The Angel of the Lilies:
The story behind the opalescent art of
Louis Comfort Tiffany
at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst
— an iridescent masterpiece restored through
The Town of Amherst’s
Community Preservation Fund Program.
Indoor Viewing Hours
Monday and Thursday, September through May
12 – 2 p.m. (ring bell on rear door)
Tuesday and Wednesday, September through May
10 a.m. – 2 p.m. (ring bell on rear door)
First Thursdays, April through October
5 – 8 p.m. (during monthly Amherst Art Walk)
The magnificent window illuminating the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst by day, and North Pleasant Street by night, represents a revolution in stained glass art in the 1800s that catapulted that medium’s popularity to a height not seen since medieval times.
Stained glass had been used in European churches for centuries. In Puritan New England, it was largely unknown. When it came into fashion here the 1830s, the medium was mostly limited to paint fused to 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, painter John La Farge (1835-1910) visited England, where he saw that “plating” — layering pieces of glass of different colors — could dramatically increase that palette. Once home, he also discovered that opalescent glass, a milky tableware glass made to imitate fine porcelain, could diffuse light in amazing ways, creating even more colors. It could also be pushed and pulled as it cooled to make a three-dimensional “drapery” effect.
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. After spending time with La Farge, Louis filed his own patent for opalescent glass in 1881. His Tiffany Glass Company, founded 1885, was commissioned around 1889-1890 to create a memorial plated glass window for All Souls Unitarian Church in Roxbury, MA.
During this time, the First Universalist Parish of Amherst, which had been holding services in homes and rented halls since 1887, instructed a committee to secure land for a meetinghouse of its own. It received financial support from the Universalist Convention f Massachusetts to build an Arts & Crafts-style “mission church,” and opened its doors on North Pleasant Street in 1893. Amherst’s Unitarians had had ties to their like-minded Universalist neighbors from the start; many sent their children to the Universalists’ Sunday school.
When the Universalist Convention of Massachusetts ended its financial support of the “mission church” in 1897, its members sold the building to the Unitarians, merging with them to become Unity Church — predating the national merger of the two denominations (as the Unitarian Universalist
Association) by 64 years.
The congregation’s dramatic growth prompted a decision in 1918 to remodel the sanctuary and remove partitions in the lower level to expand the meetinghouse’s social room. Construction, which began in 1923, included installation of a new floor of North Carolina pine in the social room downstairs. Hidden in the lumber was a fungus that, in the words of then-minister Henry Ives, “crept up the walls like a thief in the night” and threatened to destroy the wooden building.
In 1925, Ives appealed to the American Unitarian Association in Boston for help to save the meetinghouse. Unable to assist financially, the denomination offered the Angel of the Lilies and a triptych by John La Farge, suggesting they might inspire local interest and support. (The La Farge was removed from our meetinghouse prior to its expansion in 2013; it was sold and donated to Boston College by the buyer.)
The windows were available because All Souls Unitarian Church in Roxbury had merged in 1923 with First Church of Roxbury, and the All Souls building was being purchased by a different denomination. The donors of the building’s memorial windows had stipulated that if this happened, the windows must be removed and reinstalled only in a Unitarian church.
The window now in Amherst offers a glimpse into the life and times of Unitarians in 19th century New England — the heritage of Unitarian Universalists today.
The Tiffany Glass Company
At its height, the gigantic Tiffany Glass Company employed 200 workers (including women and girls), producing not only vases and lamps, but tens of thousands of stained glass windows.
In the early 1880s, Tiffany designed his windows himself. By the time the Angel of the Lilies was commissioned for All Souls Unitarian in Roxbury, he was delegating the design work to staff artists and freelancers. We will never know for sure, but it is possible that the artist behind our window was Agnes F. Northrop, who had joined the staff in 1884. She became the principal designer of landscapes and floral compositions; lilies in later windows known to be of her design seem strikingly similar to ours.
Tiffany’s studios produced four types of windows. Those with ornamental or floral themes were popular in homes. Churches usually commissioned windows with biblical figures, often clothed in garments made of “drapery” glass. The most costly type of window — the landscape, considered Tiffany’s crowning contribution to the medium — was rarely found in houses of worship. We are fortunate to have an example here of all four types, with ornamental borders and panels depicting flowers and foliage, an angel, and a landscape with mountains and sky.
