Making something good even better

June 30, 2010


Bancel LaFarge designed this window of St. Clare in the Cathedral of St. Paul using the methods he learned from his father, famous East Coast artist John LaFarge. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Bancel LaFarge designed this window of St. Clare in the Cathedral of St. Paul using the methods he learned from his father, famous East Coast artist John LaFarge. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

East Coast churches have dazzling stained glass, but so does our Cathedral of St. Paul

They looked like fused gobs of chunky carnival candy, so brilliantly hued that, for a moment, I wanted to pry out a piece and pop it in my mouth.

Good thing I didn’t: It was glass.

In June I spent a week poking around some of America’s most magnificent Victorian homes in Newport, R.I.

I went hoping to deepen my knowledge about the era’s architecture (which I did), but my attention easily strayed from cornices and balustrades to the stained glass windows decorating a handful of the homes and churches I visited.

This was not ordinary stained glass. Instead of employing traditional methods, these were among the first “opalescent” glass windows. Previously, artists painted colored windows with dark paint to add detail or filter light within the glass. Opalescent glass is made containing gradations of density and color, diminishing the need for paint. The result is glass that appears to have its own texture, movement and, well, life, in contrast to its rather stoic predecessor.

Many of the windows I saw also had “gems” fused with the panes — the previously mentioned dollops, sometimes smooth, sometimes harshly faceted, that captured my eye.

Later, I discovered that this glass fathered the treasures in — literally — my own St. Paul backyard.

An American artist

The man credited for this design revolution was John LaFarge (1835-1910), a New York City-born artist who earned his chops while studying with painter William Morris Hunt in Newport.

LaFarge’s earliest work graces several of the city’s landmarks, and later pieces show up in grand homes and small churches throughout New England.

Both a painter and artist, LaFarge, a Catholic, received his big break when he offered to design the interior of Boston’s Episcopalian Trinity Church, which was designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson. The 1877 structure is credited — inside and out — for inspiring a truly “American” aesthetic at a time when the centennial-celebrating nation was seeking to identify who, exactly, it was.

For LaFarge, the rest was history. His glass technique was soon adopted by Louis Comfort Tiffany (famous for his windows and lamps), who was better able to market the stuff than LaFarge (who, unfortunately, earned a reputation for not finishing work in a timely manner and for digging himself into debt).

Some of LaFarge’s best work is in churches, and radiant images of angels, saints and biblical figures have long drawn his admirers — both religious and secular — into houses of God, if only for a moment.

Connection to local treasure

As I examined the particularities of LaFarge’s glass design, I noticed some striking similarities to some familiar Twin Cities windows — the backs of which I can see from my desk at The Catholic Spirit.

The way the figures’ clothing folded and draped over their heads and arms, the gradation of light, the thoughtful expressions — they reminded me of the series of saint windows in the Cathedral of St. Paul’s Shrine of Nations.

Sure enough. Well, almost.

It was not John LaFarge who designed the 12 windows that dramatically light the Cathedral’s chevet, but rather his son, Bancel.

When the windows were created in 1927-28, the senior LaFarge had passed away, and Bancel had achieved success in his own right. His Cathedral commission was undoubtedly aided by the fact that a childhood friend in Newport — a butler’s son named Austin Dowling — was currently archbishop of St. Paul.

Six shrines comprise the Shrine of Nations to honor six ethnic groups whose immigrants were the city’s earliest Catholics. Each shrine has two Bancel LaFarge windows, each depicting a saint. (His initials “BLaF” adorn a few of them.)

My favorite is St. Clare of Assisi in the Italian chapel. As in her typical depictions, she holds a ciborium containing the Eucharist. Legend holds that she brought the Eucharist to her convent’s gates when it was threatened by looters, and the whole town was spared. She’s also usually shown garbed in brown robes typical of a Franciscan.

But not in Bancel’s mind.

Her veil is green, her mantle is orange, and her gown is awash in purples and greens. Framed by a rose-hued halo, her face bears a pensive expression as she looks over her shoulder.

A visual, spiritual treat

Nearby, her male counterpart, St. Francis, also wears colorful robes as he gazes at the sun and moon, evoking the way he imagined all creation — including “brother Sun and sister Moon” — praising God.

“Perhaps the artist wished to evoke the beauty of lives lived in perfect dependence on and submission to God,” author Dia Boyle writes in “Stone and Glass: The Meaning of the Cathedral of St. Paul,” published in 2008.

I don’t know what Bancel was thinking when he cast aside the traditional for the unexpected. But I suspect, as Boyle does, that it was done in devotion. He was  a devout Catholic who invested in Catholic organizations, including a three-year stint as president of the Liturgical Arts Society of America.

Bancel also designed the windows for the Cathedral’s Sacred Heart chapel, as well as the murals and windows for St. Mary’s Chapel at the St. Paul Seminary.

Like John LaFarge, Bancel had the ability to present long-depicted themes in surprising ways, casting an even greater beauty in a place where it was already to be found. His glass lacks the signature candy-like medallions of his father’s work, but it’s just as delicious to the mind and eye.


About Maria Wiering

Maria Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit.

View all posts by Maria Wiering