Leuven’s Park Abbey recovers long-lost stained-glass windows


The abbey has discovered the whereabouts of many of its 17th-century stained glass windows and plans to bring all of them back to Leuven

Show some glass

Bit by bit, Leuven’s Park Abbey is recovering a remarkable series of 17th-century stained-glass windows that once enclosed its cloister. After years of research, it has succeeded in locating most of the 41 windows, and, with the help of the government of Flanders and other supporters, it has brought 20 of them home.

The challenge now is to clean and restore the recovered windows before returning them to the abbey, which itself is undergoing extensive renovation. There is also the hope that more of the missing windows can be lured back to Leuven.

The Park Abbey was established in 1129 by the Norbertine order of monks, but the stained glass windows were a much later addition. Produced by Jan de Caumont, a master of glass painting with a workshop in Leuven, they were installed around the cloister between 1635 and 1644.

Unlike church windows, which are generally designed to be seen from a distance, these relatively small windows were placed at eye level, and combine striking colours with finely painted detail. Each is a triptych, with scenes from the life of St Norbert of Xanten framed by portraits of notable Norbertine monks and nuns. Above and below are Latin citations, coats of arms and other decorative elements.

Sold off

While the windows survived the turmoil of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period, the abbey fell on hard times. In 1828, the monks sold the windows to the wealthy Brussels ship-owner Jean-Baptiste Dansaert.

After his death, and the death of his wife, the windows were divided between their three daughters. Subsequent bequests and sales saw them scattered all over the world and sometimes broken up into their constituent parts. 

Of course you want to retrieve all of them, and people here are ambitious

- Art historian Erika T’Jaeckx

The Abbey has been trying to buy back the windows since the 1930s but did not know where many had end up until around a decade ago. A volunteer helping to catalogue the Abbey archive chanced on a new lead.

“One day he found a box with all kinds of correspondence about the windows,” says Erika T’Jaeckx, an art historian who is co-ordinator of tourism development for the abbey. “Instead of just classifying it, he started studying the documents, and that opened new lines of investigation.”

It turned out that many of the windows had found their way to the US. Some were used in grand New York houses, while others became part of museum collections.

This detective work resulted in the purchase of eight windows from Yale University Art Gallery in 2013. And earlier this year, six windows were given to the abbey by the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, DC, which was closing down.

Glass reunion

Some of the outstanding windows are in the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, while others are closer to home, such as in private residences in Brussels and Walloon Brabant. Then there are two in the Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels.

“Of course you want to retrieve all of them, and people here are ambitious,” says T’Jaeckx. “But if you look at it from a museum’s point of view, this is an important part of their collection as well. I think we should already be very happy with what we’ve got back.”

Four of the windows recently went on display in Leuven city hall, and discussions are under way to see if they might also be shown in the Park Abbey museum. “Even without cleaning and restoration, they are so beautiful,” says T’Jaeckx, “so hopefully we can have them in the museum for a time.”

The Park Abbey will progressively re-open to the public as restoration is completed, beginning in September 2017. But replacing the stained-glass windows will be part of the last phase, tentatively scheduled for 2020.

Meanwhile the Friends of the Park Abbey are running a public appeal to raise funds to clean and restore the windows.

Photo courtesy Park Abbey