Tiffany in a new light – June 2013


If you’ve never walked into St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 58 3rd Street, Troy, then you have been missing one of the most breathtaking displays of stained glass in the United States right here in our backyard.  For a major renovation in 1893, the church hired Louis Comfort Tiffany, the famed American designer of the popular Tiffany lamps.  A recent conference – Tiffany in a New Light –  held at the church, offered an in-depth study of Tiffany stained glass and interior design at St. Paul’s and American stained glass traditions.  A packed sanctuary heard enlightening talks given by historian Tony Anadio, conservator Julie Sloan, architectural historian Ned Pratt, and keynote speaker Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen who is Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Curator of American Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  The conference was hosted by The Friends of St. Paul and sponsored by St Paul’s Church, Women of St. Paul’s, the Rensselaer Country Historical Society, and Hudson Mohawk Industrial, all of whom are committed to maintaining this historic treasure.

First chartered in 1804, St. Paul’s moved to its present location in 1827.  The building was a modeled after the Gothic revival style Trinity Church, New Haven.  By 1890 St. Paul’s was suffering from severe structural problems and its walls were in danger of collapsing.  St. Paul’s minister, Dr. Edgar Enos, used the necessary repairs as an opportunity to completely remodel and update the interior.  Having already had the mosaic panels of the reredos on the east wall installed by Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in 1891, the church contracted Tiffany again in 1892 for this major project.  Much of the project was subsidized by the ongoing support of wealthy Gilded Age Troy families, such as the Warrens.  According to Ned Pratt’s research, St. Paul’s is one of only four churches in existence whose interiors were completely designed by Tiffany and are still intact. (The other three are in Auburn, NY, Boston, and Bath, NY.) The Tiffany project at St Paul’s is one of the most well-documented.  Pratt has collected before and after photographs, receipts for many items, and contracts written for local workers.  This is remarkable because Tiffany Glass did not keep meticulous records until 1910, and when the company closed in 1935 most of those were destroyed. 

The contemporary Gothic revival style informed both the initial design of St. Paul’s and its Tiffany remodel.  As Tony Anadio pointed out, against a backdrop of rapid urbanization and industrialization in the 19th century, many architects and patrons turned nostalgically to the Gothic style because of its association with timeless traditions and spiritual transcendence.  Even modern engineering wonders were modeled after the older era. (Think, for example, of the Gothic arches of the Roebling Brother’s Brooklyn Bridge.)  Of course, what first comes to mind when thinking of Gothic architecture—even before pointed arches, flying buttresses and rib vaulting— is stained glass and its ability to transform interior spaces with an atmosphere of lux nova or “new light.  The Gothic revival therefore inaugurated a new vogue for stained glass in the United States. 

Julie Sloan note that by the turn of the century, consumption of stained glass in the US exceeded that of the middle ages; American tenements, mansions, churches, and courthouses were all decorated with the colorful medium.  Earlier in the 19th century, this new demand required glass and artisans imported from Europe.  However, in the 1880s and 1890s, a new era of domestic production was launched by Louis Comfort Tiffany and his industry rival, John LaFarge. 

The Tiffany windows in St. Paul’s are composed of wondrously translucent opalescent glass.  First patented by LaFarge in 1880, opalescent glass—or “American glass” as it was simply known in the international community—is unlike its European counterpart, antique glass, which is assembled in a single transparent layer upon which details are painted, such as faces and folds in drapery.  In what Sloan has named the High Opalescent style, American artists avoided painting on the glass unless absolutely necessary.  Tiffany, for instance, discovered a way to create drapery effects by actually folding and layering sheets of semi-molten glass like real drapery.  This “drapery glass” can be seen in many of St. Paul’s windows, such as The Annunciation on the north wall.  St. Paul’s is an ideal site for studying the differences between American and antique glass; while the majority of the windows are by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company, there are two windows in the traditional European style, which were spared during the remodel, that had been created by the English firm Cox and Sons.  The single layer of glass that composes Cox’s The Infant Jesus Visited by John the Baptist and His Mother, Elizabeth (1888) on the south wall, for instance, brings a unity to the window’s surface and allows light to enter with more or less uniform intensity.  The Tiffany windows, by contrast, exhibit dramatic lighting effects.  In The Pilgrim Window on the south wall (installed 1899), Christ’s head and white halo shine like a bright full moon in the middle of a composition that is otherwise darkened by the multiple panes of cool and murky glass.  Nevertheless, despite its spectacular effects and popularity, American opalescent glass still had its critics, such as Ralph Adams Cram, architect of the Princeton University Chapel (1924-1928), who always preferred the 13th century French style.

