Pierre Soulages

Stained glass of Conques’ abbatial
© Atelier Jean Dominique Soulage

Atelier Jean Dominique Fleury
104 stained windows abbatiale de Conques
1987-1994

4 rue Arzac, 31300 Toulouse, France
Tel +33 5 61 59 26 42

Jean- Dominique Fleury first set up his workshop in Toulouse in 1978, and is now a reference in both ancient and modern stained glass. Thanks to his experience and practice of many years in glass and stained glass he can realize the projects of the artists he works with by using innovative techniques inspired from the Applied arts. And each work done in collaboration with an artist, whether on religious architecture or public buildings, leads to new research and a crop of new and surprising tools. It is with Pierre Soulages, the French artist, worldwide famous for his pictorial work on “black/light”, that Jean-Dominique Fleury started his collaboration with the great names of modern creation. He got a public commission from the State for the design and realization of 104 stained windows in the Romanesque ancient building of the Basilica in Conques
Three years later, the successful combination of talents resulted into the revival of the building completely transformed by its new stained glasswork. Much praised by the press, the place welcomes thousands of visitors every year and has somehow become the object of a new cult, ten centuries after being a halt along the pilgrimage to St James of Compostelle,”

In 1986, after refusing several projects for different buildings, Pierre Soulages accepted the Culture Ministry‘s order for the design and realization of 104 new stained windows for the Sainte-Foy de Conques church, near Rodez, his home town, a commission funded by the ‘Délégation aux Arts Plastiques” and “la Direction du Patrimoine”.

It’s the discovery of this church, a Western Romanesque masterpiece on the way to St James of Compostelle that triggered his call to devote his life to painting:” I was fourteen when I decided, while looking at Conques “Abbey” that my only interest in life would be art(…) Conques is the very place of my earliest artistic emotions».

Tough rather small (only 56 m. long), the church has an amazingly great number of openings (95 windows, 9 loopholes). Pierre Soulages took in the “importance of the light in this building.

The work of an artist designing the stained glass generally consists of drawing colored sketches that he will hand on to the glassmaker who will then realize his design. For Pierre Soulages “the stained glasses couldn’t just be the glass reproduction of a model born from a pictorial project, whatever” At Conques, he won’t paint; after checking through all the existing industrial glass samples without finding what he wanted, he decided to make his own material. Through an unusual procedure, he first devised a particular kind of glass that let the proper light get through into kind of building, and it’s only after producing it that he started designing the project.

This unusual approach of the stained glass technique brought in some questioning about his “métier” for Jean-Dominique Fleury the master glass maker who got the commission in partnership with Pierre Soulages.
The artist did a lot of research work – about 400 tests-at CIRVA (The international Centre of research in Glass work), in Marseille, in 1988, then 300 tests at St Gobain glass research centre in Aubervilliers. He eventually obtained a new substance from clear glass.

The result was a translucent non transparent glass, that let the light through but not the view: a glass that diffused the light not by reflecting it on its surface but from its very texture. This modulation of the translucency was the natural consequence of the uneven distribution of tiny bits of glass of different sizes, and of their partly “deglazing” during fusion.

At Conques, Pierre Soulages paradoxically decided to use clear glass that is colorless glass, because it was more attuned to the natural light wave length of his stained glass window panes that were going to replace the polychromic storied panels installed after the second world war.

His research was not intended for colors but was essentially driven by the sheer intention of letting the light through. On installing the first test panel with Jean-Dominique Fleury, Pierre Soulages tells of their surprise when seeing chromaticity arising from the modulation of the light.

For the same reason, Pierre Soulages decided to do without the edges that usually delineate the shapes of the windows, thus enhancing the pure and powerful architectural lines of the window, and this move incidentally bridged his work to the early alabaster panels that were being used for churches before the invention of stained glass. The cartoon work was started with the contribution of Jean-Dominique Fleury and Eric Savalli in the artist’s studio in Paris and Sète, it was continued in the master glass maker‘s workshop in Toulouse. A particular process was used: the lead work was marked with black adhesive tape of the same width, stretched over a white and smooth surface of the same dimensions as the window. As it could be removed many times, the tape permitted to elicit the right line by looking from a short distance. Jean –Dominique Fleury remembers: Soulage’s eye drawing from a distance, monitoring the line, the stretched tapes outlining the spaces, and, the straight lines of the cartoon, adding blackness, thickness and graphical vigor”.

The schedule included the restoration of the steel braces and lead mounting. Pierre Soulages wanted these steel bars, essential for the bracing of the whole work” to be part of the plastic scheme because of the rhythm of the lead work and shapes and their function as a backbone”.

It was decided to set them horizontally, and an even number to avoid dividing the surface by the middle. When placing the test panel, Pierre Soulages and Jean-Dominique Fleury were amazed to find that they were placed exactly like the ancient ones: the artist’s plan coincided with the builders’ original one.

The reason why so many visitors from all over the world visit Conques, is that they want to discover altogether its architecture, its treasure and its stained glass windows devoted to the living light ”somehow transmuted, attuned to the architectural performance, the emotions aroused by the place, and the purpose of this place of contemplation, meditation and worship”
Atelier Jean Dominique Fleury