Louis C. Tiffany's landscapes of devotion

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2012 |

Today Louis Comfort Tiffany is widely recognized as America's leading designer of the decades around 1900, but during his lifetime he was best known primarily as a designer of religious art, particularly memorial windows. They were installed by the thousands-mostly in Protestant churches and cemetery mausoleums-and formed the bulk of his business over four decades. An exhibition now on view at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City is refocusing our attention on this aspect of Tiffany's artistic output.

Shortly after Tiffany switched careers from painting to interior decorating in the late 1870s, he began receiving commissions to decorate religious buildings. In the early 1880s he provided windows for several churches, including St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Lynn, Massachusetts, and Christ Church in Pomfret, Connecticut.1 He promoted his ecclesiastical work at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago by creating a richly decorated chapel. Now installed at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida, the interior featured mosaic-covered walls, columns, and floor; a marble and white glass mosaic altar; an oversized hanging lantern in the shape floor; a marble and white glass mosaic altar; an oversized hanging lantern in the shape of a three-dimensional cross; and an array of colored leaded-glass windows in the shape of a three-dimensional cross; and an array of colored leaded-glass windows.

Tiffany's earliest windows generally reinterpreted standard religious subjects and copied contemporary religious paintings or Old Masters, such as the Madonna and Child window after Sandro Botticelli in Figure 2. By the late 1890s Tiffany and his staff began producing a new religious window type that took nature as its subject. Some windows showed religious symbols nearly obscured by flowers and plants. Others featured landscapes and gardens apparently absent of religious iconography. Using a range of new glass types in a variety of experimental formats, Tiffany produced vivid naturalistic effects of trees and brooks, skies at dawn and dusk, and spring and autumn foliage.

Recent investigation by Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen has shown that, with a possible few exceptions, the design of all the floral and landscape windows is almost certainly by a single artist-Agnes Northrop-one of the few women creating windows for Tiffany.2 A particularly touching example is the window Northrop designed in memory of her father, Allen P. Northrop, shown in Figure 4. Installed in 1905 in her family church, originally named the Reformed Church of Flushing (now Bowne Street Community Church) in Flushing, New York, the window contains a vision of a heavenly city above a stylized tree of life, surely an emblem of her father's legacy.

Why landscape? A facile answer might be that the landscapes were perhaps chosen by less religiously committed parishioners or that they were merely demonstrations of family wealth. But a survey of window donors and dedicatees shows that these explanations are unsatisfactory. Religious landscape windows honored Sunday school teachers, clergy, vestry members, and other staunch supporters of their religious institutions. Tiffany and his staff worked closely with his clients, but they did not dictate to them. Indeed, Tiffany was slow to promote landscape as a topic for religious windows, and they remained a niche segment of his prodigious production. In his published lists of windows that appeared in 1893, 1897, and 1910, only the 1910 list contained the term "Landscape," even though his firm had been designing landscape windows for nearly three decades.

The answers to the questions of why and for whom the windows were produced are to be found in the history of the tumultuous religious environment of late nineteenth-century America. Like every other aspect of American life at that time, religious expression underwent tremendous upheaval. Waves of immigrants brought new religious beliefs with them, and long-established American denominations felt threatened by the influx of foreigners. Thousands of new religious buildings were constructed to accommodate immigrant populations as well as the massive number of people who were leaving farms and moving to fast-growing cities. In addition, a new liberalism appeared in American religious thought. Focus shifted away from themes of original sin and predestination, stressing instead optimistic messages about the goodness in all mankind. Many denominations splintered into smaller groups to better express doctrinal variations and evolving responses to social issues.3

Tiffany's landscape windows were initially commissioned by a small group of Protestant denominations-Congregationalists, Unitarians, and Universalists-and in a few instances by reformed Jewish congregations. By 1900 Presbyterians and Episcopalians were also ordering landscape windows. These groups, although doctrinally diverse, shared an emphasis on making their religious beliefs relevant in the modern world. Those attitudes meshed admirably with Tiffany's own goal of reinterpreting traditional religious subjects in a modern American style. He achieved his goals by using new glass types to create remarkable naturalistic effects.

The Protestant congregations that ordered landscape windows represented the liberal end of the spectrum of their respective religious traditions. Though small in absolute numbers, Congregationalists, Unitarians, and Universalists commissioned a disproportionately large number of landscape windows from Tiffany. These denominations took a broad view of the role of Christianity in modern life. They proclaimed God's intercession in the world around them, including in the realms of science and art; they preached of a loving God rather than an angry one; and they emphasized the importance of charity. They believed in the essential goodness of humankind. Unitarians rejected the notion of a triune God, and Universalists believed that Heaven was available to all people.

The new liberalism required new artistic expression. When the congregation at the Church of the Saviour, now First Unitarian Congregational Society, in Brooklyn, New York, undertook a redecorating program to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary in 1894, they installed a series of Tiffany windows that honored founding members of the congregation with themes of charity, such as The Sower and The Good Samaritan. They also included one of the earliest Tiffany windows with landscape as its subject, dedicated to a longtime supporter and president of the congregation, Isaac H. Frothingham. Derived from lines in Psalm 42, "As the Hart panteth after the waters brooks, so panteth my soul after thee O Lord," the decoration comprises a dimly-lit, dappled autumnal forest scene with a deer drinking beside a rushing stream.

