“Enter curious … leave in awe,” reads the invitation at the Arlington Street Church in Boston’s Back Bay. This Unitarian Universalist society boasts the largest collection of Tiffany windows in a single church anywhere in the world, so the suggestion that visitors might feel awe is no exaggeration. This is an amazing collection.
The church building itself, constructed in 1860, looks fairly simple inside.
So it’s impossible not to be drawn to the Tiffany windows, designed and installed by the glass studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany between 1899 and 1930. And you can walk right up to them (and in the case of two very special panes of glass — with the permission of a tour guide — even touch them). This is an unusually intimate opportunity to interact with great art.
The windows on the first floor of the church all tell stories from the life of Jesus, starting with the Madonna of the Flowers …
… proceeding on thorough The Annunciation …
… and eventually to Jesus at the Temple (note the menorah in the background, something I’d never seen in church art before) …
… and Jesus and the Children:
Upstairs, each window is dedicated to one of the eight Beatitudes (blessings given by Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount). Featuring angels and children, these are taller and longer than the windows in the downstairs area.
I loved the sense of drama in these windows …
… especially when viewed up close.
And for no good reason, the fact that this window was dedicated to the memory of someone named Henrietta Wigglesworth made me smile:
What’s remarkable about Tiffany glass is that almost none it is painted. Instead, Tiffany achieved his remarkable colors and patterns through chemicals and textures in the glass itself (and we still don’t know how he accomplished most of it). The effects are dazzling.
He also used color in unusual ways, including impressionistic splashes of color known as “confetti glass” (to see an example, look up in the trees behind the Madonna’s head):
To make his borders look jewel-like, he carved facets into chunks of glass and set them into key places in his designs:
You can see evidence of painting here and there, but you’ll need to look closely. The easiest places to find brushwork are in the faces of people, angels, and animals…
… and in a few other select pieces, like this painted chain mail pattern hidden underneath a plain glass sheet.
For a very different look at church glass from the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company (later rechristened Tiffany Studios), you can head a few blocks deeper into Back Bay to the Church of the Covenant.
While the church itself was built in the Gothic Revival style in 1867 by a New York architect (out of a material known as Roxbury puddingstone), its claim to fame is “America’s largest Tiffany-decorated church interior. In other words, while Arlington Street Church has the largest number of Tiffany windows, Church of the Covenant has the most Tiffany stuff, including a huge hanging lamp and Tiffany-designed wall painting (most people probably don’t know that Tiffany got his start in interior design). In other words, nearly the entire aesthetic here is mid-1890s Tiffany.
Unfortunately, these windows are much higher up than those at Arlington Street Church, and they haven’t been cleaned recently — so the overall effect is more one of darkness than of Tiffany’s famous light. I almost wished that I’d brought binoculars along for better viewing here.
I did appreciate that this church had four windows dedicated entirely to famous women of the Bible, including Miriam (representing joy) and Deborah (representing courage):
My brochure called the window below, The Sparrow, a “tour de force” for its use of both drapery glass and confetti glass. It depicts Jesus as a young carpenter who is looking down at a small bird (hidden from our view), but I was a fan of the pelican at the top (which apparently symbolises charity and sacrificial love).
It’s interesting to look all the way up and see what the windows would have looked like before Tiffany took over the church’s decoration responsibilities — a few of the original panes are still in place:
Of course, Tiffany’s studios produced far more than church decor. For a look at some of this (and a lot of other things), it’s worth making a trip to the Museum of Fine Art (MFA). Here, you can see Tiffany jewelry …
… a Tiffany lamp …
… three Tiffany vases …
… and an entirely secular Tiffany window (he created this for the Chicago Expo of 1893, saying that it “illustrates most perfectly the possibilities of American glass”):
If you’re wondering whether Tiffany was the only glassmaker around in the late 1800s, the MFA invites you to compare his work to that of his great rival, John La Farge. Here’s La Farge’s The Fish, from 1890:
I didn’t set out to see Tiffany glass in Boston, but I’m glad that I found it. Both Arlington Street Church and Church of the Covenant offer inexpensive self-guided tours during the daytime (Arlington Street also has guided tours if you want a little extra information). I would go back to Arlington Street in a heartbeat — the glass there is by far the most accessible. But I would recommend heading to all three locations (the two churches plus the MFA) for a chance to engage in some comparisons and for a more comprehensive look at Tiffany’s work. It’s remarkable stuff.
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