Not just breakfast: How Tiffany revolutionised the stained-glass window

Louis Comfort Tiffany’s depiction of the Resurrection

Eternal Light
by Catherine Shotick
D Giles, 82pp, £20/$25

In the 19th century artistic movements attempted to revive styles associated with the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. They embraced long-neglected techniques and even rediscovered ones which had been lost to human memory for centuries. But it was also a time in which artists, particularly in the United States, experimented with the ways in which the most modern materials and methods could be used in the creation of works with a traditional aesthetic. Among the most interesting of these developments was Louis Comfort Tiffany’s invention of Favrile stained glass.

Tiffany was born in 1848, the son of a successful New York merchant, who in that year began the shift away from stationery towards jewellery which in the coming decades led Tiffany & Co into the ranks of America’s most exclusive jewellers.

Tiffany’s early ambition was to become a painter. He studied under George Inness and Samuel Colman before touring the artistic centres of Europe and pursuing further studies under the direction of France’s Léon Belly.

Though he did not lack talent as a painter, and would continue occasional painting throughout his life, Tiffany soon switched his professional focus, combining work as director of jewellery, design for his father’s business with the founding his own interior design company. Both forms of work motivated his experimentation with new methods of producing stained glass, a material in which he had developed an intense interest when in Europe. In addition to its most famous use in windows, it could be used in making a variety of decorative household products and even incorporated into jewellery.

The result was to be the greatest leap forward in the methods of making stained glass since the Middle Ages, and the creation of a form of ecclesial art which was both based in a centuries-old tradition and uniquely American.

From the invention of stained glass until Tiffany’s breakthrough, it had been necessary for each pane to be fairly uniform in its colour. Occasionally, lines of a darker colour could be added in, but again the effect was often lacking in realism. Tiffany and the team of chemists he employed discovered a way to mix multiple colours within a single pane of glass, which allowed for far greater realism in stained glass than had been achieved before.

These new methods, combined with sculpting the surface of the glass to better resemble the surface of the object it was depicting, could ­– by subtle changes in the shades of a colour and by mixing colours within a single pane – create not just more realistic colouring but also a three-dimensional effect, comparable to that used in perspective painting.

Development of these techniques took place at a time when Gothic Revival aesthetics had become one of the most important influences in American ecclesial architecture. Prior to this period most Protestant denominations in America had a long history of aesthetically sterile architecture. In the early decades of American independence, Catholic churches built in the US followed the model set by the country’s neoclassical government buildings. Few remained from the earlier period when Catholicism had been restricted by penal laws, and when, in any case, there was little interest in medieval styles.

By the middle of the 19th century American Episcopalians, influenced by Victorian romanticism, began to adopt the Gothic architectural preferences of their Anglican contemporaries. In doing so they set what was to become the standard of American ecclesial architecture for the better part of a century. Low church Protestants, whose religious forebears had done their best to gut the Gothic edifices of the Old World, embraced the new trend as enthusiastically as Catholics. Even today, American adherents of almost all forms of Christianity consider Gothic revival architecture synonymous with “traditional” church design.

The new style of stained glass rapidly grew in popularity for both religious and secular uses, with the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company becoming one of America’s leading suppliers for ecclesial architects. Artistically, Tiffany stained-glass windows took their inspiration from such masters of Catholic art as Botticelli and Giotto, and from an aesthetic perspective such Tiffany windows as “Story of the Cross”, “The Righteous Shall Receive a Crown of Glory” and “Christ and the
Apostles” would look perfectly at home in Chartres Cathedral. These works will repay close study by those interested in preserving and developing artistic styles grounded in the Middle Ages as a living tradition.