Famous Windows: The Siena Rose Window

Siena CathedralThe Siena Cathedral is one of the most fascinating in all of Italy. This beautiful cathedral was built in response to the command of the country’s citizens who “urged their leaders to build a cathedral more splendid than those of their neighbors,” referring specifically to Florence. Construction of the cathedral began in 1215 AD, with the majority of the structure completed by 1263 AD.

This magnificent cathedral was built atop an older structure and constructed with layers of alternating stripes of white and greenish-black marble. The four facades of the building each have their own distinctive work and style, and the most impressive of these is the west facade. While the cathedral houses several stained glass windows, including one from the 16th century depicting the Last Supper, it’s the famous Siena Rose window in this west gable that is the most impressive.

This stunning window differs from more typical rose windows found in other cathedrals. Most rose windows are crafted with brilliant colors in ornate designs and patterns, brought together in a way that creates a stunning kaleidoscopic effect. Located over the High Altar, the Siena Rose window displays images depicting the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Stained glass windows are common in Europe, but were somewhat of a rarity in Italy, especially at this magnitude. Dating back to 1288, this stained glass window is among the oldest in all of Italy. It was crafted by Duccio di Buoninsegna, an outstanding painter of the era.

The age and deterioration of this window has caused anxiety for some time. Finally, in 1996, this 18-foot-diameter window was carefully removed in a series of sections and taken across the piazza into another building to undergo a painstaking 3-year conservation project. Due to the importance of this window, the chief restorer ordered a large glass window be installed at the end of his workshop so that the general public could view each phase of his restoration. This allowed the public to see how the work was progressing, allowing them before and after views as sections were completed.

Much of the leading that held the stained glass in place was not original. This lead had been replaced during previous restoration phases and was in very poor shape. However, nearly all of the glass was determined to be original. The biggest challenge of the restoration was preserving the brownish paint that the artist used to paint the facial details of the figures. This paint, called grisaille, was applied to the glass and then the pieces were re-baked.

Unfortunately, the temperature calculations needed for this type of work had not been perfected in the 13th century. Too high a heat would crack the glass and too low a heat would cause the paint to fail. Some of this grisaille was missing due to natural decay, while other was due to over cleaning in the centuries gone by. Following the restoration efforts, the window was displayed to the general public, allowing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see such a magnificent work up close.

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