Capturing light: the lost art of stained glass in Hungary

Hungary, in my humble opinion, is one of the most underrated countries in Central Europe. Most of those who bothered visiting either contented themselves with a quick trip over to Budapest or with a cruise down the Danube, oblivious of everything lying around them.

I have been to Hungary more times than I care to remember for family reasons, and I know that it’s a little gem awaiting to be discovered, a place with thousands of year of history and an enigmatic past. Just to give an example, a few years ago a farmer, while digging a well in a place in the Bakonyi Hills not far from Lake Balaton, found some objects in the ground; he figured them to be some kind of toys, and then gave them to his kids. After a while the “toys” landed on a desk of a museum curator, who recognised them for what they were, i.e. Paleolithic tools.

Veszprém, in Western Hungary, is a city where I pretty much end up every time I’m in the country. It’s a nice university town lying on seven hills and has a special place in Hungarian history for this is where the first Catholic king, Istvan, fought a battle against his rival (and family member) Koppanyi, defeated them and – in true born again Christian fashion – cut the body of the hapless Koppanyi in four bits which he dispatched to the four corners of the nation. This didn’t prevent him from becoming saint, the first in Hungary, but as we all know the Church standards are quite elastic.

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Veszprém is also the place where a man called Jozséf Perlaki lives. I’ve never used this blog to specifically talk about a single person but Jozséf’s trade is so particular that I think deserves as much visibility as possible, especially in this day where programming in C seems to be a practical skill. Jozséf, who works with his son Vince, is a stained glass artist. He learned the trade more than 20 years ago and, ever since, many of the stained glass windows that embellish churches in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Austria are his. Not a small feat for a man from a country that, up until 25 years ago, was atheist.

Making stained glass windows is no small feat. The art flourished and blossomed in the Middle Ages, where the peak of architecture was the Gothic cathedral. Then the Reform and, later, industrialisation made religion marginal and stained glass uneconomical. Now few artists remain and even fewer are still following the old method, i.e. using as many different pieces of coloured glass as possible, held together by an intricate webbing of lead wires. Jozséf is one of them.

I’ve known him for years but only recently I asked him to show me his skills, which he kindly agreed to. So this is how, one nice day, I learned about how two men in a solitary atelier in a rather nondescript neighbourhood in a town in the Hungarian province wake up every day and set about making works of art.

Everything, usually, starts with a series of drawings. Church windows cannot be made in a single piece, but are usually divided in sections. For each section a real-life scale drawing is made, usually referring to a smaller overview of the whole thing, prepared in conjunction with the customer. You can see them in the slideshow below.

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Once the drawing it’s made it’s time, then, to… Cut it. Heartbreaking as it sounds, it’s the only way to cut the pieces of glass in the right measure while minimising as much as possible the risk of having misaligning pieces. In a nutshell Jozséf will sketch a series of lines over the drawings and the resulting geometrical forms will be parts of a giant puzzle that will, after lots of work, turn out to be a window.

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What follows next is, perhaps, the most amazing bit of the whole work. Jozséf and Vince have an impressive array of glass tiles, orderly stacked by colour on rows of shelves (a place where a clumsy man such as yours truly should stay very well clear from); these tiles are all pretty much the same in terms of dimensions, but they differ from one another for subtle details such as shade of colour and texture of the glass. Medieval windows weren’t made of perfectly smooth glass; much to the contrary, it can be said that every single piece was different from the one next, and this is what makes them so nice and the light they reflect so vivid and precious. Jozséf want to re-create this impression and having “imperfect” glass is just about the only way to do it.

This glass is then cut, precisely but carefully, in the desired shapes. Sometimes they can be cut into triangles or trapezoid-like figures; sometimes, as it’s the case for halos, strange shapes have to be carved out of the tiles.

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These pieces are then mounted on a bespoke frame, held together by small fasteners and other tiny bits of lead. It’s incredibly fragile and it beggars belief that such a structure can hold its own weight, suspended meters above the ground, exposed to the elements (well, at least on one side). The secret is, obviously, the cooking. Jozséf and Vince have an industrial oven capable of cooking ceramic and terracotta and it’s in there where, like airline meals stacked into a galley, the window frames are put to cook and to solidify.

Unsurprisingly, when Jozséf started back in the Eighties, he had little work and even less money. The East was quite good at making useless things such as tanks, artillery and tractors but simple consumer goods were unavailable, including normal ovens or industrial ones such ad the one that Jozséf would have needed for his trade. The best ones were made in West Germany, not far from Veszprém, but it could’ve been in another galaxy for Jozséf didn’t have the money to buy one, the chance to jump the Iron Curtain to get one or even a car to put it in once he’d bought it (waiting times for a car were longer than what rich folks are enduring for their Bugatti, and what awaited at the end of the tunnel was a shitty Lada). So the ever resourceful Jozséf did one for himself: having studied how to do it he set off work in a shed and, in a little while, came up with a pretty good and powerful electric industrial oven, the one you see in the photo below.

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Ironically though, it was only after a jubilant Jozséf had his Eureka! moment that he realised that the behemoth he’d come up with was too large to fit through the door of the shed. It was the definitive “Oh shit” moment since Chernobyl and it solved itself only when a unit of Soviet soldier, marching by, spotted the distressed young artisan and decided to help him out by hauling the thing out of a window and onto a van. The irony of the scene, Red Army coming to the rescue of a self starting wannabe entrepreneur who’d set off doing holy images, must’ve gone missing.

So, after the cooking the windows are left out to cool off and are covered with a protective product looking a little bit like iron powder. Then the windows are cleaned, an additional check and repairs are done to some joints in the metalwork and then the job’s done.

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Jozséf atelier on a sunny day is a pleasure to the eyes. It’s a cathedral in his own right, a testimony to a man’s dedication and continuous strive for improvement. He’s recently discovered mosaic and woodwork, and on a recent trip to Italy he’s learnt how to blow glass, something that can be seen in his smaller works.

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He and Vince are two of the last, in our continent, who know how to do things rather than going on to Amazon and buying them; they’re last in a line, stretching hundreds if not thousands of years, of knowledge and love for a very fine and utterly magnificent trade. What’s their hope? The same as mine: that others might follow in their footsteps.

This entry was posted in Europe, Hungary, Overlooked locations, Random memories and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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