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"In Company with Angels"

Guardians of the great and glorious 

"In Company with Angels"

The shapes and scopes of our cities are constantly shifting around us, and at times, great losses occur with a callous lack of consideration toward preserving valuable aspects of art and history. Transition is inevitable, and it's often left to grass-roots groups to become the guardians of these potential casualties. Such is the case with seven eight-foot-tall stained-glass windows depicting angels from the biblical Book of Revelation, created by the studio of American glass master Louis Comfort Tiffany. The windows were displaced from their original home in a Cincinnati church in the 1960's, lost in storage, re-found and restored, and are the fragile focus of the current exhibit at the Memorial Art Gallery. Though sacred in subject, this exhibition sheds light on the history of the specific windows and of stained glass in America, the technique and aesthetics involved with the medium, and restoration efforts.

Commissioned by the New Church Society, or Swedenborgians — a Christian sect developed from the writings of Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg — the windows were presented to the Church of New Jerusalem in Cincinnati in 1903. Visitors to the exhibit learn that when the city of Cincinnati demolished the church in 1964 to make way for an expressway, parishioners stepped in and bought the windows back from the city for $50,000, and stored them in basements, garages, and sheds for almost 40 years. In 1989, a branch of the Swedenborgian Church purchased the works for a retreat center, which was never built, and the angels spent another decade in storage until their rediscovery in 2001. The windows are now owned by a congregation in Pennsylvania.

Restoration efforts began in 2004 courtesy of an anonymous donation. The windows were relatively unharmed, so the process mainly involved removing the accumulated grime from more than 1,500 individual pieces of glass. It took seven restorers a year and a half to dismantle the pieces and layers, clean and repair them, and reassemble the windows. The exhibit includes a short documentary video that chronicles the restoration process.

The show also features a timeline regarding the history of the windows, beginning in 1688 with the birth of Emanuel Swedenborg, and highlighting the founding of the New Church by his followers, the creation of the windows by Tiffany Studios, and the loss, restoration, and touring of the windows. Also provided is information contextualizing the angelic subjects, who metaphorically represent seven early congregations in Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, which were located in cities in what is now western Turkey.

Provided information states that in the Book of Revelation, God praises each church "for a particular strength, warns each of a failing to overcome, and promises each a gift if it succeeds." Tiffany and his designers depicted the angels in tunics, robes, and Roman armor "to convey a sense of Biblical antiquity," and each holds a physical symbol of the divine gifts. Etched inscriptions on the lower panels of each window name the angel and quote the promises from the verses.

Though enjoyed in the secular realm, stained glass was always a natural fit for depicting sacred imagery. The powerful light of day entering and illuminating a church without piercing glass served as a metaphor for some of God's, ahem, grace, penetrating Mary's womb while her, uh, purity remained, er, intact.

"In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Tiffany designs were in great demand for American churches," according to curatorial info, but an estimated 50 percent of Tiffany's church windows have been lost, according to the curatorial information. Tiffany invented more than 5,000 varieties of glass colors, textures, and patterns, and developed techniques of layering several sheets, which resulted in "subtle gradations of luminous color and depth," and pulling and twisting molten glass to created irregular folds to simulate fabric.

Viewers of the windows will encounter countless examples of Tiffany's technical prowess, including the delicate faces of the angels, created by hand-applying brushed-on pigment. The imagery of the powerfully beautiful, mostly androgynous angels is stunning, graceful, and inspiring, though putting a face (and a race) to the divine is exclusionary by nature.

Objects from the MAG's collection displayed in the exhibit include such glass objects as a Roman perfume bottle and bowl, and Tiffany Studios candlesticks and vases. A short distance away, eight Tiffany lamps on loan from the collection of Jeffrey Metzger and Robin Hamilton show off a range of styles and techniques produced for the secular realm.

Another section of the exhibit sheds light on Pike Stained Glass Studios, Inc., a locally-owned 104-year-old family firm whose founder worked for Tiffany. On loan from Pike are stunningly detailed watercolor renderings that reveal design stages for stained-glass windows, glass samples, and glass-making tools.

In a separate, darkened room, the warmly glowing windows are encased in tall wooden boxes, lit from within and standing freely in a semi-circle, positioned as they would be in the apse of a church. The sparse presentation allows for meditative study of Tiffany's skillful detailing and techniques, which viewers learned about in the previous room.

A list of notable historic Swedenborgians includes Andrew Carnegie, George Inness, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Abraham Lincoln. Though not a Swedenborgian, Tiffany "shared the New Church belief that the natural world reveals traces of the spiritual," per the provided statement.

Swedenborgians believe in a loving God who, according to curatorial info, "sets human beings on a path to spiritual perfection," and that the human experience prepares us to live as angels, who continue to grow after leaving this life, and who also contribute to daily life on earth. Swedenborg taught that "inwardly, a person is in company with angels, though unaware."

A series of related lectures at MAG and tours of the exhibit, as well as of the Pike Glass studios and the Third Presbyterian Church, accompany this exhibit. For more information, visit mag.rochester.edu, and check out our calendar at rochestercitynewspaper.com.

The Memorial Art Gallery is currently hosting "In Company with Angels," a traveling exhibition of seven restored Tiffany windows. PHOTO PROVIDED

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