Virgin Mary and Christ Child stained glass at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in London, Ont., created in 1983 by artist Christopher Wallis. Photo from Cody Barteet

Western University project aims to preserve stained glass

  • March 29, 2023

Dr. Cody Barteet quickly became fascinated by the art and craft of stained-glass production when he joined St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in London, Ont., over a dozen years ago.

The associate professor in Western University’s visual arts department would soon find out the long-term prospects for these aesthetic masterworks remaining visible to public eyes is far from a guarantee though. 

“One of the things I quickly learned is the significant number of churches that were being deconsecrated,” said Barteet. “Soon after I read a CBC article listing the number of churches at risk of closing across Canada.

“As a person who studies early modern art, particularly colonial Yucatán where I did my research, so much of the documentation behind these objects are lost for a variety of reasons whether it is social unrest that leads to the destruction of archives and churches to neglect because of the cost of maintaining such resources.”

Thanks to his educational background, Barteet could formulate a solution to ensure thousands of stained-glass pieces could live on, conceivably forever, in digital form. 

What would become an open-access treasure trove of stained-glass art housed in Western University library’s Scholarship@Western database was spawned by an unanticipated discovery. Barteet encountered an archivist with St. John the Evangelist early in 2020 who possessed hard drives containing over 3,500 pictures of churches and the stained-glass art they commissioned to be photographed in the eventuality of the building being demolished and the art becoming lost. 

In tandem with his team, which includes Katie Oates, an art history PhD and postdoctoral fellow, and Courtney Waugh, a research and scholarly communication librarian at Western Libraries, Barteet has continued to uncover new leads. Piecing together these documents has enabled them to tell the stories of stained-glass artists who were prominent in the London region. 

The researchers utilized an application called StoryMaps, which formulates digital maps to accompany interactive multimedia projects. This tool provides researchers a sense of each stained-glass artist’s geographical presence. 

Barteet’s research led him to become intimately acquainted with the oeuvre of the late Christopher Wallis (1930-2021), regarded as one of Canada’s foremost artists in the arena of heraldic stained glass. A product of Earlsfield, London, England, Wallis spent some time working on the nave windows of the famed Coventry Cathedral before emigrating to Canada in 1956. 

Over the next 65 years, Wallis designed and created more than 800 windows. He first worked in his own studio in London before relocating to Grand Bend on the shores of Lake Huron. He took on both faith-based and secular assignments throughout his long career. One of his most acclaimed stained-glass windows glimmers in St. Stephen Protomartyr Ukrainian Catholic Church in Calgary. It was chosen to be featured in a 2003 international stamp series published by Canada Post. 

Simon Wallis, Christopher’s son, said he has been in contact with Barteet about his project to commemorate the work of his father and other artists. A time is being arranged in the coming weeks for Barteet’s team to view more of Christopher Wallis’ documentation and materials.

Simon shared his perspective about why his father’s body of work is special and worthy of this attention from Western University. 

“He loved that medium so much. I think the way he worked with the glass and the colour was special,” he said. “His ability to create stylized heads and figures was also special. He would create great stylized hands — often he would depict Jesus and other religious figures raising their hands in blessing.”

Simon added his father’s singular commitment and drive was on display during every step of the process from artistic conception to completion. Simon witnessed Christopher speak about the work with the clients, render “spectacular watercolour paintings” as a draft, ruminate about where to place the cames (black lead lines) and order the perfect type of glass from his contact in Europe, culminating in him crafting the stained-glass invention.

Barteet, who met Wallis briefly at a social function years ago, also offered praise for Wallis’ mastery of the form.

“One of the things that has always fascinated me is his blending of the religious practices in religious iconography into a much more expressive form of medium,” he said. “I can see him blending and merging different historical archetypes into a contemporary context which I found interesting and fascinating at the same time.”

Barteet said the amount of study into stained-glass art in Canada is relatively minimal so the academic potential is sizable. He said he wants to spotlight aspects of artistic culture that are often taken for granted. 

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