Looking through the stained glass of Kingston's history

The Agnes hosts historic stained glass window dating back to Kingston's time as Canada’s first capital city

A close-up of the window; its painted bronze leaves and stained blue background.
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The Agnes Etherington Art Centre has a new piece in its collection that combines art, history and politics into a story of Kingston’s beginnings.

A historical stained glass window, brought to the Agnes in collaboration with the City of Kingston, marks Kingston’s 175th anniversary of becoming the first capital of the United Province of Canada. It’s one of the only remaining original artifacts from Canada’s first Parliament.

The window used to hang in Kingston General Hospital when it was newly built, but it isn’t known exactly where in the building it was – given the lack of paintings and drawings from the time. However, it does represent the beginnings of the old Parliament, according to Alicia Boutilier, curator of Canadian Historical Art at the Agnes.

“When it was decided that upper and lower Canada would become the province of Canada in 1841, [Parliament] decided that Kingston would be the first capital and they scrambled for a building because there wasn’t really anything very appropriate, and there was this brand new hospital building so they quickly repurposed it,” Boutilier said.

According to Boutilier, at the time, Kingston General Hospital was underfunded, preventing it from functioning as a full-fledged hospital, but it was the perfect location for the new Parliament to set up in.

When Parliament moved to Montreal, many things from the Kingston buildings were moved, including two full libraries and of course, the window. However, the window is one of the only remaining artifacts of that period that remains after the Montreal Parliament buildings were set on fire by loyalist rioters in 1849.

The window is interesting from more than just a historical aspect, Boutilier said.

“In terms of Canadian historical art, it’s so nice to shake things up a bit, because you have your paintings, but it’s so nice to consider other objects as objects of beauty, objects that are more in an everyday kind of environment that everybody will see, and it’s nice to bring it into the gallery for that purpose.”

City curator Paul Robertson heard about the opportunity to bring the stained glass window to Kingston from the Canadian Museum of History. Having limited options to place the window, Robertson got in touch with Boutilier.

“[Paul Robertson] asked if we could show [the window] here and I thought, this is a fantastic idea,” Boutilier said.

The window ties in well with Art Scenes Kingston: 1840s/1940s/1970s, an exhibit also curated by Boutilier.

“This was another reason why it seemed to be a good fit to have [the window] on here during the summer — this is an exhibition that is in three galleries and it covers three different decades in Kingston’s cultural history; three moments where a variety of factors came together to make it an exciting artistic scene," the curator said.

For me, the window wasn’t anything special at first glance, but its history made me take a closer look. Though the piece is called a stained glass window, it’s also painted. The bronze leaves were painted on to the blue glass background. It is unassuming at first glance, but the longer you look, the more details emerge. 

The story of this window and its journey is one that encompasses all of the drama and politics of Canada’s early years. For that alone, it’s well worth checking out before it leaves the Agnes on August 28. Art Scenes Kingston: 1840s/1940s/1970s runs until August 7.

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