In press reports when the window was installed Tiffany claimed that the landscape followed in the artistic tradition visible in San Vitale in Rome, where a series of seventeenth-century landscape frescoes illustrated Biblical themes.4 Landscape-and this landscape in particular-appealed to Unitarians for other reasons: they sought every opportunity to establish links between themselves and early Christian theology, maintaining that their ideals were those expressed in Christianity before the first Council of Nicaea imposed a tripartite God in the fourth century ad. The drinking deer resonated with Unitarians at least in part because early Christian decorations in churches throughout Italy traditionally depicted a deer drinking from one of the four rivers of Paradise (see Fig. 9). To the Unitarians, the basic need of a deer for water represented the yearning of all humanity for God.5 By transforming the early Christian setting to a naturalistic forest interior, Tiffany both created a modern American window and evoked nature as Paradise.

A particularly beautiful pair of landscape windows, created in 1905 for another liberal denomination, the Universalist Church of our Father in Brooklyn, carried forward the theme of a wilderness paradise.6 Both windows depict forest scenes-one at dawn in springtime and the other in autumn at sunset. The rising and setting sun, the seasons of the year, and a flowing river are all ancient allusions to the arc of human life, but the theme of the windows had additional meaning for Universalists. Natural beauty was used as a primary exemplar of God's benevolence and presence throughout the world. For liberal religious groups nature had the advantage of conveying its message without the intervention of doctrine or cant. This attitude was set out by many authors, but was especially well received in a book by the Congregational minister William H. H. Murray (1840-1904), whose Adventures in the Wilderness or Camp-life in the Adirondacks first appeared in 1869. In it Murray combined practical travel advice with a paean to nature as the best route to God, free of dogma, uninhibited by intellect, and therefore available to all mankind. "[I]n the silence of the woods the soul apprehends him [God] instinctively. He is everywhere. In the fir and pine, which...shed their leaves every month, and are forever green; in the waters at your feet,...rivaling that which is ‘as pure as crystal'; in the mountains, which, in every literature, have been associated with the Deity, you see Him....With such symbols and manifestations of God around, you need not go to the lettered page to learn of him....The religion of the forest is emotional and poetic."7 

Tiffany's landscape windows could convey meanings other than those favored by liberal Protestants. The landscape memorial window at Temple Emanu-El, designed by Tiffany's firm and installed in the synagogue's first purpose-built home at Forty-Third Street and Fifth Avenue in New York,8 honored Lewis May, president of the congregation for more than twenty-five years, and a major force in the synagogue's construction and ongoing health. The dedicatory sermon was given on that most American holiday, Thanksgiving, in 1899. It was a perfect occasion to celebrate the congregation's freedom to thrive and grow in America's pluralistic religious environment. The landscape view of Jerusalem depicted in a modern American style linked the ancient promise and the modern one.

At least half of Tiffany's landscape window designs were not commissioned for churches or synagogues but for cemetery mausoleums and chapels. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century rural cemeteries had largely replaced in-town churchyards. These new landscapes for the dead covered vast acreages, providing room for family chapels and open space around graves. Located whenever possible on rolling terrain to provide good drainage, they were soon orchestrated into carefully arranged romantic vistas of lawns, streams and lakes, and flowering bushes. The landscapes themselves became models for nature as comforter.

Cemetery directors and visitors alike believed that these carefully tended garden settings provided comfort to the bereaved and the promise of new life. In 1891 the director of Woodlawn Cemetery in Toledo, Ohio, wrote in The Modern Cemetery that the ideal cemetery was a place where "Nature produces the most picturesque and cheerful effects in harmony and repose, with sufficient variety to offer to sorrow-stricken mourners the brightest and most cheerful productions...where the living may visit and hold communion in sweet memories and visions of the past."9 And visit they did. Even after the advent of public parks, the setting of rural cemeteries captivated visitors, who went there for carriage rides, walks, and family picnics.

Some rural cemeteries were aligned with particular religious groups, but more usually they were civic undertakings, open to all. This surely played an important role in loosening and expanding the range of artistic expression found in them. The Magnolias and Irises window, from a mausoleum in a Brooklyn cemetery, is representative of a Tiffany landscape window type that mimicked the look and comforting intent of a rural cemetery setting.

Tiffany's religious landscape windows reflect a brief moment in American history during which liberal religionists expressed passionate optimism about the nature of God and humankind. By the time Tiffany's company declared bankruptcy in 1932, the world had changed radically. Tiffany's opalescent glass visions of the natural world had gone out of fashion along with the religious ideals that prompted them in the first place.

ELIZABETH DE ROSA is a co-curator of Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion.

This article is based on my Ph.D. dissertation, "Louis Comfort Tiffany and the Development of Religious Landscape Windows," Columbia University, 1995, and research for the exhibition Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion on view at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), 1865 Broadway, New York City through January 20, 2013.

I am deeply grateful to the participants in the exhibition catalogue: editor and contributor Patricia C. Pongracz, and contributors Elka Deitsch, Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Lindsy R. Parrott, Jennifer Thalheimer, Diane C. Wright, and Peter W. Williams.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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