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By Dennis Raverty
In 1894, Louis Comfort Tiffany patented his new processes for the production of stained glass, and the following year the seven magnificent lancet windows over the high altar in Manhattan’s Episcopal Church of St. Michael were completed, a marvelous tour de force of artisanry, exemplifying the unique qualities of color and luminosity now made possible by these new technical innovations in glassmaking.
Tiffany’s process for the manufacture of colored glass involved treating it with various metallic oxides while still in a molten state. The areas of the glass so treated not only change color, they also increase in opacity, and so these areas appear somewhat darker in the finished window, because they let through less light. By an exquisitely subtle manipulation of this quality of greater translucency darkening into relative opacity, the artist can give the effect of a smoldering, glowing emanation of light arising out of the darkness, gently illuminating the depicted figures with an ineffable, otherworldly radiance.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the small, easily overlooked window Baptismal Dove, high up on the south wall. Here the Holy Spirit descends from an aureole of intense yellow above, a visual hotspot beaming down shafts of light to the somewhat darker, more opaque realms of the clouds and presumably the earth, bringing healing and consolation to those below, in his role as comforter, advocate, and transmitter of enlightenment.
This effect of light emerging from relative darkness is also apparent in a small window in a side chapel at Saint Michael’s that depicts the Annunciation. Here the area of greatest translucence and most intense light is just above and to the right of Gabriel. He is crowned with royal diadems as if he were a winged, Byzantine prince and appears to Mary in what seems to be a lush, oriental garden. The prominent lily near the center of the composition represents her purity and state of grace, having just been saluted by the glorious archangel. But she herself is rendered humbly, accepting her role with self-effacing modesty. The garden setting Tiffany creates for the Annunciation recalls the Garden of Eden, where Eve fell prey to a darker, more sinister, fallen “angel,” the serpent.
The Virgin in Tiffany’s Annunciation turns away from the viewer, lowering her head to indicate her submission to the will of God, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be done with me according to your word.” It is significant that her face is not shown. Mary is presented not as the queen of heaven nor the glorious Mother of God but as an unpretentious peasant girl. This is a suitably Protestant interpretation of Mary’s role in redemption; we would not seek intercessions on our behalf from such an unassuming young girl. But she does not so much turn her back on us as she pivots toward the brightness above her, as if to indicate for us our own role in God’s unfolding plan: as both witnesses and vessels of the light.
In the series of slender lancet windows above the high altar, this quality of radiant luminosity, evident in the smaller windows, reaches its dramatic climax. It depicts Saint Michael the archangel triumphant, surrounded by all the angelic hosts of heaven who hover and swirl about him in dizzying profusion, the individual vertical windows forming part of one larger, overall horizontal composition.
The scene depicted is from chapter 12 of the apocalyptic book of Revelation. According to that text, a rebellion broke out in heaven, in which Michael and the angels battled the forces of evil, represented by the dragon and his followers. After a fierce war, the angels of darkness were defeated and thrown down to the earth, where they spread disorder, confusion and chaos. The dragon cast from heaven became the serpent and the prince of lies, trying to thwart God’s plan through the deception of humankind here on earth.
The windows, however, do not depict this cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil but rather represent the triumphal rejoicing in heaven after the downfall and expulsion of the rebel angels, whose defeated minions do not even appear in the windows at all, apparently scattered by the brilliance of the divine light, as morning mist dissipates before the rising sun.
Standing erect upon the world globe, left in obscure semi-darkness below, and clothed as a medieval knight in full, resplendent armor, his shield by his side, the Archangel Michael gazes upward. His youthful, innocent face is represented without a trace of conceit for the victory he has just won; instead, he seems to ascribe all glory and honor to God, whom he looks up to adoringly. We are reminded of St. Paul’s injunction to put on the “whole armor of light,” as we wait in hopeful anticipation for God’s ultimate triumph over evil, sin, and spiritual darkness in our benighted world.
The windows were commissioned and fabricated during one of the darkest economic recessions in decades, triggered by the “panic” of 1893, when several large banking concerns collapsed. The following years, as the century drew to a close, were marked by labor disputes and union activity that was brutally repressed. The assassination of President McKinley in 1901, and the rise of the anti-trust policies of his successor, Teddy Roosevelt, brought an end to the idealistic yearnings of the Gilded Age as America entered the progressive era of the new century.
In the 21st century, on the other side of two world wars, the Holocaust, the Cold War, the attacks of September 2001 and in the continuing shadow of our current domestic civil unrest, Tiffany’s message of light, truth, and reason triumphing over evil, lies, and darkness in the inspiring windows at St. Michael’s Church can once again take on a renewed and urgent poignancy.
Dr. Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.