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Magnificent House Altar from 1500s Restored

All About Glass

On August 2, 2007, a beautiful, fully restored 16th-century German house altar (59.3.39) was put on display for the first time since its acquisition by The Corning Museum of Glass in 1959.

The altar is 49.6 cm tall, and contains seven reverse-painted glass panels. These depict scenes of the Crucifixion, the allegorical figures Pity and Charity, the saints Bridget and Dorothy, the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary, and the Virgin as Queen of Heaven, all in striking colors of gold, silver, red, black, blue, and green. House altars like this one are miniature versions of high altars and were used in private devotional settings.

The altar ranks among the best reverse painting on glass artworks in the world. Related altars are at the Museo Civico in Turin, Italy, and at the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich, Germany.


The Corning altar stands out because of its size and the quality of its craftsmanship. Frieder Ryser, the most renowned expert in the history of reverse painting on glass, stated in a letter to the Museum in 1999 that “the work in Corning is the richest and largest of these rare pieces.”

The conservation project began in May 2005, with a grant from the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles. Twelve people— including research scientists and conservators specializing in reverse paintings on glass, furniture, and wooden objects—were involved in the process, which took place in Germany.

The main goal was to restore the seven reverse paintings on glass. However, the way the altar was built made restoration extremely difficult. Composed of three distinct layers behind glass— scratched gold and silver leaf, transparent lacquer colors, and a reflecting metal foil—the altar was fragile and sensitive to environmental changes.

Age and climatic conditions, aggravated by water damage from the flooding of the Museum in 1972, had caused almost all of the paint to curl off the glass. The primary conservation effort was to affix these extremely brittle concave flakes to the flat glass panels. Every particle of paint was reattached, wherever possible, onto its original spot.

altar detail

The conservation efforts faced various obstacles. For instance, some of the glass panels were glued to the frame, making them difficult to remove. In addition, the use of heat in earlier restorations had caused paint to be baked onto the silver foil instead of to the glass.

The restoration process started with the analysis of the binding materials, pigments, metals, and the glass itself. This analysis led to an expert choice of materials for conservation that would not harm the original substance.

The frame of the altar is made from carved oak with an ebony veneer. The construction is simple, but finely detailed. The restoration team carefully cleaned and retouched the frame, allowing the worn condition to remain as a natural indication of the noticeable traces of time. 

The results of the restoration have exceeded all expectations. The information and insight that have been gained through the research of this artwork will be valuable for the comparison with and the treatment of other objects of this kind. The altar is now displayed in all its magnificent glory as one of the Museum’s permanent highlights.

Published on October 15, 2011