The Czech Republic is known for its skilled glassmakers, getting commissions for lighting installations and glass artworks from palaces, luxury hotels and residences the world over. However this year the studio of Czech glassmaker Zdeněk Lhotský concluded work on a truly unique project – a four-tonne glass case that will serve as a sarcophagus for Denmark’s Queen Margarethe II.
The task of designing a sarcophagus for the Danish royal went to Bjorn Norgaard, known for his avant-garde creations, among others a tapestry tracing the history of Denmark that now graces the walls of the country’s Parliament. And once again the artist designed something exceptional – a futuristic-looking glass case with an inner glass bubble - space for two life-sized royal figures –Queen Margarthe and her consort, Prince Henrik.
The glass case stands on three pillars of stone, marble, granite and basalt taken –symbolically – from Greenland, the Faeroes, and Jutland. The glass case is supported by six silver elephant heads made in Italy and is decorated with gold-plated bronze heraldic symbols that are linked to the life of the Danish queen and her late husband.
The creation of the four tonne glass case presented such a challenge that Norgaard negotiated for several years in vain with glassworks in Japan, China and the United States before finding someone willing to try to realize the project. The glass studio of Zdeněk Lhotský agreed to take on the challenge and spent close to seven years working on the glass case which was installed in the crypt of the Roskilde Cathedral in April of this year.
In an interview for Czech Radio the artist said this commission was a milestone in his work that gave him and his team many sleepless nights, but also great pride and satisfaction.
Altogether 14 people took part in the production of the glass capsule that was made of six separate pieces, each weighing 900 kilos of which around 200 get cut off. After melting each piece had to stay in the furnace for three and a half months in order to cool down very slowly.
When, after close to seven years, the glass case was completed the whole team held their breath as the pieces were assembled in Roskilde Cathedral. Zdeněk Lhotský:
“It was an indescribable feeling – you have a glass pane that took years to produce and perfect and on top of that you place another plane that weights 700 kilograms –you just have to pray that the structural designer who counted this knew what he was doing. And then on top of that you place the gold-plated bronze heraldic symbols - which adds another 200 kilos –like four bags of cement – and it mustn’t crack under the strain. But it worked –and so far we have had no reports of any problems.”
The process of cooling the glass after it is moulded is crucial to its strength – so that it will not crack under the weight of hundreds of kilograms. Since there was no precedent to go by Lhotský, says the team produced and destroyed a small model to make sure they knew how the glass would react in the respective conditions.
“When the first delivery of glass came we produced a 1:5 model. We needed to see how the glass would behave in the form – make sure that it didn’t do anything that would cause problems with the large case. After the test, it was destroyed. That was one moment when I wondered if we were quite sane (laughs).”
Glass-maker Robert Hušek says he spent two years of his life working on the glass case.
“We had to have a lot of faith in our abilities. This hall was built exclusively for work on the sarcophagus and I more or less spent two years closeted in there. Until the last piece was out of the furnace there was no guarantee it would all click. That was the hardest part.”
When all the pieces were out – and perfect – there were other concerns. Zdeněk Lhotský again:
“When we had all the pieces out of the furnace we started engraving. But the fear was still there – I would think what if someone breaks in and walks over it or smashes it with a hammer or something. You never know. So we didn’t have a moment’s peace until it was actually assembled at Roskilde Cathedral and there the tension was highest because everything was at stake – what we had tried in simulated experiments at the studio had to work on a big scale with the real sarcophagus –it all had to fall into place.”
It did and Queen Margarethe was admiring of the end result, expressing her thanks in person over a glass of champagne with the team. Prince Henrik who died in February of this year made it clear that he did not want to be buried in the crypt at Roskilde, and asked for his ashes to be scattered in the sea and in the gardens of Fredensborg Castle. Although Queen Margarethe will now be buried alone at Roskilde that will not change anything about the sarcophagus or the two figures represented on it. The space inside the glass case will remain empty since the queen will be buried under the floor.
The royal sarcophagus has been installed at Roskilde, the burial place of close to 40 Danish monarchs, and is now covered up. It will not be displayed to the public until after the queen’s death.