Often when we look at religious stained glass windows or mosaics, we have to crane our necks because they are above eye level. We don’t always get to appreciate the fine work, the detail, and the precision that go into creating these pieces, many of which could be considered visual evangelization and catechesis.
This is a particular loss when it comes to the devotional art of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1948-1933) and his studio, which created devotional and other works for a fifty-year period that spanned what is often referred to as “the gilded age.”
While Tiffany worked in many media, his name is most associated with a unique style of stained glass. He and his team didn’t just use glass creatively. They created special glass that was streaky, opalescent and delicately tinted. These glass styles enabled the subjects of the windows to appear animated and filled with emotion. Backgrounds acquired dimension. Clothing looked so real that one wanted to reach out and touch the fabric. It’s not always easy to appreciate all this from ten feet below the window or across the nave of a church.
Now, the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), which is located at the headquarters of the American Bible Society on 61 Street and Broadway in Manhattan, has provided a unique opportunity for us to see at eye level or close to it the genius of Tiffany devotional art. It’s an extraordinary collection.
There are stained glass windows from the Driehaus and Neudstadt collections, the Corning Museum of Glass, several churches, and many other sources. From St. Andrew’s Dune Church of Southampton, N.Y., there is a touching window from the legend of Arthur: young Galahad in pursuit of the Holy Grail. It is a memorial for an eighteen year-old boy. A larger window is titled “Lydia Entertaining Christ and His Apostles.” However, MOBIA’s curators think Lydia is more likely entertaining Paul, Timothy and Silas. According to the Acts of the Apostles, she met the three of them at Philippi in Asia Minor (Acts 16:13-15.)
MOBIA’s exhibit also contains magnificent mosaics, including one named “Fathers of the Church,” featuring St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Ambrose. And there’s more, too much more to itemize here.
Tiffany’s devotional art was commissioned mostly by Protestant and Jewish congregations. However, some Catholic Churches in our own archdiocese have Tiffany windows and the altar of St. Michael and St. Louis in St. Patrick’s Cathedral is associated with Tiffany. Maybe your church has a Tiffany touch.
The exhibit is on through Jan. 20, 2013, and admission is free. You can preview the exhibition, “Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion, here. If you really want a treat, find out when MOBIA’s own experts are giving tours.
Fine religious art can evangelize and catechize. The medieval cathedral builders knew that and filled their churches with stained glass and sculpture. The Renaissance painters and sculptures knew it, too. Certainly Tiffany understood the power of great devotional art. It’s true today. Modern church art may be different from that of earlier periods but if it is good, it can be a powerful tool of evangelization. How appropriate for a Year of Faith.