Friday, July 31, 2009

The Other Modern: Louis Comfort Tiffany

Ask one to describe the glass work of the Tiffany Studios. and one is most likely to think of domestic items such as lamps with colourful shades, or secular glass designs in public buildings (such as the Education window at Yale University), but one may not think of church glass and design. However, Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of Charles Lewis Tiffany who originally founded the storied Tiffany and Co., produced some extremely interesting ecclesiastical designs.

In addition to his glasswork, Louis Comfort Tiffany also produced some interesting church work generally, including that represented by the chapel interior he designed for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which found its way to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, was moved to his personal estate, and now makes its present home at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Florida.

Let us look at each respectively, beginning with the Tiffany chapel.

The Tiffany Chapel

As was mentioned, the chapel and its furnishings were exhibited in 1893 at Chicago's World's Fair. The chapel employs classical and Byzantine influences, and employs glass mosaic and, of course, Tiffany windows.

Detail showing Ambo and Altar

The Baptistery

There is no mistaking the distinctly "modern" feel about a number of the chapel elements and yet for the most part, those elements are also quite evidently tied to a traditional architectural and artistic idiom. As well, unlike minimalist modernism, which is so often sterile and asymmetrical, the composition, colours and textures found in the Tiffany chapel give it life and order. As well, while there is a certain weighted-ness to it with its heavy columns, giving it a certain gravitas, it yet retains the important element of verticality which is so effectual to ecclesiastical settings.

One can imagine a style like this being employed with any number of variations as well. The mosaic reredos could become more iconographic, the lighting could also be shifted into other forms; a ciborium magnum could also be used in this style and with a few modifications.

(Image source: TFAOI)

Tiffany Church Glass

Tiffany's ecclesiastical glasswork clearly has unique elements that make it distinct from its mediaeval and Victorian precursors -- though there is yet a clear continuity with them as well. One part of this difference relates to composition, and the other, as I understand it, is by way of the technique used -- apparently, Tiffany used opalescent coloured glass instead of the more typical technique of painting clear glass. (Having local access to a church which has some significant Tiffany windows within its nave, I can speak from experience when I say that the particular qualities of light and colour which come through their windows is nothing short of stunning.)

The examples shown here come from various church buildings within the Northeastern United States.

(Image copyright James G. Howes)

Finally, a couple of details:

(Above two photos by Lisa Ruokis)

Tiffany Cope Design

I would be remiss to not show this cope design, which Louis Comfort Tiffany designed for the Rev. Edward McCurdy of St. Augustine's Church in Brooklyn. Whether this design would classify in "the other modern" category is up for debate of course, as it is difficult to tell how it would have been manifest when actually manufactured, but we show it as a bonus to round out our considerations of Tiffany's ecclesiastical designs.

(Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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