F.X. Zettler & The Royal Bavarian Art Institute:
Crafters of St. Martin’s Windows
Among the traditions resurrected during the Gothic Revival was the making of stained glass windows. This rebirth can trace its roots to the foundation of the Munich Institute of Glass Painting in 1827, by Bavaria’s King Ludwig I. The renaissance in Munich continued in 1862 when Joseph Gabriel Mayer added stained glass production to his Institute for Christian Art Works, which he had founded in 1847 to “reactivate the idea of the Middle Ages cathedral building trades” through fine arts, sculpture, architecture, and painting. It had great success in this endeavor, both home and abroad. In fact, the firm’s work became so popular in the United States that by 1888 it had opened an office in New York City. The highly detailed, three-dimensional Stations of the Cross which adorn the walls of St. Martin of Tours Church were crafted by this company. For its important contributions to church art, Pope Leo XIII gave Mayer & Co. the title “Pontifical Institute of Christian Art” in 1892. By the turn of the century, the company employed over 300 craftsmen and artisans. After World War I, the firm dropped production of sculpture, and instead helped revive the art of mosaic production.
Joseph Gabriel Mayer’s son-in-law, Franz Xavier Zettler, originally worked in the window portion of the business, before striking out on his own in 1870. His fledgling company achieved its first success with award-winning windows displayed at the 1873 International Exhibition at Vienna. By the end of the decade, Zettler’s firm had 150 employees. In 1882 the company was appointed as the “Royal Bavarian Art Institute for Stained Glass” by King Ludwig II (the “Mad King” who was a patron of composer Richard Wagner and builder of the fairy-tale like Neuschwainstein Castle) Zettler’s familiarity with Ludwig and his tastes was extensive enough that he and two others edited and illustrated a book in 1876 which catalogued the many religious artifacts owned by the eccentric king (this book is very rare – a copy recently sold at auction for $2000!).
Both the Mayer and Zettler studios perfected what became known as the “Munich Style,” which was copied by more than a dozen other window makers who set up shop in the area. In this method, the religious scenes were painted on larger sheets of glass, and then fused to the glass through firing in intense heat. This allowed for a blending of colors not attainable by the old medieval style, in which any change of color in a scene required a separate piece of colored glass, which had to be cut to size and fitted in its own leaded framework. In the windows of the Munich school the leaded seams did not interrupt or intrude upon the scene portrayed, but were camouflaged by the design in a way that made them hardly noticeable. The new style also allowed for extremely detailed depictions of their subjects. The scenes depicted were heavily influenced by the emotion and sentimentality of the 19th century European Romantic style of painting, and the detail and ornateness of the German Baroque style.
While the use of perspective (where an object in the background of a scene is depicted smaller than an object in the foreground to give a sense of depth) was used in the latter part of the medieval age and during the Renaissance, Zettler is widely recognized as the master of this technique, and is credited with being the first to use three-point perspective in stained glass windows. Whereas the medieval windows contained scenes which tended to appear “flat” and one-dimensional, even if they had an object in the background, Zettler’s scenes looked more like the landscaped paintings of the Renaissance and after. This quality can be seen in many of St. Martin’s windows, where background objects are portrayed at different scales than those in the foreground, thus giving the scene a very realistic sense of depth. The Munich Style and three-point perspective were later adapted and modified by the great American designer, Louis Comfort Tiffany. While the latter’s name may be more known to people today, in their own era it was apparent who was the master and who was the student: at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a Zettler window won top prize over a Tiffany!
Zettler and his Royal Bavarian Art Institute became known for the quality of their design, clearness of glass in spite of rich use of colors, and their conscious employment of the medium to realize harmonious decorative effects. The firm also gained a reputation for technological innovations and familiarity with Christian iconography. This allowed them to dominate the market in producing windows for Catholic churches. Their works can be found throughout Europe, and also Canada, South America, Australia, and New Zealand.
Thousands of churches in the United States purchased their windows. They were especially popular in parishes made up of European immigrants. Zettler windows can be found in such notable American edifices as Newark’s Sacred Heart Basilica, Philadelphia’s National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia, Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Denver, and St. Helena’s Cathedral in Montana. St. Alphonsus Art and Cultural Center in New Orleans – built as a Redemptorist church in 1855, closed in the 1970s, then saved from the wrecking ball in 1990 and named as a National Historic Landmark six years later – contains windows by Zettler, including several with scenes that very closely resemble some at St. Martin’s.
The Royal Bavarian Art Institute windows found in two American parishes have interesting histories. Holy Rosary Church in Cedar, Michigan ordered windows from Zettler just before the outbreak of World War I. The firm made the windows, but the war erupted before they could be shipped. Zettler’s firm buried the windows in Germany to keep them from being damaged, and then sent them to the U.S. after the conflict ended. St. Mary Magdalen in Camarillo, California purchased windows in 1913, but did not receive them due to the war. It was believed that they had been part of a shipment on a freighter which had been destroyed in the Atlantic while en route to America. In 1919 the windows were discovered safely packed away in crates in Germany, and were then forwarded to their California owners.
Most of the Royal Bavarian Art Institute’s windows found in this country date from after 1900. However, the windows in St. Martin of Tours Church were installed by Zettler’s firm between 1893-1895. The fact that St. Martin’s was among the Institute’s early American customers can probably be attributed to the parish’s German immigrants already being familiar with the firm’s work in the “Fatherland.”
When the 20th century began, the Mayer and Zettler firms were the world’s leading producers of stained glass, employing nearly 500 craftsmen and artists between them. These firms played an important role in preserving the ancient stained glass throughout the European continent during that turbulent century, being called into action to remove and safeguard windows from many of the great medieval cathedrals during the two World Wars. They also restored many windows damaged by war, weather, and pollution (in fact, the Mayer Co. was hired by Pope St. Pius X to restore Bernini’s famous Holy Spirit window at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 1912).
Perhaps due to the change in artistic tastes, or its lack of diversification of products, the F.X. Zettler Co. merged with its old rival, Mayer & Company, in 1939. This firm, run by a 5th generation member of the Mayer family, still does business today. The company is active in the restoration of Europe’s historic castles, churches, and monasteries. Its religious works now include windows and mosaics for synagogues and mosques, and new customers have been found in Japan, Singapore, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. It has produced works for such noble causes as the World Peace Church in Hiroshima, Japan and a civil rights memorial in Atlanta, Georgia. But, reflecting the secularization of Western Civilization, many of its works are for the “cathedrals” of our day, including banks, hotels, malls, airports, and the Barney’s chain of fashion clothing stores. Many of the works are very modernistic and abstract, a far cry from the detail and orderliness of the Munich Style.
At the bottom of most of St. Martin’s windows are the words “Geschenk von...” (German for “Gift from...”), followed by the name of the person or family who donated it to the parish. The many German names reflect the land of nativity or ancestry of the parishioners of St. Martin’s Church for the first several decades of its existence. In addition to the donors’ names, the names of the Royal Bavarian Art Institute for Stained Glass and F.X. Zettler – the master of the Munich Style – can be seen on several windows. “Professor Franz,” as Zettler was known to students and admirers, died in 1916 at the age of 75. There has been of late a renewed interest in and appreciation for the work of this great craftsman.
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