CHICAGO — Mention Tiffany glass and most people will think of lamps with leaded shades. Or maybe the glorious stained glass windows, with landscapes and foliage, Tiffany Studios made for private residences and such public spaces as schools, libraries, department stores, and train terminals. These are the most coveted artifacts. But for the half century following the 1878 installation of his windows in New York’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s greatest creative efforts went to the production of stained glass for sacred spaces.
This period corresponds to a period of prolific church-building in America, as cities grew and parishioners multiplied; some 4,000 churches were under construction in the United States in 1888 alone. The demand for church windows fueled the greatest era of stained glass production since the Middle Ages, with lost techniques recovered and a plethora of innovations pioneered by Tiffany and his chief rival, John LaFarge. European church glass of the period featured painted figures applied onto the glass with brushwork and then fired like pottery, dulling the play of light. But Tiffany chose, for the most part, to paint with, rather than on, glass.
Opalescent colored glass gave his windows their brilliance, but it was merely one weapon in an arsenal that included glass with embedded inclusions, cut facets, beveling, pressed designs, and scrolling effects, as well as folded glass for the depiction of drapery. Mottled glass gave the impression of sunlight through leaves; striated glass looked like light dancing on water; double and triple plating added depth to color and ever-changing effects to the play of light. Molten glass was rippled and cooled to create an atmosphere of clouds. Gem-cut glass added luster, and the combining of colors within single pieces of glass reduced the need for leading, reserving it to render lines for the delineation of figures. The term “stained glass” hardly gets at the vast variety of techniques and range of effects achieved by Tiffany and his peers. It can almost be called sculpted light.
Eternal Light: The Sacred Stained-Glass Windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Driehaus Museum’s small but spectacular exhibition of Tiffany’s ecclesiastical glass, includes a room dedicated to showcasing the techniques used by Tiffany Studios. Visitors passing the vitrines and wall displays can gorge themselves on the ample charms of glass that has been feathered, streaked, mottled, and oxidized. Few materials can charm as these do. Sketches and templates for the stained glass emphasize the labor of production — labor that required an army of designers, craftsmen, and, frequently, craftswomen. Tiffany designed glass himself, and always took a hands-on approach to supervising the process of creation, but others assumed roles of equal importance. The Anglo-Irish Frederick Wilson, for example, was Tiffany Studios’ primary ecclesiastical designer during the period covered here. Figurative groupings and ascending angels — such as those in “Ecclesiastical Angels (Angels of Peace and Mercy)” (1905) — are among his strongest contributions. Agnes Northrop, who spent some 50 years in Tiffany’s employ, was one of the greatest talents at his studios. Her floral and other vegetation motifs, such as those in “Lilies and Palms, Underhill Memorial Window” (after 1895), were derived from her nature photography and sketching tours, and are so distinctive they became central to the signature Tiffany style.
“King Solomon” (c. 1912–23), a Frederick Wilson-designed window, showcases Wilson’s compositional ability and the astonishing skill of Tiffany’s workers. Solomon stands near a temple, his left hand clutching a staff, his right raised in an oratorical gesture. His face and hands are painted in enamels in the style of European stained glass, but the real energy is all around them: in the rippled blue and white glass depicting the sky, in the mottled greens of a palm’s fronds, in the pressed glass jewel forms adorning Solomon’s collar, and, most of all, in the purple folded glass drapery of his robes. The layered panes of glass that compose the drapery — as many as six deep in places — are so rich in color that they convey the power purple had when it was reserved exclusively for royalty and rarely seen.
It is easy to lose oneself in technique, as well as the pure aesthetic delight of light pouring through glass. But this is sacred art, devotional as well as aesthetic in nature. The iconography is of angelic and Biblical figures, and many windows are in the narrow, pointed Gothic shapes common to churches of the period. One large triptych, “Christ and the Apostles” (ca. 1890), evokes the affirmative religious impulses typical of Tiffany’s sacred windows. The scene is the garden of Gethsemane, where Judas Iscariot is soon to kiss Christ, identifying him for arrest and crucifixion. But there are only 11 apostles present in Frederick Wilson’s design; Judas is notably absent from the cluster of figures — their robes a spectrum of colors ranging from blue on the left to deep red on the right — gathered around a central Christ, his face enigmatic rather than melancholy, as it is in so many representations. The background — thick foliage to the sides, hills with open sky beyond — is pure beauty, without a hint of the sadness to come.
In the windows designed by Agnes Northrop, landscape takes precedence over figures, and spirituality is expressed more as Romantic nature worship than overtly Christian iconography. “Poppies and Passion Flowers, Rapelye Memorial Window” (ca. 1915), for example, could be an image out of Wordsworth’s more ecstatic poetry. The window’s arc of flowers framing a landscape of hills, stretching out in a gesture toward nature’s vast sublimity, hints at eternity without invoking saints or angels.
A room dedicated to artifacts from Tiffany’s exhibit at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition includes devotional objects such as a gilt brass, glass, a jeweled altar cross, and a 12-armed bronze candelabrum adorned with glass cabochons. A video display nearby documents the fate of that dazzling exhibit, which also included chandeliers and an altar. It is a sad tale of neglect, decay, and dispersal.
Eternal Light brings together fewer than a dozen windows, and a small number of other artifacts. But in telling the tale of the work’s production, foregrounding its religious function, and noting the vital importance of preservation efforts, it presents the whole ecosystem surrounding and supporting the existence of these objects of luminous beauty.
Eternal Light: The Sacred Stained-Glass Windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany continues at The Richard H. Driehaus Museum (40 East Erie Street, Chicago, Illinois) through March 8.