The window uncovered in the Abbey’s church is a fragment of a larger window, the top of a Gothic arch. How would we know this? For one, the border on the curve of the arch does not continue along the bottom and, more importantly, the design cuts off suddenly at the bottom. It is unresolved and implies a continuation below.
The design represents the top of an architectural canopy framing three angels. The central one, towering over the other two, folds its hands; the other two cross hands over their chests. The design is symmetrical. But this very stable and static composition is enlivened the drawing and the execution in glass. The angels each have two sets of wings, a fancy of the artist, a variation on the canonical six wings of the cherubim described by Isaiah and evident in Christian art of all periods.
The architectural framework reproduces what is known as the Flamboyant (literally “flaming”) Gothic style (15th century), the last expression on Northern European Gothic that disappeared with the rise of renaissance classicism. It is called “flaming” since it capitalizes on flame-shaped curves to enliven the pointed Gothic line. The open-work canopy supporting the central angel is a complicated, even clumsy, piece of drawing; the flame like lozenges open onto a blue background.
The color scheme is simple: about four shades of yellow, opalescent white, some generic “flesh” tone for hands and faces, accents of deep blue, all against grey background.
The angels and architectural frame evoke the Middle Ages but this is a romantic view of the period, not a true revival. The angels are drawn in poses and in a modern academic style, rather than reflecting medieval conventions. A actual 15th century window would attempt a perspective view of the architecture, as seen in our window, but in a purely linear way. Our window uses two shades of glass to suggest the play of light over three dimensions, rather than a linear pattern.
The glass itself is very good quality: the white glass of the wings and the drapery beneath the flanking angel’s bosom is three-dimensional, individually molded. The lines of the feathers of the wings is engraved into the glass, a detail not visible from afar. The glass is not mass produced “rolled” glass but artisanal, with gradations of color throughout. This, and the leading, which insure that any stained glass is never a flat, even surface, enlivens the static design with an organic unpredictability. The grey glass sandwiches an abstracted pattern of foliage or flowers, enlivening the blank surfaces.
Is it from the Tiffany Studios?
Louis Comfort Tiffany (died 1933) began a fashionable decorating firm in New York City in 1889. The firm he founded continues today as Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue, popularly known for jewelry than the other crafts. His sumptuous, eclectic style included mosaic and stained glass. Both media use glass and break down a design into fragmented surfaces of color. His personal designs were innovative, emphasizing the decorative role of the lead that fastens the various pieces of glass together, bold juxtapositions of color, and multi-layered, “sandwiched” panes of glass fusing a range of color in a single piece of glass. A signature effect was the mother-of-pearl shimmer caught in the glass. This is distinct from the other great stained glass craftsmen of his period (Morris in England, La Farge in the United States) who sought to suppress painterly effects and restore the integrity of colored glass to transmit sunlight. By contrast, Tiffany’s glass captured light and dimmed it to a tinted glow; the light plays in the glass, not beyond it. Just think of a genuine Tiffany lamp: it doesn’t flood an interior with light.
However, Tiffany Studios, a commercial enterprise, necessarily reflected it’s clients needs as they executed thousands of commissions for churches and other public buildings throughout the United States. Tiffany stained glass is not a standard style but a quality of glass. The designs were flexible from reproducing da Vinci’s Last Supper to nostalgic landscapes depicting a sunrise for a chapel’s “rose window”, to the plainest non-figurative windows of frosted glass for a Synagogue or Unitarian Church. As such, the characteristics of Tiffany’s personal taste in stained glass are not apparent in all, or even most, of the windows produced by his studio between 1889 and 1917.
There is yet no catalogue raisonne all his work, their date, location, etc. Without such a tool in place it’s difficult to attribute an unknown work accurately. Since our window is only a fragment and since we have no documentation, it is impossible to know whether it is from Tiffany studios or not.
By the end of his life, Tiffany’s work was recognized for its high level of craftsmanship but ignored as rather backward in taste. Much of his work was already dismissed as kitsch. In the 1960’s the re-evaluation of his work began (granted, even kitsch had become marketable) and his innovative contributions were recognized. If the value of his style is still debated, the intrinsic value of his materials are unquestioned. Unlike a Monet or a Picasso, the market value of Tiffany’s work fluctuates but is now established at the higher end of the market.
Does this particular window share any characteristics with known work from the Tiffany Studios?
That it indeed does. The opalescent glass and sandwiched pattern in the grey glass evokes Tiffany. The decorative leading of the angel’s drapery–more lines of lead than is actually needed to hold the pieces of colored glass–and the penchant for curving lines all reflect Tiffany’s art nouveau taste. The thick pieces of molded, white glass are consistent with Tiffany’s sense of detail, much of which is lost to the casual viewer far below; that sort of impractical extravagance is also a Tiffany hallmark. The bold color scheme recalls his colorist experiments.
But the evidence is inconclusive; the Tiffany influence is there but it could be derivative both in design and execution. It’s probable that the window was executed some time between the 1890’s and World War I.