Stained glass on display

On a cold, gray, damp New York winter morning, Virginia Raguin is a model of enthusiasm--basking in interior light and eager to argue the case that stained glass isn't merely a decorative art or craft.

Raguin is showing a visitor a new exhibit of stained glass at the American Bible Society, and her love of the color-imbued panes brightening the ABS gallery is nearly contagious."This opens up a whole world," Raguin said as she surveyed the exhibit, "Reflections on Glass: 20th Century Stained Glass in American Art and Architecture," now on display at the ABS gallery through March 16. "This is painting on glass."

Raguin, an art historian who teaches at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and curator of the exhibit, doesn't like the fact that many see fine arts, such as painting, and decorative arts, such as glass, separated by an unbridgeable gap. "We're in a 'museum world' where paintings are over here and decorative arts are over there," she said.

Raguin views stained glass as a way various genres of art come together--often, of course, closely associated with the architecture of faith, gracing churches, cathedrals, synagogues and seminaries. Stained glass is an "architectural art," Raguin said, and a centerpiece of the exhibit is the display of work by seven contemporary Christian, Jewish and secular stained glass artists and an exploration of the ways their art has been integrated into architectural design.

One of the featured artists is David Wilson, a native of Great Britain who in 1978 moved his studio to a 20-acre site in upstate New York. Wilson has been praised for his collaborative work with architects on both large-scale religious and secular buildings. His glass, Raguin said in the exhibit's catalog, "adds to and enriches architecture."

That contribution can be seen in Wilson's glasswork for a variety of religious institutions--the Rehm Library of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross; the Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, Pa.; and the Spirit of Christ Roman Catholic Church in Arvada, Colo.

Whatever the locale, Wilson said, the key for his work is creating art that will lead to "mutual respect" among all involved--"architect, artist, site and its users."

That echoes a theme Raguin believes is critical--that art and architecture are not merely the creations of solitary artists but represent a collaborative process which, in the case of buildings adorned with stained glass, continues with the interaction of art with those who worship, work or live in the structures.

Working in a tradition of the medieval "grisaille" windows, Wilson said he sees the art of stained glass as "capable of endless reinvention." Another reason he admires it, he said, is the way it allows the artist to manipulate light.

The issue of light is critical, particularly in religious space. One interpretation of light in the Christian tradition, Raguin said, is that it is transcendent--"you can see light, but you can't touch it." There are also the ways glass windows provide not only protection--"they let the light through but keep the wind and rain out," she said--but also allow light to penetrate creation, "creating color."

"Century after century, humans have tried to imagine something that is beyond their imagination," she said. "Yet God relates to all of creation, and one of those ways is through light." No exhibit focusing on American stained glass would be complete without a display from the Louis Comfort Tiffany studios, which produced some of the most significant stained glass of the early 20th century, Raguin said. Taking pride of place in the ABS exhibit is a Tiffany-produced "Young Joseph," circa 1900, that depicts a youth in regal garb, holding a staff and adorned by sturdy stalks of wheat.

Little is known about this piece, although Raguin conjectures that with its distinctive face--which almost seems to derive from a photograph--the glass may be a wealthy family's memorial to a family member who died at an early age.

Was it a piece commissioned for a home? For a church? No one knows, and the young Joseph's visage offers no easy clues. "Will the family that commissioned this please stand up?" she asked.

600450 Stained glass on display
Date: 8 February 2003

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