Monday, January 14, 2013

Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion

Tiffany Studios, Baptismal Font
Created for Christ Church (Episcopal), Pomfret, Connecticut

Among the exhibitions that I had planned to visit this autumn was the special exhibition of glass and church furnishings designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and his assistants in the Tiffany Studios at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) near Lincoln Center.1 Unfortunately, this was one of the worst autumn seasons I’ve ever experienced. So, it wasn’t till the second week in January that I managed to get there. The show runs until January 20 so, for those of you in the New York area, there is still some time to get to see it. And it is highly recommended.

Tiffany Studios, Base of Baptismal Font
Created for Christ Church (Episcopal) of Pomfret, CT
Showing the beautiful mosaic work derived from the
"Cosmati" work typical of medieval Rome.

The exhibition chronicles the work done by the Tiffany Studios for churches and synagogues from the 1890s through the 1930s. During that time Tiffany Studios designed every kind of furnishing for these religious institutions: windows, mosaics, baptismal fonts, lighting fixtures, pulpits, altar furnishings, vestments, even entire buildings. While some commissions were for Catholic churches and some were Jewish synagogues, the vast majority were for churches of various Protestant denominations. However, stylistically there is little differentiation between all these different commissions. The styles favored by Tiffany and his staff drew heavily on the Byzantine tradition and medieval, especially early medieval art, which was acceptable to all three religions.

There are 83 objects in the show. Some provide documentation for the way in which clients were informed about the options available to them. There are printed materials, sample mosaics, small sketches and full scale cartoons. Among these is the sample column presumably prepared to illustrate the effect of the full scale work done for St. Michael’s Episcopal Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, just two blocks from my childhood home.
Tiffany Studios, Gloria in Excelsis mosaic
American, c, 1920
New York, NY,  St. Michael's Church (Episcopal), Chapel of the Angels

Containing works of the Tiffany Studio, executed and installed between 1895 and 1922, the interior of St. Michael’s is a shining jewel among church interiors and one of the most complete Tiffany church interiors still extant.
Tiffany Studios, Interior of St. Michael's Church (Episcopal)
American, 1895-1922
St. Michael's Church (Episcopal), New York, NY
The most spectacular of the mosaic samples in the show is a full sized wall mosaic prepared by Tiffany for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It features images of Saints John Chrysostom, Augustine and Ambrose, three of the acknowledged Fathers of the Church.
Joseph Lauber, Tiffany Studios, Fathers of the Church mosaic
American, ca. 1892
Long Island City, NY, Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass

This work stood at the entrance to the famous chapel which Tiffany Studios built at the Columbian Exposition to demonstrate their ecclesiastical offerings. Cleverly, Tiffany gave visitors to the Columbian Exposition, not just small samples or drawings but full scale settings of his work. The chapel was so impressive that there are records of confusion among the public about exactly what it was. Gentlemen were reported to remove their hats on entering, just as if they were entering a real church.
Tiffany Studios, Chapel
Designed for World's Columbian Exposition Chicago
American, 1893
Winter Park, FL
Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
Following the close of the Exposition Tiffany brought the chapel to his Long Island estate and reinstalled it on the grounds. It has recently been reconstructed at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida. The large mosaic in the MOBIA exhibition is currently part of the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass which is exhibited on a rotating schedule at the Queens Museum of Art.3

Tiffany’s shrewd display at the Columbian Exposition resulted in numerous commissions from churches in the Chicago area, as is evidenced by the number of items in the current exhibition that hail from the Chicago area.

Tiffany Studios (attributed to Edward P. Sperry)
Lydia Entertaining Christ and the Apostles
(actually Lydia Entertaining St. Paul and His Disciples)
Griffin Memorial Window for
Centennial Baptist Church, Chicago, IL
American, before 1910
Long Island City, NY,  Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass
Among them is one of the two full-scale stained glass windows that dominate the exhibition area. This is the window originally called Lydia Entertaining Christ and the Apostles. Also known as the Griffin Memorial window, it was commissioned for the Centennial Baptist Church in Chicago, where it was installed in 1910. The exhibition notes that, although this is the original title, it is not the actual subject. The actual subject is Lydia Meeting St. Paul and His Disciples, since Lydia (who never met Christ) appears, not in the Gospels, but in the Acts of the Apostles.4

Tiffany Studios, Lydia Entertaining
This window is a splendid example of what was, for me at least, one of the real revelations of this show. In designing his windows, Tiffany and his staff departed from traditional stained glass design by depending on the internal patterns in opalescent glass to create such three-dimensional effects as garment folds. In the past, these details had been created by the use of special paints that were applied to the colored glass and then fired so as to bind with the glass. Instead, Tiffany Studios restricted the use of paints to the details of faces, hands and feet. As a close up of Lydia’s robe shows the opalescent glass patterning could be quite effective in creating dimension.
But, in spite of his success in the Chicago area, the major portion of Tiffany’s commissioned came from the northeast and from the New York area in particular. This is demonstrated by the large number of items that come from churches in this region.

