Seven Rediscovered Tiffany Windows

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) has been a crowd-pleaser for decades (except for the period following his death as a bankrupt until the 1950s). Popularly he is best known for his leaded glass or stained glass lamps, first marketed in 1899. But his stained-glass windows were the big money makers for the Tiffany Glass Company, incorporated in 1885, and renamed as Tiffany Studios in1902.

At the beginning of the 20th century in Greater Cincinnati, numerous affluent churches commissioned the then highly fashionable Tiffany windows. “In Company with Angels: Seven Rediscovered Tiffany Windows,” at the Taft Museum of Art through September 11, 2011, presents windows made for the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem, a 1903 Gothic revival-style church designed by local architects A. O. Elzner and George M. Anderson.

Located at Oak Street and Winslow Avenue, the church was demolished in 1964 to make way for I-71. After having had to purchase the windows from the city, the congregation stored them in garages and basements in Cincinnati. In 1991 they were sold to a Swedenborgian retreat center near Philadelphia. There they spent the next decade languishing in a barn until they were discovered by the pastor and ultimately restored.

The traveling exhibition, organized by the nonprofit In Company with Angels, Inc., to fund the windows’ preservation, has been augmented here with furniture and silver from the church, putting the windows into a physical context.

A mural-sized sepia-toned photograph of the 8’-tall lancet windows in situ confronts you as you enter the exhibition, preparing you for what is to come. In the second gallery, the church’s Gothic-revival altar, lectern, throne chairs, and baptismal fount, made by master wood carver Henry L. Fry (naturalized American, 1807-1895), are presented. These pieces are significant on their own. Fry and his son William Henry (1830-1929) helped make Cincinnati a center for the American Arts and Crafts Movement.

The silver ewer, two chalices, and two saucers were made by prominent Cincinnati silversmiths. The city did not lack for artistic talent.

A marble bust of Emanuel Swedenborg (Sweden, 1688-1772), the scientist and mystic whose teachings became the basis for the Swedenborgian Church, adds further context. It was carved by Preston Powers (American, 1843-1931), son of the sculptor Hiram Powers (American, 1805-1873) who grew up and trained in Cincinnati.

A basic tenet of the Swedenborgian faith is that there is “a loving God who sets human beings on a path to spiritual perfection. All have the ability to become angels, spirits of deceased human beings who have led good lives and continue to grow after death. After death and a period of soul-searching, each spirit chooses his or her own heaven or hell. Even the sinful can become angels if they admit their errors and embrace new truths revealed in the afterlife.” Swedenborg believed that “inwardly, a person is in company with angels, though unaware.”

This information comes from the extensive didactic materials that the Taft always provides to guide viewers. A video documenting the restoration of the windows plays outside the exhibition galleries.

The Taft also helpfully gives gallery-goers a quick primer for stained glass techniques. Using a full-sized drawing or cartoon as a template, colored glasses are cut into small pieces and put together like a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are then joined with heated lead strips, which outline the individual pieces. These lead lines are not merely functional, but also create strong graphic elements. For details, such as facial features, the artisan covers the glass piece with black enamel and then scratches through it. Other colors can be added, and the piece fired for each color, fusing the enamel to the glass.

Tiffany, son of the founder of Tiffany and Company Charles Lewis Tiffany, was trained as a painter, but became fascinated with glass. He is credited with inventing more than 5,000 glass colors, textures, and patterns. In the exhibition, there are samples of the drapery, ripple, fracture, and mottled glasses used in these windows as well as cast glass “gems” and chunks of glass that added a dimensional element to the windows.

This all prepares you to enter the darkened gallery with the luminous backlit windows. It immediately reminded me of the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Both Rothko’s paintings and Tiffany’s windows were intended to be spiritual experiences, and both are about light, the Rothkos lit from within and the transmitted light of the Tiffany windows.

Since the Gothic era, which began with the construction (1140-1144) of St. Denis near Paris, light has symbolized the divine. Stained glass windows were the vehicle for that message.

In each of the Church of the New Jerusalem windows, an angel symbolizes one of seven early Christian churches in Asia Minor. Verses from Revelations praise each church for its strengths, but also warn of faults to overcome. If successful, God bestows a gift. Swedenborgians also saw angels as representing seven challenges in a person’s individual growth.

Each window is dedicated to a single angel who stands stolidly on a block with the name of the church and the verse associated with it. A star, representing the union of love and wisdom, is placed at the apex of each. Radiating light, they symbolize guides through darkness.

Each angel varies in pose and dress, and, of course, the attributes that are God’s gift for surmounting the challenges. For example, in “Smyrna” the angel carries a crown, mentioned in the verse: “Be thou faithful until death, and I will give thee the crown of life,” Rev. 11:30. To brighten the crown, its yellow glass was wrapped with thin copper foil and chunks of glass were set like jewels.

Although each angel was intended to represent a specific church, they share a strong physical kinship. Their faces recall the British Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painter Edward Burne-Jones (English, 1833 –1898) with their bee-stung lips, deep-set eyes, broad noses, and androgynous appearance. In the Tiffany windows only the angels’ dress gives away their gender.

Burne-Jones was associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement as were Tiffany and his designers. The English artist also heralded the Aesthetic Movement, which, again, Tiffany et al would have been aware of. Interestingly the British painter helped revive the art of stained glass in England.

One curious thing about the composition of these windows is that, although they were commissioned for the church, the figures are tightly confined. Their wings are clipped at their broadest point by the edge of the window.

Gothic stained glass windows are sometimes called “Bibles for the poor,” meaning they were designed for the illiterate. Presumably, although they couldn’t read, they knew scripture and understood the symbolism used. Of course, they needed to be able to see the details, a caveat often not addressed in discussing stained glass windows.

From the vintage photograph, taken probably from midway in the sanctuary, it is impossible to read the verse or discern the symbol of God’s gift, i.e., the crown for Smyrna. Viewers of the exhibition have a better chance of deciphering the precise meanings of these windows. But even so, the Church of the Jerusalem worshipers would have gotten the message.

-Karen S. Chambers

7 Responses

    1. Ms. Robinson,

      From what information I was able to locate, it appears that they will be in Reno, Nevada next February. It does appear that they are willing to book other locations and there is contact information on their website. Hope this helps.

      Thanks for reading,

      David Kirley
      Publisher, ÆQAI

  1. Went to see the windows at the Nevada Museum of Art yesterday. I was speechless. They are radiant and so skillfully made that they look lifelike. Definitely worth a drive to see them.

  2. I saw these in the Osh Gosh Museum just before the exhibit closed. They are exquisite and beautifully presented. Would be terrific to have them on display in Southern California.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *