Zao Wou KI stained glass windows

Fourteen original "stained glass windows" by the great Zao Wou-Ki were unveiled on July 3rd 2010 for the priory's refectory windows at Ronsard's house. What stands out about the work is not only how unique it is for the Chinese artist but also the deliberately subtle use of black India ink and the technique he uses.

It all began one day in February 2009 Zao Wou-Ki visited the priory and greeted the Pléiade poet's tomb with such reverence and affection, it was as though his heart had always been here. We should mention that the artist had always been good friends with poets such as Henri Michaux, René Char and François Cheng.

The Roman refectory that he was to decorate had a stark feel with classic architecture but the pulpit area was vibrant with an array of sculpted designs. Despite being surrounded by grounds which have all the colour sucked out of them in winter, the artist resisted the temptation to use colour and chose to give the building his understated signature. Black came to the fore to tie into the artist's previous work. Zao Wou-Ki chose a never-before-seen series of eleven inks recently made to accompany poems by his friend Dominique de Villepin and collected in a book called Là-bas. Eleven inks whose large size were the perfect fit for the eleven 12th century windows. The book's monotype was used as the basis for producing three stained glass windows for the pulpit as Zao Wou-Ki realised how important it was. The pulpit is a source, a fountain for words and by elevating the red India ink monotype, a lucky colour for the Chinese, he brought the religious building to life in a celebration of cultures.



"decorated glass" technique

That said, the technique came with its own challenges. How to stay true to the artist's free-form ink flourishes without trapping them, suffocating them or weighing them down with lead cames? After a few mishaps with classical master glassmakers, Zao Wou-Ki took his fellow artist Jean-Michel Meurice's advice and visited Eric Linard, the pioneer behind the "decorated glass" technique which he patented with Saint-Gobain. The pieces are screen-printed onto polyester film enclosed in sheets of butyl and the glass goes on either side. Then it all goes into the autoclave.

All that was left to do was get the green light from the Monuments Historiques commission and ensure the installation would stand the test of time. After all, it is in a mid-12th century building that was bombed in 1944 and restored in the 1950s so we have no knowledge of the stained glass that once filled the windows.

Having no lead cames provides total transparency. The sense that the patterns are floating, the fullness and emptiness rather than the black and white, the changing nature that you can see through the transparent windows create 3D gateways into another world.