There are glass designs, such as the beautiful cartoon for a Te Deum window, planned for a church in Germantown, PA, but never executed.

Tiffany Studios, Design for "Te Deum" Harrison Memorial Window
Planned for First Presbyterian Church of Germantown, PA
American, ca. 1900
Now in Doros Collection

Tiffany Studios, Sir Galahad
Cryder Memorial Window
American, before 1910
Southampton, NY,  St. Andrew's Dune Church

There are three windows from the famous St. Andrew’s Dune Church in Southampton, NY of which one, the Sir Galahad window, was contributed by the parents of a young man who died at age 18.  It is a nostalgic, somewhat wistful image, deriving from Pre-Raphaelite art, that makes visible the feelings of loss experienced by the donors.

And there are two cases of spectacular designs, some proposed and executed, some never completed, for both Catholic and Protestant churches in Brooklyn.

Tiffany Studios, Design for Cope
For St. Augustine's Catholic Church, Brooklyn, NY
American, ca. 1890-1915
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Among these are: a design for a cope (vestment) for St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Brooklyn;

Tiffany Studios, Altar Cross
American, ca. 1900
Brooklyn, NY

both the design drawings and the beautiful finished altar cross, decorated with turquoise, for an Episcopal church in Brooklyn;

Tiffany Studios, Altar Furnishings
American, c. 1916
Brooklyn, Christ Church Episcopal, Cobble Hill
and an entire set of altar furnishings from Christ Church (Episcopal) in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Tiffany Studios, The Soldier of the Lord
American, ca.  1900
Chicago, Collection of Richard H. Driehaus
Among my personal favorites are two windows, one from Chicago and one from Waterville, New York. The small Chicago window The Soldier of the Lord, from about 1900, shows how Tiffany made use of the properties of opalescent glass to create the luminescent armor of the kneeling figure.
Tiffany Studios, St. Michael
American, After 1895
New York, St. Michael's Church (Episcopal)

The figure is very reminiscent of the central figure of the Archangel Michael from The Victory of St. Michael and His Angels, which fills the chancel of the Episcopal Church of St. Michael in New York mentioned above.

Tiffany Studios (attributed to Frederick Wilson)
The Righteous Shall Receive a Crown of Glory
Brainard Memorial Window for Methodist Church
Waterville, NY
Corning, NY, Corning Museum of Glass

The full scale window, called The Righteous Shall Receive a Crown of Glory (also known as the Brainard Memorial Window), was done for the Methodist Church of Waterville, NY. It is the largest window in the show and a glorious example of the full scale Tiffany figural window and is attributed to Tiffany designer, Frederick Wilson.
Tiffany Studios, The Righteous Shall Receive a Crown of Glory
It is a pity that there were no full-scale examples of landscape windows in the show. These windows, probably among Tiffany’s most famous, are represented, however, by a number of drawings. All these are attributed to Tiffany designer, Agnes Northrup.  There are two smaller landscape windows and a larger, though not entirely full-scale vegetation themed window, however.  These give a good idea of what the full-scale windows look like.  New Yorkers do have easy access to some of these windows, as the Metropolitan Museum has two on display in the American Wing.

Tiffany Studios, Electrolier
American, ca. 1900
Among the most interesting examples of “minor arts” in the show are two “electroliers”. These show how Tiffany confronted the spread of electric lighting to church interiors. As the exhibition wall cards note, early electric lights were extremely bright and somewhat harsh (making sense of comments by the Dowager Countess of Grantham in the first episode of Downton Abbey). This harshness created difficulties for designers. Tiffany Studios handled this by creating hanging lighting fixtures in which the inner core of bulbs was surrounded by designs of colored glass and ironwork, intended to break up and soften the effect of harsh electric light.

The entire exhibition is a fine summation of a particular moment in American ecclesiastical design. In spite of the somewhat sentimental facial expressions of figures, commented on by some observers, 5 the items on display remind us of what can be achieved when a group of talented artists, guided by a definite vision, collaborate on creating special works.
Reflection of the window
 "The Righteous Shall Receive a Crown of Glory"
1. Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion at the Museum of Biblical Art, New York  Sadly, this very interesting museum closed in 2015 when the  American Bible Society, which had provided a low rent space, moved to Philadelphia.  The museum was unable to find suitable, affordable space in which to continue operations.

2. St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Amsterdam Avenue at 99th Street, New York, NY 10025. Their website is

3. Queens Museum of Art in Flushing Meadow/Corona Park

4. Exhibition Guide to Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion, Museum of Biblical Art, New York, 2012.

5. Various reviews of the exhibition have been published, among them are:

New York Times

New York Daily News This article includes a handy listing of buildings in the New York area that include Tiffany windows.

Wall Street Journal

Archdiocese of New York, Handing on the Faith blog