The Etched Windows in Thorvaldsens Museum

  • Gregory Bryan Kobett,, 1998
  • This is a re-publication of the article:

    Gregory Bryan Kobett: ‘The Etched Windows in Thorvaldsens Museum’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 1998, p. 136-147.

    For a presentation of the article in its original appearance in Danish, please see this facsimile scan.


Thorvaldsen was buried in a paradise-like garden. From the moment one enters Thorvaldsen’s Museum it is like stepping into a garden of the senses. Behind the walls lies the silent courtyard, an oasis of tranquillity in the heart of a throbbing metropolis. A scenery of plants create an illusion of luxuriant growth where tall palms sway towards Kristussalens immense doors, and thin oak and bay trees strive to reach the heavens. Here peace is supreme. The courtyard is not planted in a traditional sense. On the contrary, Bindesbøll created a harmonious illusion of a lush, paradise-like garden by applying frescos to the walls of the courtyard. To assure the tomb received the peace and reverence Thorvaldsen’s grave deserved, the windows in the courtyard doors were etched with clear patterns of symbolic plants: luxuriant lilies in full bloom, bay tree branches, oak branches and elegant palm leaves.

Bindesbøll worked with the elements of natural light. The etched windows changed the quality of light entering the museum. Sharp sunlight was transformed to filtered light as it entered the corridor creating a dream-like mood of diffuse light and shade. As Bindesbøll intended a kind of atelier light to illuminate the corridor the admission of unfiltered sunlight was restricted to the upper windows.

Four patterns were used to decorate the 14 door openings which dominate the courtyard’s long sides: lilly, palm leaves, bay and oak branches. The cross-corridor consists of three door openings of which the doors in the center opening seem to have always had clear glass without etched patterns. A separate pattern was drawn specifically for the immense doors of the Kristussalen. Two profuse lilly stalks grace the doors and two sun-like patterns were etched in the windows over the doors. When the Museum opened the theatrical effect on the ground floor was dramatic. Thorvaldsen’s grave could not be clearly seen from either the two long corridors or from the Kristussal. The central doors in the cross-corridor seems to have had the function of the opening in a stage curtain. This opening, centered on the building’s axis, provided the only unobstructed view where the visitor could contemplate the inner courtyard’s oasis atmosphere. When the etched panels were replaced with clear glass the courtyard became a kind of exhibition cabinet: a glass box displaying the grave. The corridor, too, has changed. Gone are the soft atelier lighting, the play of light across the mosaic floor and the mysteriousness of the translucent barrier allowing only a fragmented view of Thorvaldsen’s grave.

A number of factors contributed to the removal of the etched windows from Thorvaldsen’s Museum. The most important perhaps was that the etching process weakened the 2 mm thin glass panes which could shatter if the doors slamed shut. Broken windows were replaced with sand-blasted panels, sometimes without patterns, thereby breaking Bindesbøll’s strict requirement of ‘form, decoration and symbol’.

In 1994 I was given an opportunity to examine the pattern drawings and remaining pieces of the original etched glass panels. New drawings were prepared using the old drawings as an underlay. Due to environmental safety requirements regarding chemical etching the window panels were sandblasted. By sandblasting the pattern, leaving the window clear, a technique also used in the 1800’s, I was able to demonstrate an alternative method of using the original ornamentation. The three intact etched window panels were finally installed to show the museums original design.

Last updated 11.05.2017