Our Pilgrim Window
Our Pilgrim window (sometimes referred to as the Guardian Angel window) in the chancel at First Church in Belmont is a leading example In New England of the late 19th
century American opalescent style in stained glass. Pioneered by John La Farge first and a few years later by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the compelling and uniquely American opalescent style was adopted by many American studios. Our Pilgrim window is an impressive legacy of Tiffany Studios.
With its almost 1200 pieces of glass, multiple levels of plating, exquisite glass painting, and ornate border details, our Pilgrim window represents one of the grand examples of this fleeting period in American art and architecture still available to the public. The window is striking in its beauty and its construction is technically quite challenging. (Lyn Hovey Studios, 2007)
The traveler depicted in the window wears a hat with a scallop shell, as have religious pilgrims over the centuries while following the long routes to Santiago de Compostela – burial site of St. James in northwestern Spain. Wrapped in a royal vermilion cloak, the pilgrim rests languidly against a rocky landscape. Red poppies blossom nearby. The distant pink sky draws one’s eye from the darker foreground to a glimpse of a path and a verdant valley beyond. With gossamer wings, the guardian angel, dressed in spring green, hovers overhead, all the while firmly tethered to the tree by her green wrap. At night, an amazing transformation occurs: the angel and pilgrim become dark-skinned, bright colors are subdued or become white, and the scene appears wintry.
What is the meaning of the window? We as Unitarian-Universalists identify with the pilgrim on his journey, as we ourselves pursue a free and responsible quest for truth and meaning. In a traditional interpretation, the angel is said to be cheering the traveler at nightfall with the assurance that the rocky path of life leads to eternal day. (sermon by Rev. Diane Miller, 1988, from church archives of 1890). Does the angel represent divine inspiration? Is the angel encouraging onward both the oppressed and the good people of the world over the rough road to justice and good? No matter what one’s interpretation, the Window offers much to contemplate.
American Opalescent Style
The American opalescent style was a revolutionary change and approach in the long history of stained-glass fabrication. Lafarge and Tiffany were rebelling against painted stained glass originating in the 10th century C.E.. which used tints fired into the glass at around 1200° F to achieve light and shadow and illustrative lines and shading.
In contrast, the new American practitioners experimented with making new opalescent-style glass containing ingredients to opalize light coming through the glass to give it a pearl-like or opal refraction. This glass was then used to “paint with glass.” The Americans also tried to break away from older European tradition by employing glasses that had “shadowing” within the glass. By using new fabrication techniques such as copper foil, they were able to achieve illustrative lines in the actual structure of the glass.
Another innovation of these artists and their followers was the layering of glasses by adding one or more glass pieces over or under the base layer of the window. While visually stunning this plating technique often led to construction instabilities.
Valiant though their efforts were to capture drapery folds, flower petals, clouds, mountains, and sunrises, etc. through the glass alone, they were unable to render faces, hands, and feet without using the traditional painting techniques of the earlier European artists. (Lyn Hovey Studios, 2007)
After realizing the structural challenges that the window had experienced over the century of its existence, The First Church in Belmont engaged the Lyn Hovey Studio Inc. to remove and restore the window over the winter of 2006-2007. The window was taken apart, cleaned, repaired where needed, and releaded. (except for the border, where the exceptional leading work could not be duplicated) The window was then reinstalled and reattached to its metal support grid.
Fortunately the Belmont Unitarian Alliance began its stewardship of the church windows many years ago, setting aside proceeds from annual Rummage sales, donations, and general funds from dues for future window repairs. In 1988 this Window Fund financed a minor restoration of the Madonna window in the choir loft. After an Estate bequest in 2005, a donation by the Atkins family, and a minor capital campaign, the Fund was sufficient for the 2007 Pilgrim window renovation.
In 1992 a watercolor study for this window was found in the attic of Atkins’s great-granddaughter, and gifted to the church by her. It is on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and was on public display there from June to November, 2012. A copy hangs in the upper gathering hall at The First Church. From the exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts: Design for a memorial window to Elisha Atkins, about 1889 Watercolor, opaque watercolor, and graphite on paper Will H. Low
American, 1853 – 1932
for the Tiffany Glass Company
The Tiffany stained glass window based on this design illuminates the chancel of The First Church in Belmont. It was commissioned by Edwin F. Atkins, the chairman of the Parish Committee, in memory of his father Elisha, a summer resident of Belmont, businessman, and vice president of the Union Pacific Railroad from 1874 until his death in 1888. The window was originally installed in the current church building which was dedicated on April 12, 1890.