The Lone Tiffany Window


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Nativity - Tiffany Glass Studios

The reaction is usually an astonished, “Why???”  The stimulus is the explanation that, in the late teens of the twentieth century, Shadyside Church nearly removed its Tiffany window.  During architectural tours of the church, we always pause about half way down the nave to consider the stained glass.  The Nativity Window at the center of the South transept is captivating and clearly of a different character than its companions.

Depicted are the Infant Jesus and His mother Mary.  Those surrounding the child are illuminated by a radiance that emanates from Him.  It is a powerful use of opalescent glass and realistic pictorial depiction, strongly associated with Louis Tiffany.  Opalescent glass (actually patented by Tiffany’s rival, John LaFarge) is less translucent and has greater color variety than normal (or “antique”) stained glass.  The glass thickness varies and is sometimes layered.  The window was manufactured by Tiffany Glass Company (as his company was known at the time) and installed when the church was erected in 1890.  The other church windows were made by Pittsburgh's Rudy Brothers and were so-called "cathedral glass."  This was stained glass with geometric patterns, which was often intended for temporary use, until gifts were arranged for more elaborate windows.

Cathedral Glass - Rudy Brothers

This combination of pictorial and optical effects is an American development of the 1880s that served the Gothic and Romanesque Revivals in architecture.  In fact, it was sometimes known as “American glass” as distinct from the more archeologically correct “medieval style.”  Some of the figural depictions are reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in their delicacy.  (The window depicts a painting by Correggio, who was a contemporary of Raphael.  It is known as The Adoration of the Shepherd (Holy Night) and is from 1522. The Pre-Raphaelites rejected the style of painting that developed after the time of Raphael.)

 

Comparison of Tiffany-Correggio & Pre-Raphaelite depiction of faces

Thirteenth century stained glass makers used clearer glass with “pure” colors.  Medieval depictions were conventionalized or abstracted, as compared to a painted scene.  The result is a more “primitive” appearance.  The original use of stained glass in windows was for the colored light, rather than religious instruction.

After 1900, there was a movement in America to revive the medieval style and reject the Tiffany-LaFarge pictorial opalescent style. The influential architect, Ralph Adams Cram, roundly denounced these "picture windows."   By the end of World War I, “American glass” was positively unfashionable.  This coincided with a desire, on the part of many Shadysiders, to dedicate memorial windows.  Long-standing church tradition has it that the Nativity Window was saved only at the insistence of Mrs. Anne Darsie Thomson (the mother of present Shadyside member, Mr. Robert Thomson.)

 

The Resurrection Window by The Gorham Company, installed in 1916

The Tiffany "school" was victim of taste moving in two directions.   Architectural purists looked to the past of the middle ages.  A move in the other direction, "modern" architecture such as Art Deco and the International School preferred a sleeker, monochromatic look.  In both cases, the windows have a flatter, less three-dimensional look.  The exception to this trend away from opalescent glass was the Tiffany  lamp, which held its popularity through the twenties.  Louis Tiffany was apparently disappointed.  His real love in stained glass was windows.  That the lamps were commercially successful was little solace.

We are grateful for Mrs. Thomson’s foresight and success.  It is hard for us to believe that such a beautiful and evocative technique could have been out of style.  The “new” windows, by the Gorham Company, employ the conventionalized rendering of the revived medieval (related to the Munich Style).  The figures seem less dynamic, over-simple to some observers.  Gorham, however, had been prominent suppliers of opalescent glass.  Their colors retain more of the warm yellow-gold hue of the Nativity Window  than was typical of much of the medieval movement.

This juxtaposition of style shows the dilemma when remodeling takes place, and is inevitably influenced by current fashion.  Who is to say that Tiffany windows won’t go out of favor again in the far distant future?  Will some future scribe express gratitude that so many of the windows were re-done in “correct medieval style?”  When some future tour guide points out that the Tiffany window was preserved, will the astonished reaction be, “Why?”

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