However, such critics could not prevent Louis Comfort Tiffany from becoming, in the words of Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, “America’s premier tastemaker.”  The son of Charles Lewis Tiffany (jeweler and founder of Tiffany & Co., which is and was distinct from Louis Comfort’s studios), Louis Comfort who was trained as a painter, became interested in decorative arts after several travels abroad.  In the 1870s, he designed an apartment interior for himself and his family in Manhattan including his first stained glass work. Completely abstract—years before painter Wassily Kandinsky’s modern art breakthrough—Tiffany’s experiment was made of crown glass and confetti glass.  Soon after, he was designing interiors for his affluent Manhattan friends and family.  The key to Tiffany’s success was his combination of design talent and business savvy.  He owned his own furnaces, so he was not burdened with the expense of importing glass.  He ran a well-organized studio employing scores of craftsmen and designers.  Tiffany or one of his master designers—such as Jacob Holzer, who oversaw the renovation of St. Paul’s or Agnes Northrup—made small drawings and cartoons (full-sized drawings) for projects.  Women selectors then choose and cut the glass to best match the designer’s vision.  Glaziers lead the glass together, and painted if it needed.  No complete records exist, but Cooney Frelinghuysen estimates that Tiffany studios probably produced over 10,000 windows.  The studio provided stock patterns to clients via catalog, but could adapt them to any location.  The company designed for hotels, department stores, theaters, museums, but as Cooney Frelinghuysen pointed out, ecclesiastical commissions were the glass firm’s mainstay.  Memorial windows, such as the aforementioned The Pilgrim Window, were in particular frequently commissioned by clergy to honor wealthy patrons.  The central role of religious glass and designs within Tiffany’s enterprise is evidenced by the fact he chose to exhibit a model chapel to represent his company’s work at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago.  Tiffany had a gift for promoting his projects by exciting local media and offering artwork to newspapers. The company provided five line drawings to the Troy Daily Press for an 1893 article titled “A Beautiful Sanctuary” on the St. Paul’s renovation.  Ned Pratt has discovered in his research on other Tiffany church interiors that this was the company’s marketing modus operandi.

Among the windows at St. Paul’s, there are several highlights which are not to be missed when visiting.  Upon entering, The Vision of St. Paul on the east wall above the altar commands the visitor’s attention with its brilliant light and overwhelming scale.  St. Paul kneels in the lower register on an architectural space resembling a Gothic church rooftop.  Surrounded by saints and angels above, Christ stands with open arms and fills the pointed arched window with divine light. Within a circular window at the very top, a white crucifix emerges from a hazy, dreamlike glow; through remarkable opalescent effects designed by Tiffany’s Jacob Holzer, one feels as if he or she is witnessing a divine vision.  The east wall is most breathtaking when viewed from the choir above the entrance of the church.

Christ Blessing the Children on the north wall was a popular theme in the 1890s.  So much so that Tiffany made versions for St. John’s and St. Joseph’s in Troy, despite the fact he generally would not use the same designs in the same city.  Tiffany’s Frederick Wilson designed the gentle figures, and his prolific Agnes Northrup designed her characteristically decorative, cool landscapes which meander into the sublime warm light aglow above the distant horizon.

Holzer’s Vision of St. John the Divine on Patmos is notable because of the spectacle of light beaming down from heaven and illuminating the upward gaze of St. John receiving the Revelation, the drapery glass found in all figures, the glass jewels that form the belt of one of the angels, and the angels’ wings which were all impressed in a semi-molten state to create the actual three-dimensional texture of feathers.  At the base of this window one can find Tiffany’s signature. 

The most beautiful of windows is the north wall’s The Annunciation. A yellow and pink sky behind the piers of Roman arches bathes The Virgin Mary in rich light.  In blue costume, she is serenely contemplative as a ray of while light cascades upon her from the dove of the Holy Spirit above and as the angel Gabriel stands before her.  Above the scene, as is the case with many of the Tiffany windows in St. Paul’s, the designers have recreated the architecture of a Gothic cathedral in dazzling golden lines and vibrant, vertical blue shapes.

As a comprehensive and integrated design, the interior bears marks of Tiffany everywhere.  Chandeliers of colored glass hang above the main aisle and side aisles; all were originally gas lamps which gave off a soft glow.  The woodwork of the trusses, robing room, baptistery and pews were all designed by Holzer who included decorative Gothic arches and motifs.  The sounding board above the pulpit wood fans outward like a growing leaf and is painted with decorative arabesque lines that recall art nouveau.  The ceiling and east wall are stenciled with mesmerizing gilding.  An innovative mosaic on the east wall consists of transparent and translucent glass tesserae behind which a variety of different metals create shimmering bronze effects. The chancel rails are encrusted with glass jewels. Finally, even the organ pipes were designed by Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company.  As Pratt pointed out, “It’s intricate. The more things you look at, the more you notice.”

Robert R. Shane, Ph.D. is assistant professor of Art History at the College of Saint Rose


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