The city of Troyes is 75 mns from Paris by train and it is a pure jewel with many museums, churches and restaurants. There, I discovered la Cité du Vitrail (it opened in 2023 and received 90 000 visitors in its first year) and loved the way stained glass windows are displayed at eye level! The art of “vitrail” is described in great detail, sometimes through fac simile at real scale, sometimes with pieces of very ancient glass, and suddenly all the stories described in the Middle Ages become real. At the moment, an exhibition of Art Nouveau and Art deco artist, Francis Chigot (1879-1960), reveals a lot about the importance of lay stained glass at the turn-of-the-century. And the collection of religious art, on the second floor, led us very naturally, later, to the Church of La Madeleine, a few minutes away in old Troyes: it is worth the trip in itself. A delicious lunch of foie gras and sweetbreads at Chez Daniel’s made for a perfect day!
“Stained glass is a monumental art, a play of light within an architectural structure, which it encloses brightens, magnifies and gives meaning to. As we go on a journey through fourteen centuries, we discover the place it held in Champagne and the Aube department in history. ” When reading these words at the entrance of the galleries, I suddenly realized that so many churches were built in this area, which was on the commercial road from Italy to the Flanders. Troyes was a very affluent city, famous for its fairs organized by the Comtes de Champagne and its fabrics industry. It still is the center of clothes manufacturing (Lacoste) and the great entertainment is to visit the “magasins d’usine” (factory outlets).
On the top floor of the museum, is an attic space where the history of stained glass is explained. The first samples in the museum date back from the end of VII th century when the Carolingians already used glass for their decors in the abbey of Baume-les-Messieurs. The cathedral of Sens, 70 kms away, is particularly well documented and a contract date 1500, between the glassmakers of Troyes and the religious authorities of Sens is exhibited. Led came from England, delivery date had to be before Christmas… Another piece has the XVI th century private patrons figure on the stained glass, a scene taken from the choir of St Denis basilica in 1140 shows St Vincent’s martyrdom when he grills on the flames. Another Cistercian stained glass dates from before 1210, and is incredibly modern in its complete lack of colors and geometric decor.
There are multiple videos which show new decors in old churches like in Romilly sur Seine, where Joël Mône created a few modern stained glass windows. Later in the 19 th century, a scene representing a man drinking champagne was painted by Henri de Faucigny Lucinge in 1874. It belongs to a private collection. It is a good example of the times when stained glass is used as a work of art in its own right.
Below on the second floor, the galerie des vitraux is quite a fascinating space with a mix of 12 th century “Discovery of the relics of St Stephen” in Châlons en Champagne and a 2014 work by Kehinde Wiley lent by Templon. It belongs to a series which was inspired to the African American artist by Ingres’ designs in the Chapelle Saint Ferdinand in Paris. Two Islamic panels hang over three naïve scenes of Norman peasants by Raphaël Lardeur. Next to them, we can see a few contemporary test panels, by Pierre Carron, Aurelie Nemours, François Rouan, Serge Poliakoff, Robert Morris and Jean Michel Othoniel.
The whole museum is fascinating and discovering that so many contemporary artists are interested in stained glass was a revelation. I am strongly against replacing the six stained glass windows of Notre Dame, designed by Viollet-le-Duc, by modern ones, but when so many churches bombed during WW2 have blank windows, why not encourage the many workshops to create new ones. There are examples in the museum of Joël Mône‘s in Eglise St Martin in Romilly-sur-Seine (very near Troyes) which are totally convincing.
After leaving the museum, we wandered ten minutes away to Chez Daniel‘s an excellent restaurant where the foie gras au marc de champagne was exceptional and the sweetbreads also. The menu includes pintade au champagne, filet of beef with foie gras, pigeons and caramelized duck as well as scallops risotto. I tasted a local white Côteaux champenois from Veuve Doussot which was very interesting and tasted like champagne with no bubbles. The equivalent in red is Bouzy. This is Champagne country away from Reims and quite spectacular anyway…
The exhibition Francis Chigot is on until March 8 at Cité du Vitrail and you can also follow la route du vitrail (the road of stained glass) on your cell phone.
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