Stained glass consultant Julie Sloan believes the Angel of the Lilies was made prior to the arrival of principal figural designer Frederick Wilson. Wilson used a version of its angel theme in a window included in Tiffany’s chapel exhibit at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Our angel, however, shows a very different face. A member of the former All Souls Unitarian Church had told our Rev. Ives it was presumed to “bear some suggested likeness” to the young Unitarian it commemorates. This did not surprise our restorers, who described the face as more realistic, more finely drawn, and more in proportion to the rest of the body than what they characterized as “the cookie-cutter” faces of later Tiffany angels.
The Lives Behind the Window
The Frothinghams, a large and prominent Unitarian family in Boston, produced several famous ministers. Samuel Frothingham, however, was a dry goods merchant. He and Maria Louisa (Whitredge) Frothingham had seven children (five boys and two girls). Their second youngest, Sarah Louisa, was born in Milton on September 23, 1851. On June 2, 1869, she married a Harvard graduate seven years her senior, Roxbury native Henry Bigelow Williams, at First Church in Boston. The Rev. Geo Putnam, a Unitarian minister from the First Religious Society in Roxbury, presided.Henry, a real estate developer, was also a member of the Harvard Musical Association, Boston Art Club and Boston Athletic Association. He and Sarah lived with her parents in Boston’s Back Bay. On May 6, 1870, she gave birth to a daughter, Christine Louisa Whitredge Williams.
Henry’s father owned an estate on Elm Hill in Roxbury. In 1871, Sarah, not yet 20, was with Henry’s mother in a carriage near the entrance to the estate when their horse “took fright from some slight cause and ran.” Sarah jumped from the vehicle to save herself, but was fatally injured. She left Henry and their 14-month-old baby behind.
At the time, Henry was working for his sister’s husband at a real estate firm. In 1875, he left “to give his attention to real estate on his own.” He was also commissioned by the governor as a justice of the peace.
In 1876, five years after the untimely death of his young wife, Henry married Susan Sturgis McBurney, a widow, at the (Unitarian) Arlington Street Church. In 1877, they had an unnamed child who appears to have died in infancy.
In 1888, the year that construction of All Souls Unitarian Church began on a portion of his birthplace and family estate in Roxbury, Henry retired. Soon after, he commissioned for the church a Tiffany window in memory of Sarah. The Angel of the Lilies was installed in All Souls Unitarian Church between 1890-1891, overlooking the site of her tragic death 19 years before.
Henry passed away on November 14, 1912.
The Quest To Save An Angel
The lead used by American stained glass artists at that time Angel of the Lilies was made has a life span of only 100 years. Then it becomes fatigued: cracking, expanding and bowing away from the glass it holds in place. This began to happen to our Tiffany. Besides re-leading, the window needed to be taken apart and cleaned piece by piece: a century of dirt had accumulated in the spaces between its layers of glass, dimming their brilliance.
In 2005, we began seeking funds for restoration. We vigorously pursued the possibility of grants from foundations, but discovered that religious organizations often don’t qualify. By 2012, we had raised enough from within to professionally document the need for restoration, and to remove and store the Tiffany. But what remained could barely begin to cover the extensive work it required.
We learned, however, that Community Preservation Act (CPA) grants had been awarded to 185 houses of worship in Massachusetts. The Amherst Historical Commission endorsed our request for a CPA grant from the Town, calling the Tiffany “a treasure and an exquisite work of craftsmanship.” The 2013 Annual Town Meeting accepted the Amherst CPA Committee’s recommendation to approve a $106,000 grant (about 88% of the cost of restoration). The vote was “aye!” In 2014, the Angel of the Lilies, fully restored by Cohoes Design Glass Associates of Schenectady, NY, came home.
Our thanks to Julie L. Sloan, Prof. Paul Staiti of Mount Holyoke College, and Unitarian Universalist historian Mark W. Harris, who helped us understand the history behind our Tiffany. Brochure author Janis Gray also drew upon sources she found on line, and others placed earlier in our archives by student researchers John Marsh, Amy Werbel and Jane C. Wolmann. Photograph by Roger Bird.