Annemieke Klijn and Judith Van Puyvelde
The stained-glass windows by Nicolas and Maastricht University
The States Hall (Statenzaal) of the former Government Building (Gouvernementsgebouw) in Maastricht is of special historical significance, not just in the context of the history of Limburg, but also in that of Maastricht University (UM). In this particular hall, the ideas for establishing a university in Maastricht were first developed: on 28 December 1965 the members of the Foundation for Higher Education in Limburg (Stichting Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs Limburg, SWOL) had their first meeting in this hall. As a political lobby, SWOL managed to convince the Dutch government to establish a university in Maastricht. In 1986, Maastricht University (still named State University Limburg at that point) purchased this ‘palace of fine arts’ for housing its Executive Board and the Faculty of Law. In 1998, when the UM Board moved to a nearby location, the Faculty of Law took over the entire building, which is regarded as one of the main works of Government Architect Gustav Cornelis Bremer (1880-1949). In this spotlight, we focus on the magnificent windows of the States Hall, which for this occasion were meticulously photographed in colour by Eric Bleize.
The former Government Building
The architecture of the Government Building, which opened in 1935, is rife with symbolism. For its tower, measuring 46.4 meters, Bremer probably found inspiration in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico. The tower was meant to stress the special relationship of the young, southern province of Limburg with the Dutch state. On the website of the Art and Heritage Commission more can be read about this attractive building by pressing the button ‘Gebouwen’.
Many artists from Limburg in fact made decorative contributions to the Government Building. One of them was Joep Nicolas (1897-1972), who came from a family in Roermond known for its stained glass craftmanship and who created six large stained glass windows ‘with great artistic sense and love for his region’. As Nicolas himself commented, in these windows he wanted to illustrate ‘the growth of Limburg as a cultural centre and political entity’. This is why States Hall was a highly appropriate site for the first meeting of SWOL: its primary mission after all was to improve the cultural, intellectual and social-economic climate of Limburg by attracting a state university.
Who was Joep Nicolas?
Before looking at the stained glass windows in more detail, it is useful to say more about the life and work of their maker. Joep Nicolas came from a family of stained-glass artists. In 1855 his grandfather Frans Nicolas (1826-1894) set up a stained glass workshop in Roermond (N.V. Atelier Glasschilderkunst Frans Nicolas en Zonen). It specialized in making and restoring stained glass windows, which were frequently applied in church buildings, but also in private and public buildings. Their works can be found in buildings in many countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, England and the United States. Atelier Nicolas was a family business for three generations. Initially Joep did not seem to want to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He studied philosophy and art history in Fribourg (Switzerland), but he soon quit. Next, he embarked on a study of law in Amsterdam, which he did not finish either. He felt more at home in this city’s State School for Applied Arts (Rijkskunstnijverheidsschool), where he enrolled in drawing courses. Eventually, Nicolas decided to pursue a career in his family’s vocation after all: the craft of stained glass.
He was keen on experimenting with new glass technologies, such as opaline and ‘vermurail’. Opaline is a thin, transparent milk glass. A ‘vermurail’ is a wall mosaic made from stained glass fragments. The various bits and pieces are stained on white milk glass or opaline glass, after which they are glued to a wall or wooden surface. While living in Amsterdam, Nicolas enjoyed being part of a large circle of artists and authors. Together with Charles Eyck (1897-1983) and Henri Jonas (1878-1944), he came to be known as proponent of the so-called ‘Limburg School’, which promoted Catholic views and ideas and was inclined to glorify Limburg and its history in a rather romantic fashion. The three of them developed into versatile artists: apart from making works of stained glass, they created drawings and paintings. During the interwar period they received frequent assignments to decorate religious and public buildings. The work of Nicolas was inspired by a conservative attitude towards Catholicism. This explains, perhaps, why the appreciation of his artistic approach decreased in the decades after the Second World War, marked as they were by growing secularisation.
The windows of States Hall
The windows Nicolas designed for States Hall glorify Limburg and its history. Nicolas himself wrote an explanation of the contents of his stained glass works. The first window shows the historical scene of the arrival of Servatius in Maastricht, while its lower section celebrates the founding of the church of Sint Odiliënberg around 750. The second window commemorates the bishops of Maastricht and the establishment of the diocese of Roermond under the dominion of the archdiocese of Utrecht. The third window depicts two historical scenes: Willibrord who receives Susteren as a gift from Plectrudis and the founding of Rolduc by Ailbertus of Antoing attentively looked on by three angels. The fourth window presents two historical scenes as well: the founding of Thorn by the noblewoman Hilsondis in 992 and, in the lower section, the early thirteenth-century founding of Roermond through a gift of Gerard III, Count of Guelders, to his mother Richardis of Bavaria, a German noblewoman from the House of Wittelsbach. Next, the fifth window shows Limburg’s coat of arms and how this province is composed of various duchies, counties and seigniories (or parts thereof), to which Nicolas added the arms of Maastricht and Thorn. Moreover, this window shows three other coats of arms which refer to the historical reasons why Limburg became a Dutch province: the arms of the 15 Dutch provinces of 1567, the French imperial coat of arms and that of Dutch King William I, who managed to re-unite the 17 provinces during his reign. On the bottom part, Joep Nicolas depicted the blazon of the current Kingdom of the Netherlands, to which he added the blazons of the seven provincial governors Limburg has had up to that day. The sixth window, finally, shows Norbert and, next to him, Waleran of Valkenburg as crusaders near Jerusalem; in the lower section Nicolas depicted a historical scene about the peace treaty of Venlo, which put Guelders into the hands of Charles V.
The windows were commissioned by the electricity company of the province of Limburg. On the second window Nicolas depicted Light, Power and Heat as allegorical figures, adding the following inscription: “These six windows were a gift to the Government Building by the Electricity Company of the Province of Limburg.” For this major assignment Nicolas was paid 2000 guilders, including the costs of materials and installation. The invitation to make the windows for States Hall also reflected recognition for his contributions of many years to the art of stained glass. In July 1935 he was appointed Companion of the Order of Orange-Nassau because of his ‘great love for his region’ and his ‘major artistic skill’ in making these windows.