There is an angel in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery that walks in ethereal beauty. Formed from glass in a mosaic by Tiffany Studios, she is radiant against the branches of a dogwood tree and a mountainous landscape, her incredible wings push back a receding darkness. After over a century of exposure to the elements, however, pieces of the scene are missing, so much so you might not notice that she’s grasping the hand of a woman.
“The use of iridescent glass in Tiffany mosaics is striking — and a unique element to Tiffany mosaics rather than their famous windows — but it is especially symbolic in this work because the iridescent glass is only used on the angel and in areas of the composition that are the heavenly realm into which the soul is being led,” Courtney Magill, lab manager for the Architectural Conservation Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, told Hyperallergic. “The glass used for the surrounding darkness, as well as the land on which they are standing, is not iridized.”
Magill is working on the ongoing conservation and restoration of the 1914 mosaic on the Swan Memorial, erected by Helen M. Wallace Swan for her late husband. Woodlawn Cemetery is one of New York City’s most incredible open-air cultural sites, with work by some of the 19th and 20th century’s great artists, such as a monument by Ukrainian Cubist Alexander Archipenko, or more contemporary work by Patricia Cronin. To upkeep this art, the Woodlawn Conservancy has numerous preservation initiatives, like its Preservation Training Program focused on at-risk youth ages 18 to 24, who learn about stone masonry in historic preservation.
The cemetery is especially rich in works from Tiffany Studios, founded by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including stained glass mausoleum windows. (The value of these made the site a target back in the 1990s, when windows at Woodlawn and other area cemeteries were hit by a ring of grave robbers. The plot involved Tiffany expert J. Alastair Duncan, who was convicted of buying and selling a stolen stained glass window from Salem Fields Cemetery.)
Magill noted that, according to Woodlawn’s archives at Columbia University’s Avery Library, some of the 1,000 mosaic pieces were already falling off the granite monument within its first three years. Remains of subsequent repairs can be seen in layers of mortar from reattaching glass. As the fragments of precious glass continued to fall off, some were collected by Woodlawn’s staff, others just vanished. About 275 pieces are now missing, and many of those that remain have suffered glass corrosion.
“Some of those [lost] pieces are in the possession of the University of Pennsylvania for the moment for study, and will eventually be reinstalled,” Magill explained. “But the rest are sadly missing, and our efforts for restoration include color matching and replacing the missing pieces in kind with hand-cut pieces taken from collections of art glass recovered from Tiffany Studios after its closure in the 1930s.”
The researchers are also still attempting to unravel why Swan chose this visual for her husband’s memorial. It’s believed to be adapted from a Pre-Raphaelite painting called “The Great Awakening” by Herbert Gustave Schmalz, where another angel is leading a woman to heaven. In 1917, Tiffany completed a stained glass window with the same composition, which is now at the Driehaus Museum in Chicago. However, it doesn’t have that iridescent quality of the Woodlawn mosaic, which makes the escorting angel so luminous against the scene of glass.