s Wife was modern, this example shows how forgeries made their way through dealers and collectors, as well as through purchase, into museum collections. Research and technological advances have led to many discoveries such as this; however, there are surely many more forgeries that have not yet been uncovered. This particular object will be taken off display and, though it might find a place as an educational piece in the future, it will not likely reappear in the medieval galleries.
While the group’s visit uncovered a forgery, it also revealed the significance of several works in the collection. One such object was another Higgins donation: a small panel representing a figure of a prophet. The group pointed to the high-quality of the panel’s painted details and the remarkable fact that it remains wholly original and intact. Moreover, they discussed the importance of this piece, along with two similar figures in the Met’s collection, as the only remnants of a once-formidable stained glass window from the region of Beauvais. Although the piece was not originally slated to be included in the reinstallation, the removal of The Story of Potiphar’s Wife will create space to display this precious figure.
WAM’s rich medieval collection is a treasure trove for art historians and conservators alike. Stay tuned for even more fascinating new information when the renovated galleries open in December.
Learn more about the Reinstallation of the Medieval Galleries
- Katherine Werwie, Kress Interpretive Fellow for Medieval Art
Posted by WAM at 11:27 AM
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