La Farge Stained Glass Window
About the La Farge Stained Glass Window
formerly at the
Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst
Between 1925 and 2013, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst was home not only to our Tiffany “Angel of the Lilies” stained glass window, but to a rare triptych by John La Farge, who transformed the medium with his use of opalescent glass.
In 2012, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst was about to embark on a major expansion and renovation project. The wall in which the La Farge was mounted was to become an interior wall, cutting off the triptych’s access to natural light. The vibrations anticipated with the arrival of heavy equipment to dig and pour a foundation for the addition behind the wall raised concerns for the safety of an already fragile window which the congregation could not afford to restore. After long consideration, the congregation voted to find a new home for the La Farge. In May 2013, it was purchased by William Vareika of Newport, R.I., an art dealer who loved the work of John La Farge and had saved other windows by this artist in the past. Following purchase, he donated it to the McMullen Museum of Art of Boston College, his alma mater. It has now been fully restored. We are pleased that this masterpiece has remained intact, available to the public–and back in the city it had first called home.
In Europe, stained glass had been used in churches for centuries. In Puritan New England, however, it was largely unknown. When it came into fashion in the 1830s, the medium was basically limited to painting the surface of glass. The few stained glass artists in this country had but a tiny palette of true colored glass from which to choose.
In 1873, New York painter John La Farge (1835-1910) traveled to England. There he saw that “plating” — layering pieces of glass in different colors — could dramatically increase that palette. Once home, he further discovered that opalescent glass, a milky tableware glass made to imitate fine porcelain, could diffuse light in amazing ways, creating even more colors and adding a “drapery” effect. In 1880, La Farge patented his revolutionary plating process using opalescent glass.
Like La Farge, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), son of the New York jeweler Charles Lewis Tiffany, was trained as a painter. When Louis decided to go into the more lucrative field of decorative arts in 1879, his father suggested a partnership with La Farge, by this time internationally renowned as a stained glass designer. Tiffany did spend time with La Farge in the older artist’s studio. But in 1881, he infuriated his mentor by obtaining a patent similar to his for plating opalescent glass.
La Farge sued for patent infringement. The suit later disappeared from court records (perhaps it was dropped by La Farge because the much wealthier Tiffany family could hire more or better lawyers). By the 1890s, Tiffany was claiming that he’d been the first to come up with the idea of plating with opalescent glass.
Now bitter enemies, La Farge and Tiffany competed for a clientele that included the cream of Victorian society — patrons eager to adorn their mansions, offices and churches with stained glass.
The La Farge triptych and Tiffany’s Angel of the Lilies were both commissioned in about 1889 to honor members of the All Souls Unitarian Church in Roxbury, Massachusetts. In 1923, All Souls merged with First Church of Roxbury and the building was put up for sale. The donors of its memorial windows had stipulated that if this happened, the windows must be removed and reinstalled only in Unitarian churches. They were given to Unity Church in Amherst (now the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst) in 1925 by the American Unitarian Association.
The La Farge window offers a tantalizing glimpse into the life and times of Unitarian men and women in 19th century New England.
John La Farge’s Triptych (before restoration)
John La Farge not only used opalescent glass in his plating technique; he designed all of his windows himself, and personally oversaw their construction. In part because of this attention to detail, his small studio produced only 4,000 windows in his lifetime.
According to stained glass consultant and historian Julie Sloan, the central window in the triptych in Amherst for 88 years is similar to La Farge’s Christ Blessing at Boston’s Trinity Church. A significant difference — and one doubtless critical to his Unitarian clientele — is that here he has portrayed Jesus without the halo worn by his Trinitarian counterpart.*
*What appears to some to be a halo around the head of Jesus is extra light entering spaces once filled with “jewels,” round pieces of glass. As the lead holding them weakened, a number of jewels had fallen out in recent years.
John (to the observer’s left), and Paul (to the observer’s right) are similar to La Farge’s John and Paul at Judson Memorial Church in New York, although those images were created several years after the ones now in Amherst.
The faces, hands and feet of all three figures are painted onto the glass. This part of the project was often assigned to Juliette Hanson, La Farge’s employee.
Another woman may have played a very different role in the creation of the triptych. For decades, visitors to Amherst commented that John seemed to have a rather feminine form, face and stance.
Sloan tells us that when his wife was pregnant with their seventh child, La Farge left her to move into his studio with his assistant and artist’s model, Mary Lawrence Whitney. The face of his mistress begins to appear in his stained glass in 1884, and her visage as a definitely female subject at Judson Memorial bears a striking resemblance to the face of our John.
The triptych was created for All Souls Unitarian Church in Roxbury in 1889, the same year La Farge was awarded the French Medal of the Legion of Honor for his contribution to art.
The window depicting John the Evangelist was commissioned by Mary Elizabeth Meredith “in loving memory” of her parents, Walter Farnsworth (1798-1881) and Elizabeth Loring Young (1804-1878).
The 1860 federal census shows the couple living in Roxbury Ward 5 with Charlotte A. Farnsworth, 25, and Walter L. Farnsworth, 19, who may have been Mary’s siblings.
The top panel reads: Make them to be numbered with thy saints in glory everlasting.
The window depicting Jesus — paid for with funds collected from friends of the Roxbury parish — is dedicated to the memory of the Rev. Charles James Bowen.
Born in Rhode Island in 1827, Bowen served Unitarian churches in Massachusetts and Maryland, and also as Chaplain in an army hospital during the Civil War. He was minister of Mt. Pleasant Church in Roxbury from 1865 until his death in 1870 at 42; records list the cause of death as “Disease of Kidney.” All Souls Unitarian would be the continuation of Mt. Pleasant Church.
The top panel reads: By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples if ye have love to one another.
The window depicting Paul was dedicated “in affectionate memory” of Leonard Ware (1805-1888) and his wife, Sarah Ann Minns (1816-1884), “by their children.” The 1860 census shows six sons and two daughters, ages four-20, in their Roxbury home! By 1880, the census included occupations. Leonard’s was listed then as “oil business” — most likely whale oil, as petroleum oil was unknown before 1859.
The top panel reads: I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.
Our thanks to Julie L. Sloan, Professor Paul Staiti and The Rev. Mark W. Harris for helping us to better understand and celebrate the history, beauty and individuals behind the stained glass treasures of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst.
This brochure has also drawn upon documents recently found on line by Janis Gray, and uncovered in dusty archives in the past by students John Marsh (1976) and Jane C. Wollman (1981).
La Farge triptych pre-restoration photographed by Richard E. Stevens.